Being an English major, the thought of writing as a business always went against the grain for me. At the liberal arts college where I pursued my B.A., and then my M.A. in English, writers were demigods. Shakespeare, of course, led the Pantheon, and all the other bright lights of literature, since the Elizabethan Age, trailed glory in his path.
I now believe this kind of thinking belongs to the horse and buggy era. Writers of today need to discard outdated and romantic notions about writing – and to pay serious attention to the very important need for a writer to make a living.
Personally, I am saddened by stories of great artists and writers who lived in garrets. Even as an undergrad, I always knew I wasn’t up for a garret-style writer-ly life.* In fact, I was peculiarly heartened when I heard Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum – “”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
* I actually never knew what a garret was until recently. I just knew it sounded sad and not like a place where Macy’s made deliveries. When I finally looked it up, I found that it meant a floor at the top of a building, just below the roof, usually used for storage – i.e., an attic or some other unappealing living place.
Writing is work, and everyone who works expects to get paid a fair wage. As Samuel Johnson succinctly put it, writers should write for money.
Now, even with this as a given, the glorious and confounding thing about writing is that it also is entrepreneurial.
In fact, if entrepreneurship was a sport, writing would be an extreme sport. Why? Because the results of any given writer’s output are so darn unpredictable. You can work for two weeks and complete a book, as Robert James Waller did ( The Bridges of Madison County ) and make a few million-plus and get a movie deal. (“Once Waller had his core idea in place, he went on a non-stop writing binge, completing the book’s manuscript in about two weeks.”) Or you can slave for years to produce what becomes a world classic, Moby-Dick, as Herman Melville did, and earn less than $700 from it and see it go out of print in your lifetime, and die without earning a Pulitzer or a Nobel, or making your mother-in-law realize you really are awesome!
That is why I encourage all aspiring writers new to the game, whether the writing bug has bitten them early on or later in their day, to be practical in pursuit of their dreams. Keep a good day job, with a decent wage and benefits. Find the time to write on the evenings and weekends. Educate yourself about the business aspects of marketing – why editors buy and promote certain manuscripts and ignore others, and let them languish.
In Early Career mode, a writer needs to be his or her own best friend. If you find a significant other who believes in you and cheers you on – great! But, friended or not, think in ten-, and twenty-, and thirty-year chunks of time. Hedge your bets to ensure that – if you have written another Moby Dick (that won’t be discovered until decades hence) – you can live comfortably, and work on the sequel even when there’s snow on the roof – literally and metaphorically. Writing is its own reward, yes – but I believe all rewarding activities should be pursued in what Hemigway would have called clean, well-lighted places, not in garrets.