The Writing Life 2


Samuel Johnson once said: None but a blockhead writes except for money. I once used that quote to help me get a scholarship.

This may seem like a fairly cynical world view but hang with some professional writers for a while and the topic of money comes up fairly soon and fairly often. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. It is one thing to dream of making a living from writing. Doing it is another matter entirely.

My own efforts have met with sporadic success. I gave it a serious try and, having failed, have since been giving it a much less serious try. I’ve arranged my life so that, while I am hardly swimming in filthy lucre, I am and will be comfortable. Oddly enough, now that I no longer need to make money from writing, I am both less driven and more comfortable. I write what I want and the money either comes or it doesn’t.

I have often smiled at people who say they need to write and nothing – not rejection or poverty – will ever stop them. Writing for them, they claim, is like breathing. Some of those people, mostly those who have managed to eke out a modest living from their efforts, are still writing. Many of the others have found something else to do that is as essential to their souls as writing had been. The same goes for musicians and artists. The same goes, in fact, for teachers and lawyers.

Money isn’t everything but, in our society, it is both a necessity of life (unless you are into dumpster diving for your meals) and a symbol of success. Other things can serve – such as awards or nice reviews – but ultimately we measure ourselves by the financial rewards that come along with our words. And nothing infuriates writers more than colleagues who gain those rewards while seeming undeserving of it (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?).

When you have money, success in writing takes on a different aspect. Without the hard scrabble to make a living, writing can indeed be its own reward. You write what you want – exploring the things you find satisfying. If you are lucky (and this is what writers really mean by luck), the things you like to write are precisely the things that a sizable number of people want to read. I’ve often felt that perhaps we’d all be happier writing what we want rather than worrying what people want to read right now. Perhaps when your book appears it will catch the wave and make you rich. Or maybe not. But at least you will have the satisfaction of having written the thing that gives you pleasure.

Because since you can’t please everyone you may as well please yourself.

Maybe one of the signs of being a professional writer is that you do worry about sales and about the size of your next advance. But the other sign is that, having worried about that for a while, you recognize that the money will come if the work is good and you put it aside and focus on the work. And, as I discovered this weekend, you soon find have so many other, more interesting things to talk about. And when writers aren’t writing, they love to talk. And mostly, believe it or not, about anything but writing.

And that’s ten minutes.


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