Okay, we get it. Writers are screwed.
Over the past year, it’s everywhere. People keep emailing/texting/posting links about surveys showing writers only earning 1/3 of pre-pandemic amounts (although since they weren’t even approaching minimum wage to start, it’s a low bar anyway…). Seriously, guys. Writing doesn’t pay? You’re depressed? This is news?
Once in New York we accidentally ate dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the (maskless) waiters enchanted the tourists as they delivered Broadway show tunes along with their milkshakes and burgers. The staff were young, attractive, and talented. Each had probably been their high school’s most special snowflake. Even more probably, this was as close as any of them would get to singing on (or near) Broadway. (Remember Broadway?) But equally probably, young reporters looking for a story would occasionally do a piece on how the average income for actors/artists/writers is poop plus tips.
I’ve been thinking about those waiters belting and occasionally tapping their little hearts out. And I realized that I would never want to be like them. (Well, yes…I wouldn’t mind being young and attractive and able to sing, even though I’d only do it up on a stage if it was my punishment for murdering babies or voting Republican.) But I don’t want to suffer for my art. I just want to enjoy it, and if possible, make a little money.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but my stint as a journalist probably didn’t pay as much as Ellen’s Stardust waiters make in tips. So I did what most of Ellen’s former waitstaff did—finished school, got a real job, paid to put my kids through college, and wrote a bit on the side until I could finally afford to quit and do it fulltime. It’s called paying dues, people, and works a lot better for a writing career than one as a stage star.
What’s the secret to success as a writer?
Repeat after me. It’s NOT a career. It’s just golf. Sure, some people can play golf for a career and make a bundle. But even if the rest of us spend every spare moment on the golf course, most will say they are a lawyer/teacher/doctor/etc. Golf is a hobby**. Golf lovers might plow all their spare time into playing the best course, paying a pro for lessons, and buying the latest equipment guaranteed to up their game, but at the end of the day, they remain a lawyer/teacher/doctor who is also a golfer. They don’t depend on their beloved hobby to put their kids through college or pay for their orthodontia, or even fund the retirement savings that will someday allow them to play as much golf as they choose.
**[unless of course, you’re from Scotland, in which case those other jobs are your secondary activity after golf and a wee dram…]
Hello, my name is Barb. My profession was Human Resources. My hobby is writing. I’m a writer.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE A WRITER
A new acquaintance stared at me with a look I imagine is usually reserved for little green men stepping out of their flying saucers. I’d just told her I don’t watch television, and in fact, don’t even own one. “I write instead.” We went down the list of my immediate family members, and somehow that was the first time I realized that we all write. My husband writes academic theory papers that are—literally—mostly greek (all those mathematical symbols, you know). Daughter #1 is a former attorney who co-writes a human rights column for The New York Times. Daughter #2 is an Emmy-winning television writer. My son does technical writing, but often throws out hilarious satire. And Daughter #3 is my occasional coauthor on the Null City series.
“Why do you do it?” my new friend asked. “Money?” Well… yes, actually. Money is not a dirty word for writers and artists. As my daughter wrote about growing up as a writer’s kid, “Would I still be in comedy if my mom had never written a single column? Maybe. But I would be crappier at it. I’m ambitious because I learned vicariously the thrill of creating something awesome and getting paid for it.” (Melinda Taub, Splitsider on May 6, 2011) Still, let’s face it—there are much easier and more lucrative ways to make money, often involving the words “…and would you like fries with that?”
There are other theories about why people write. Eugene O’Neil said, “Writing is my vacation from living.” It was also his therapy. Arguably his master work, the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night was his way of exorcising the demons of his dysfunctional family. Certainly, he wasn’t looking for it to provide money or fame, and indeed specified in his will that it not be published or performed until twenty-five years after his death. Within today’s writing environment, the opportunity to make sense of your past through writing about it—whether in social media, blogs, independent publishing, or even traditional publishing—has led to an explosion of personal and dynamic storytelling such as the simultaneously funny and gut-wrenching posts in writers Mary Smith and Sue Vincent’s cancer diaries.
Others write because they’ve caught a glimpse of how words can rock the world. Daughter #1 says she remembers writer Iris Chang’s speech at her high school graduation.
“At sixteen, I was not yet planning to go into the human rights field, but I remember watching her give that speech, and thinking that if I grew up to be someone like her, who did the things that she did, that would be something to be proud of. Many times, since then, I have thought about her speech when I have felt tempted to be the kind of person who just gets on with life and doesn’t bother reaching for something better. At those times, I have remembered seeing her, up on that stage, telling a room of fascinated children that we would have moments when cynicism and surrender seemed like attractive options, but that she believed we would be strong enough to overcome them. And then I have decided that cynicism can wait for another day.” (Amanda Taub, Wronging Rights)
Why do I write? I was very lucky. My youngest daughter and I started telling each other a story, and when she headed off to college, I sat down and typed it up. As Maya Angelou put it, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Others agree:
- “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”(Gloria Steinem)
- “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.” (Terry Pratchett)
- “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say,” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
So what do we all have in common? My favorite explanation, hands down (although slightly NSF this blog) comes from Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog:
“What matters is, knowing that your time on this Hurtling Space Sphere is limited, you should make an effort to live your life — and your art — the way you damn well want to. Do you really want someone to chisel the words MADE MEDIOCRE ART SHE DIDN’T MUCH LIKE BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT THAT’S WHAT SOMEONE ELSE WANTED HER TO DO on your gravestone? Or would you rather them carve in the words: ROCKED IT LIKE A MOTHERF***ER, WROTE WHAT SHE DAMN WELL WANTED, BOO-YAH, MIC-DROP –?”
As a public service for all you who are wondering if you can call yourselves writers, I’ve written the following quiz:
_____1. Do you have arguments with your characters about what should come next? Do you lose?
_____2. Do you eavesdrop on other people’s personal conversations because you might use them in your novel? Really?
_____4. Do you have conversations with the paragraphs you’re cutting out of your manuscript, assuring them that you’re going to put them in a wonderful, safe little file (called Dead Kittens) so you can use them in your next book, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them very, very much?
_____5. When you hear about a friend’s romantic relationship, do you think about how you would keep them apart for at least five more chapters to build tension?
_____6. Do you worry about the NSA noticing that your recent online searches include “best place to get shot”, “how to pick any lock”, “lightweight hunting bow”, “best concealed-carry weapons”, “how to tell if you’re being followed”, “amount of blood loss that is survivable”, and “getting a fake passport”?
_____7. Do you write at night? Sometimes until the next night? Wearing sweats so you don’t have to change to take the dog out?
_____8. Have you written the words “THE END”? And meant it?
If you checked off numbers 1-7, you can high-five the other writer wannabe’s in your writing group. If you ticked #8, congratulations: you’re a writer.
And me? Check out my books here. I’m a writer!