So earlier today this article by Merritt Tierce about the financial realities of the writing life came across my feed. http://www.marieclaire.com/career-advice/features/a22573/merritt-tierce-love-me-back-writing-and-money/
What she says about the hustle and the reality of what most writers make is true. It got me thinking, again, about some other myths about the writing life. I, too, have a day job. I have to. There’s this whole bill-paying thing that has to happen.
One thing that someone said to me a few years ago got me angry enough that I still remember it. “I wish I could afford to work part time and stay home and write novels.” I may have blogged about the particular incident before this. What that person failed to understand is that in order to make writing a priority the day job HAD to be part time. Working part time was not a situation I chose for shits and giggles. It was a sacrifice. Another thing that person failed to understand is that writing itself is work. The effort that goes into it is Herculean at times. I can tell you that in a given week I put twice as many hours into writing than I do at my day job. Even when my word count is low.
With writing, measurable output like word count is not the only thing that goes into it. Reading the work of others, research, maintaining a social media presence, staying informed about the field, talking to other writers about the concerns of the industry, if you are self-published there is marketing, formatting, book design, editing, developing ideas, critique groups, classes to make you better … I am sure that I have not covered everything. The myriad number of skills required to do the work of being a writer is… well. Let’s just say it isn’t simply a matter of sitting in a room daydreaming all day long until an uber-magical story pops out. It is difficult and time consuming and there is not usually a huge paycheck right after you have reached the end of a project. Writers do not sit on mountains of gold. Unless they do. If you are a writer who sits on a mountain of gold please invite me to your fairy realm and let me borrow one of those gold coins. I’ll dedicate the next book to you.
But let’s talk about why story-telling SEEMS effortless. It is because of mountains of work. Sentences do not necessarily land perfectly on the page. They must be polished. The vision in your head, no matter how complete, does not automatically translate to a perfect first draft. It takes many drafts and multiple edits to effectively communicate even the ghost of the story inside the brain to an audience. Some people can get it pretty close in a first draft, most can’t and even those first drafts that are near perfect require editing, proofing…. etc. If we do our work correctly the story that reaches you should be effortless to read. It is the opposite of effortless to produce. This is true of all art forms. When the curtain rises on a stage you don’t see the scaffolding that holds up the set. Think of fiction in this way, also. I think part of why the myth that writing is easy or that anyone can do it is that the work itself is not interesting or even useful to watch. In athletics you can see and measure the training. Not true with writing. It largely happens in the head. No one WANTS to sit in a room with a writer and watch them work all day. The most interesting thing that can happen, externally, is a muttered conversation with the writerly self when we come across a narrative problem or some wacked out sentence we wrote when we were still half asleep.
I don’t mean to mythologize or romanticize the notion of the starving artist here, either. Like Merrit Tierce mentions in the article it is extremely hard to focus when your basic needs are threatened/not being met. What I mean to say is that while a good story can seem like magic, it is not. It is work. Real work.
To further elucidate upon the subject of how writing is work and why more people DON’T do it, here is this excellent video of Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic.