If someone told you right now that you’d never be published, or that wherever you are as a writer now is the most you would ever achieve…would you stop?
Recently I posted this article in the Guardian about the financial realities of being a writer on my social media (see links below if we aren’t already connected), and the responses were interesting. Some people—mostly authors who have signed at least one or two book deals—thanked me for posting the financial realities of our industry. Some writers remarked that it seemed negative or depressing.
But however you feel about the article, the facts in it are undeniable—most authors don’t make a living from their writing. The vast majority never do, and in fact never even make much more than a poverty-level income from it, if that much.
So with the odds so greatly against us in this career, why do so many dedicate so much—so much time, effort, heart, money—to it?
I used to be an actor, where the stats are similarly grim: Most actors never make a living wage in their craft. They know they have to find other jobs to support themselves to allow them to pursue their passion (insert waiter joke here; go ahead…it’s a stereotype for a reason, at least judging by my ten years in food service). So when I moved into the publishing industry many years ago I was no stranger to long odds.
My book, Intuitive Editing: Creative & Practical Ways to Revise Your Writing, comes out May 5, and I honestly don’t know what to expect. It’s not backed by a Big Five pub house or a giant marketing team. I’m not Donald Maass or Michael Hauge, with a major presence in the industry or a high-profile following. Will this book reach a wide swath of authors? I don’t know.
But what I do know—down to my soul—is why I wrote it: I am passionate about how editing can transform a story and bring it to life, make it more closely match the vision an author had in her head, and I wanted to demystify what can often feel to authors like an impenetrable swamp of revision.
I know that writing it has made me a better editor. I know that it has inspired me as I realize exactly how much I’ve learned from the authors I’ve been privileged to work with over the last 27 years, which has helped me created the techniques and insights I present in the book—so I feel like I’m giving something back to them, hopefully. And I know that the people I have approached about it for advance reads and feedback have been so instantaneously receptive, warm, and generous about it that I’ve been teary more than once at the outpouring of support I’ve received already, before it ever hits the market.
The day I finished the manuscript and set the wheels in motion for publication, I told my husband something that made him do a double take: “If I die once this thing is out there,” I said, “I’ll be okay with that.”
I don’t mean I’m “done” in life or have a death wish (although my hubs thinks I might because I always say I want to be in the “first wave” in the event of the zombie apocalypse, because I’m not fighting other human beings for survival). I was trying to convey that this was a long-held dream realized, a passion project that has meant a great deal to me for a long time. When my time comes (not for a while, I hope! I have lots I still want to do), I’ll go knowing I left something good behind. If a single author reads the book and finds it helpful, if it makes them feel they know how to be a better writer, to better serve their art and express their creativity, then as the Southern saying goes, maybe I’ll have left the world a little bit better than I found it.
That sounds grandiose—but it’s why I wrote the book. And knowing that on a foundational level means that it’s why I’ll continue to write—whether this book is a big seller or not. I love editing, I love sharing my passion for it, and I love helping authors.
Knowing that to my core takes away a lot of the angst writers often experience. It frees me to write what I want to write, the way I want to write it. It frees me to continue to love doing it—instead of using writing (or not writing) as a whip to make myself feel inadequate or untalented or discouraged.
As an actor I also had to ask myself a version of the question I posed above: If someone told me I’d never make it big, would I still keep acting? Only in my case it turned out the opposite—when I sat down and actually let myself envision fully what my life and career would look like if I did make it big, I quit, literally that day. I realized that I would be miserable if—against every likely expectation, given the odds—I became a star: the loss of privacy and of anonymity, the expectations and limitations that come with that kind of success, all seemed horrible, and I asked myself why I was working so hard to succeed in a career where the pinnacle of success was so aversive to me. I had to deeply explore what I actually wanted.
You might let yourself sit and explore this question too sometime, even if you already have, because we can change at different times of our life and in different circumstances. Why do you write? What is it you want from it, or what does it give you that feeds you in some essential way? If you hope for J. K. Rowling–level success, more power to you—but at least you’ll go in knowing how narrow that part of the bell curve is and you’re informed.
And if publishing superstardom is the only thing that means success or fulfillment to you in your writing career, maybe that’s something to take a second look at too, knowing how unlikely the chances of it are. If you don’t achieve that, will your life and career feel like a failure? That’s a lot to put on your creative expression, almost guaranteed to shut down the very part of you that feeds that creativity. In that case, maybe, like my acting career, you realize it’s just not worth it to you.
But maybe you find out that you write because it feeds your soul…or because you want to affect the world even a little bit, even through impacting perhaps just a single reader’s life. Or maybe you write to tell yourself stories you aren’t seeing anywhere else, or to allow your imagination to stretch its legs because your moneymaking career doesn’t nurture that part of you (and that’s totally valid—we all have to survive, and a day job that pays the bills and allows you to pursue your art in your free time is an honorable thing).
But know your reasons—know them to your marrow. Because writing is a tough road, friends, and when the going gets slow and difficult and depressing and you feel you’re slogging it all alone, that reason is the spark that keeps your engine running.
This is a great post! I just found your blog and I love the way you write. And that is why we write, because we are creative souls with stories to tell, and if we don’t express ourselves creatively we’ll implode somehow, in someway. If I look back on the financial investment I’ve made into editing over the years, it makes me cringe. But I would never have had the courage to publish my books if it weren’t for the 20+ revisions my editors pushed me to write. If I make some money on my books, then kudos to me, but I’ll always be a writer and a creative soul, regardless of what success may or may not come my way. Passion is why we write.
What a lovely comment about the creative drive, Patti–and of course you make me happy with your comments on editing and revising. To me that’s the soul of writing richly developed stories that fulfill the vision in our heads as authors. I’m glad the post resonated! It’s been a bastard of a year, tough on creativity. 🙁
“But know your reasons—know them to your marrow. Because writing is a tough road, friends, and when the going gets slow and difficult and depressing and you feel you’re slogging it all alone, that reason is the spark that keeps your engine running.”
I really like this quote. It applies to a lot of creative disciplines and at this moment, I’m not sure how exactly I would state my reasons. But thank you for bringing this to my attention, bc I think it’s important!
Thanks for saying so, Ona. I’m glad this spurred some thought! It has been very valuable to me in forging my career path to revisit this question for myself fairly often. Helps keep me focused and on track, and neuters the effect of setbacks and frustrations, to some degree. Thanks for your comment.