Being a writer is great, if you can afford it

It’s a truism that all the fun and meaningful careers tend to be competitive and poorly compensated. I’ve been seeing a therapist lately, and when my insurance sends me the amounts they pay him, I’m consistently shocked: it’s less than I bill as a freelance writer.

But writing corporate blog posts is not at all fun or satisfying, while presumably therapy is, so the latter, despite its extensive training requirements, gets paid much less.

Of course, the inverse isn’t true: unpleasant labor isn’t necessarily well-compensated. Working retail seems pretty unpleasant; it’s also not very well-paid.

They say that wages are set by supply and demand, but I wonder about this. All my life I’ve been paid well for things that I’m fairly certain most college-educated people could do. For much of that time, unemployment has been very high, with lots of people looking for and unable to find the work that I’ve been doing.

So I have given up on understanding the economy, except for this one point: anything at all fun or satisfying tends to be very poorly-renumerated.

Perhaps doctoring and software development are the exceptions. Doctors are well-paid (although most doctors I know would disagree with that) and many doctors find their work satisfying, but the supply of doctors is also artificially constrained by the extremely low number of medical school spots.

I’m at a loss to understand why software development is such a well-paid profession, since it seems fun and simple-to-learn. I’ve at least a dozen friends who’ve landed six figure jobs after taking just a twelve-week courses in how to code.

I guess the moral of the story is that you should learn to program computers. Not everybody has the mind for it, but I’ve been surprised at the people who can pick it up. Even some friends of mine who seem very left-brained (including one who majored in cultural anthropology in college) have successfully learned how to code.

 

Writing fiction is incredible. It’s everything people say it is. Well I mean it’s agony, of course, since most of the time I have no idea what to write, and even when I do write something, it usually doesn’t sell, and even when it does sell, very few people read it. But it’s still a meaningful occupation. And high-status too! People are quite impressed if you’ve published a book. They don’t necessarily read the book (and I don’t expect them too), but you still have status in their eyes, just the same as if you were a professional chess-player or a professional ballerina. People know it’s not easy to get a book published.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between money and writing. The truth is that over the last four years, I’ve done okay, but that’s mostly because of the large advance I received for Enter Title Here.

It’s hard to believe I’ll ever get one of that size again. There’s very little security in this field. Even the concept of being a ‘working writer’ seems a bit meaningless. All you have is your last advance. There’s no guarantee there will ever be another one. I’ve heard of NYT best-sellers who’ve had trouble selling another book. You’re constantly in danger of losing your financial footing.

Not me, I’m fine. I have other income streams. And some savings. And I’m married to a doctor.

I suppose these are reflections prompted by my revisions on my second book. It’s coming close to the time when the text will be put into production. At that point, this poor book will have to fend for itself.

With every book, you hope it’ll catch fire and turn into something. I have those hopes for this one too. I think it can hold its own with the best YA novels that’re out there. But you also realize that your opinion isn’t necessarily shared by other people. Success is not guaranteed.

And with writing, it sometimes feels like there’s no middle-ground: if you’re not a best-seller, then the industry boots you out.

That’s not entirely true. I have other tricks up my sleeve. I can change genres. That’s it, actually, that’s my only trick. I can change genres. Each time you write in a new genre, you start with a blank slate, and so far as I can tell, a writer can do this as many times as they want.

It’s so different from other careers. My other friends have mostly achieved some stability by now. They have skills. They’ve gone to grad school. They get head-hunted on LinkedIn. Writing isn’t like that. Even success doesn’t last. The person winning awards one year doesn’t even make the ballot in the next. The big book of the summer goes out of print within five years. I was thinking recently of a famous author from the early aughts and wondering why we don’t notice anymore when he publishes a book. He’s just irrelevant: the culture is done with him, at least for now.

For me, writing is something between a hobby and a career. In many ways, I don’t feel like my relation to it is very different from back in 2012, when I hadn’t yet sold a book. I still mostly spend my time playing around. In fact, the best thing about this last year is that I finally got rid of the mouse (ahem ahem) that was hanging onto my back and turning the writing game into such a stressful experience. It’s been a relief to recover my sense of exploration.

I spent two years writing sub-par books. After that experience, you can never again regard your creativity as something that’s under your control. It comes, and it goes. Which means writing can never be a career in the way that other things are.

The writing world never interested me much, and now it interests me less. Writers aren’t uninteresting people, but the element of careerism that runs through writing circles is extremely dull to me.

(Once someone objected to that opinion of mine, saying, “Why shouldn’t people of the same profession spend their time talking about that profession?” and I didn’t have an answer. Of course people should talk about whatever they want. But I find it so unhelpful to talk about career issues in the writing field. None of it can be planned. None of it can be managed. You cannot set goals and achieve them, because you cannot control, on the most basic level, whether anything happens when you sit down to write.)

I can’t pretend that the time I spend alone with the written word is particularly satisfying. At times it is, but mostly it’s a dull, intractable struggle. I try out idea after idea, approach after approach, and ninety-nine percent of them fail. My wife assures me that scientific research operates the same way.

On Wednesday I saw the latest remake of A Star Is Born, and in the movie Bradley Cooper is always telling Lady Gaga, in his raspy Johnny Cash imitation of a voice, that a singer “has got to have something to say.”

I think that I have many things to say, but I wonder what my big ideas and my big themes are. I feel like my real work hasn’t yet begun, and lately I’ve been thinking, “Oh wow, I need to watch my health, because there’s a good chance it’ll be another twenty or thirty more years before I’m able to write the novel I’m meant to write.”

That expectancy sits like a stone in my stomach, and yet I know that looking back on this period, twenty or thirty years from now, the thing I’ll envy the most will be that same sense of hope.

 

 

9 thoughts on “Being a writer is great, if you can afford it

  1. disperser

    Perhaps a bit of uncertainty is a good thing . . .

    For example, a few writers that have made it big (or mostly big, or even mildly big) seem to lose what made their works interesting to begin with. Perhaps they are like celebrities or politicians who — once they achieve a certain level of notoriety — start to believe their own hype or the hype of their publicist.

    There’s one writer who I probably won’t read again because, after his first three books, it seems he started phoning it in. This is reinforced by nominations to awards that — to me — seem more based on name recognition than the quality of the work being nominated.

    I’ve considered the possibility my tastes have changed but it’s more than that. Their books are flawed in what I consider obvious ways. But, they are successful and financially comfortable and enjoy long-term contracts for future works that will do well on name recognition alone.

    Anyway, just saying . . . perhaps a little hunger helps keep the creative drive healthy.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      It’s true! Success can be a real creativity killer. I don’t disagree. It’s nice to have the feeling that I can just write whatever I want, with no expectations.

  2. J-Bo

    Hello! As someone who works as a therapist for money but otherwise spends all my free time writing for no money, I’m intrigued by your first paragraph. Would you be willing to share any info about how to break in to the corporate blogging world? Thanks! 🙂

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Haha, wait so am I right that therapists don’t make much money??? I was wondering if mine was just a bad one or something.

      Corporate blogging is 100% connections. If you have friends who work in marketing or PR you can ask if there’s anything at their companies. You can also, if you’re bold enough, read some corporate blogs and cold-pitch the people who run them, if you can find their emails online. There’s lots of work, but it’s hard to get your resume into the hands of somebody who can hire you.

      1. J-Bo

        Haha! Well, insurance generally pays $100-$150 per hour of therapy, and if a therapist works for a group private practice, he/she probably takes home around 60% of that. Would you say that’s significantly less than most freelancers bill per hour? I have no frame of reference!

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I charge $100/hr for freelance work, but the work isn’t very steady. I’d say the two professions are in a similar income bracket, but in order to be a therapist you need expensive degrees and years of apprenticeship, while being a freelancer just requires chutzpah.

          I mean as a therapist it seems like you’re talking about 80-120k a year? That seems pretty good actually! I wouldn’t quit that. It’s just less than a lot of other things. For instance here in SF a police officer starts at 80k.

          1. J-Bo

            Hah, okay, I guess I’ll keep my day job 🙂 The money is pretty decent for living in Iowa, so I can’t complain. It would certainly be nice to not have these student loans though!

            I’m always interested by the common assumption that therapy is such a rewarding job. While that can definitely be true in certain moments, mostly it just feels like work. I always think about the studies that have shown that people enjoy the things they love less once they start getting paid to do them, and I can relate. I know you have made similar points about how writers’ feelings about writing inevitably change once they get published and have deadlines.

            1. R. H. Kanakia

              It’s true. Deadlines not only hurt the enjoyment, they also really hamper the creativity. At least with other jobs it’s possible to phone it in if you need to. With writing you can’t really do that. But you get used to it. Or just have three years between books, like me =]

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