Maybe I am a writer. Maybe I am supposed to be a writer. This is a strange thing to me, not part of what I thought was “me.”
One of the first things I read when I was sick was the journal by May Sarton that a patient had given me, Evelyn Klie. And I was intensely jealous. This woman actually made her living by writing? Like actually food and housing and heating and clothes? And then Emily P. Freeman talked about scheduling two days just two write and I was kind of in shock. It seemed like scheduling two days to eat ice cream. Wait – again, this is her job. She actually gets paid to do this. How can this be?
I realize that I have always thought writing was a thing I did just for me. Just me. Hence, the ice cream comparison. It seems – no, not frivolous. Self-indulgent? A luxury? I mean, certainly beneficial in small doses, but the idea that it could be considered a monetarily productive activity seems like foolishness to me. I get manufacturing. I get even health care, despite my recent frustration where I compare it to prostitution where we’ll only care for you if you have money. But I don’t understand being paid for art. I’ve never had the luxury of paying for art myself – creating it, even, is hard to convince myself to pay for the supplies. A spiral bound notebook can still be purchased for less than a dollar at the right time of year (return to school) and pens are handed out for free, and I can easily convince myself I’m not wasting much to fill them endlessly. But to be paid for my thoughts, words, ideas? Who has that kind of money?
But I guess people do. I guess technically it is a legitimate source of income. You would think that since I have several family members who have been paid for their words, published in actual print and in digital form, this wouldn’t come as such a shock to me.
But I always put my writing on par with my talking, and people tell me I talk so fast, and I feel like that devalues it – I talk and talk or write and write, and it’s just cheap. Stuff comes out, rarely planned, and probably not worth much. Who would pay for it?
The sneaky voice inside says, ah, but if you got to schedule two whole days just to write (!!), you could be deliberate. Intentional. Edit. Craft. Plan. You know, do it I on purpose, not just barf words out all over the place and see what came out. And do it well.
But it’s one thing to talk to yourself, and another thing to find an audience. The world is full of people talking to themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and that by itself is a useful and valuable thing, and I do not in any way suggest that’s a waste. But there is an honest difference between writing to yourself and writing to your audience, and no matter what some well-intentioned people might have you to believe, your audience is never “everyone.” It just cannot be. So you have to do several things when you sit down to write:
- Figure out what you want to say.
- Figure out who you want to say it to.
- Figure out how to get what you are trying to say to the people who you are trying to say it to.
If you stop at the first number, you’re still really just talking to yourself. And that’s fine, but then you aren’t going to get paid to be a writer, or an artist of any sort, really. Note that I did not say you wouldn’t be an artist; I said you wouldn’t get paid to be one. And that’s the crux, is it not? Is this a thing you want to privately cultivate, or something to be monetized?
I cannot ever imagine myself getting paid to sing. Volunteer to sing in public, yes. I have done that already. You would be surprised how low that bar can be. I would love to be able to sing acapella and duets and to just sound lovely. But my innate music-ness is so low, that I cannot see myself being one of the fortunate few to be able to actually be paid to grace people with their presence. Non.
But writing? I circle around that like a carrion beast. But then fly off afraid of a larger predator. But then come back, because maybe not.
I know I can write. I don’t feel angry and disgruntled at the idea of doing for money the way I do when people suggest I sew or knit for money. Those things are valuable only in their sentiment, and no one, in the age of mass production, will pay what truly went into them, and it leaves me angry. That’s a home business I don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.
Writing is different. The idea that someone actually read and appreciated the words seems like reward enough, and being paid for it on top of it an exciting bonus. And/or a mythological fairytale. But that means:
- Yes, you really do want to share writing, and not just talk to yourself. Also,
- Nope, you really would not mind being paid to do it.
I highly doubt I would ever be in the position to live, house, food, heating and clothes, off of income from writing or other art. But it does very much appeal to me how you can write when it is necessary to write, but the fruit of it comes later. That would at first glance seem to be a dissuasion, at least to most reasonable people, but I truly loathe the grind of having to show up a precise number of hours at precise times, the same every week, in order to get any money. Maybe the body and soul of some people does in fact work that way, but mine seems to follow more the varying cycles found in most of nature. Some days are rainy. Some are sunny. Some days the wind blows with gale force; some days the humidity stifles. To be most alive, I feel as though I need to honor the rising and falling, the stilling and swelling of my body and soul, and grinding through the unrelenting factory of the modern industrial age (including industrialized health care!! As though caring for human beings made in the image of God was simply piece work to by cranked out by the hour!), saps the strength out of me daily.
I know that there are days with writing where it is very hard, where picking the dirt out of your toenails seems like an impending distraction compared to trying to actually place words where they belong. That, to me, is the comfort of the fruit coming later, or the comfort I imagine, seeing as I’ve never had the privilege of being paid for my letters. Though today is hard, the past struggles are still paying off and tiding you over until the next labor is over.
But perhaps I do over-romanticize. I hear a good deal of writers complain about deadlines. Always deadlines! Always missing them! And all I can think is, and what of my over 7 years of college? What of being kept to a clock with another person sitting for you out in the waiting room, endlessly? It’s hard for me to take the complaint of deadlines seriously. Raging self- doubt? That’s my constant companion already. When you cannot take any of the complaints of a profession seriously, I would suspect it is a good sign your glasses are at least a bit rosy.
I still marvel that anyone can actually do that. Get paid to be an artist, enough to make a living. Or even half a living. I see that I am over-using the word ‘actually’, but I am truly having trouble grasping it. It’s never been a thing that I have been able to consider to be a real enough possibility to ‘actually’ reflect upon it.
Of the three things I defined above, I feel like the largest obstacle for me is attempting to grasp the audience I am trying to reach. I think the first and third things would still require a lot of work and effort, but I feel like I know how one would go about doing things like that, or places to start, or rocks to look under, or strings to untie. But I keep getting stuck on: who would actually want to hear what I have to say about anything? Fiction, nonfiction, spiritual, non-spiritual – I have a lot to say, sure. But who would want to hear it?
People say trite things about having family and friends read things, but I can tell you already, whatever I write, my family is most definitely not my target audience, and I know my friends well enough I would write them each something different. Writing to strangers is, well, strange. I don’t know them or what they need. Then you kind of wind up defining your audience by what you want to write, and that feels like a bit of an eyeroll. And not particularly honest, because if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a payroll. But then there’s the trouble of finding the line between finding enough of an audience to get paid and being a complete commercial sell-out and no longer actually getting paid to be an artist.
This whole post seems stupid, but on the other hand, thinking about being a writer does seem to be a necessary first step to becoming one, although one has to be careful not to get bogged down there. The majority of writing advice seems to come down to: write.