Writers and the Evils of Making a Living

Photo Courtesy of Linnie via Creative Commons
[Pollyanna at the allotment]

Lately, I’ve been reading a number of discussions in various author groups debating the evils of writing for money, as opposed to “doing what you love.” Now, I am a patient man (not really, but whatever), and for the most part I’ve held my tongue. But I’ve gotten to the point where the stench of sanctimony is threatening to burn my eyes. So, here goes.

Repeat after me (and your wife won’t divorce you): There is nothing wrong with making money at writing.

Pollyanna in the House
I don’t get it—I really don’t. Since when is getting paid to write immoral? One writer who appears to be on the side of art over commerce quoted Samuel Johnson, who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Apparently, he took umbrage with that and proceeded to go on a toot about writers not being true to themselves or something, and plenty of others got on the bandwagon.

Now, before everyone gets wound up and accuses me of being a blatant capitalist with huge teeth and tassels on my shoes, let me explain. I am not by any stretch of the imagination suggesting that a person ever write drivel because it pays well. On the contrary, writing is a profession like any other. And to do it well, you must be a professional. That said, what’s wrong with getting paid for your hard work?

Repeat after me (especially in the presence of your deadbeat brother-in-law): I am not a charity!

Writing as Art
Writing can be art, sure. Whether you are writing popular fiction or the great American novel (whatever the hell that is), you should strive to make your words sing. But guess what. People who write heartfelt, sentimental prose that fits inside a greeting card are trying to make their words sing too. And so are those fine men and women of Madison Avenue who write advertising copy. They are professionals, people! And they are damned good at what they do.

But what about novelists? Ahh … This is where things get tricky. Here’s what I’ve observed. People who are just starting out—and those who have written for a while and never sold anything—seem to be the ones screaming the loudest about the evils of getting paid. Last time I checked, successful folks like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling are depositing fat checks in the bank every month and not crying about it. Now, you may or may not care for what they write. But they are nevertheless professionals in every sense of the word.

The Rest of Us
I’m happy to admit that I cannot support my family on my writing. Boohoo. That’s why I have a day job. Charles Bukowski worked at the post office, for cryin’ out loud. And he hated it. But at least he got a novel out of the deal.

I have three pieces of advice for people who piss and moan about being true to their art:

  1. Calm down
  2. Continue to write your heart out
  3. Find a way to put food on the table

The sad reality is that most writers will never make a living writing. Don’t believe me? Check out Hugh Howey’s excellent Author Earnings website. Charles Ives wrote some of the most innovative American music of the 20th century. Listen to his Three Places in New England sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Did he get to make a living at writing music? Hell, no—he sold insurance! Look it up.

Okay, I feel better now. Carry on writing that awesome book of yours. And remember, it’s all going to be fine.