Why We Write: (hint: It ain’t for the money.)
All writers get this question at some point: “Do you actually make a living as a writer?” It’s often laced with the faintest contempt, designed to conceal the fact that the speaker is comparing himself to you. Outwardly, the comparison reads as, “Some of us don’t have the luxury to be so self-indulgent.” Inside, I suspect there’s a fine vein of, “I want to tell stories, too,” running through the question, along with the guilt-ridden belief that if a thing doesn’t produce a living wage, it is an unworthy pursuit for Upstanding Americans.
If it were really true that the worth of a pursuit directly correlated with income, we’d all be hedge-fund managers, or die trying. But some of us are schoolteachers and social workers between 8 and 5. Some are gardeners and activists for no income at all. And some of us will always insist on writing songs and stories and poems, or painting pictures and murals, or carving something magnificent out of an old log.
Maybe the money will come, maybe it won’t. Maybe no one will care. The very best artists soldier on, either way.
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know! How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – To tell one's name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!
The aforementioned “Nobody”? Emily Dickinson.
Dear World, I’m not mad at you for asking me the question. But it’s not about me. I’m just saying: If you want to tell stories, tell stories! Write them down in the late-evening hours, when the kids are tucked in. Put words on paper during those first dark hours of morning, when you’d ordinarily be drinking coffee and scrolling through Facebook. You don’t have to leave the secure job with insurance and 401K. In fact, you shouldn’t leave it. Just write (or paint, or practice the accordion) between the cracks of your busy day, a half-hour at a time, until the pages pile up and you’ve become a Maker.
Nobody has to know.
Novelist John Green, who definitely has been noticed and received sizable checks, has this to say about why it’s worthwhile to create something beautiful and give it away, no matter the result:
Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.
Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.
Whether or not your art ever lifts you out of obscurity — whether it’s lauded by critics and fans, or rewarded by media appearances and mailbox money — this is not the main thing. Because your actual experience of life isn’t the attention you get. Life is made out of the everyday moments, the thousands of solitary hours spent in the making-things studio, typing or strumming or scribbling words on the back of an envelope. You’d better enjoy those hours, because there are going to be a lot more of those than there are hours onstage, or in the studio with Terry Gross.
It’s normal to crave the checks and the ovations. But they will ultimately disappoint you…because the checks could always be bigger, the ovations longer, the lights just a little bit brighter. There’s always somebody else getting the attention you deserve.
I wrote a recent essay for the Nashville Scene about this idea (see below): that telling stories you care about is worthwhile, even if nobody reads them. I’m a sucker for a literary lost cause: A few years ago, I co-translated and edited a memoir by a Soviet airwoman who flew attack planes in WWII. It was the most thrilling (for me) work I’ve ever done, and a whopping “success” for the small publishing house that released it. “‘Red Sky‘ was our top seller in FY 2009-10, with just over 500 copies sold!” my editor’s email trumpeted. I laughed wildly.
This year, I’m helping a Cambodian social entrepreneur named Chantha write her incredible life story. It’s a story of losing everything — home, family, and happiness — clawing it all back, through sheer cussedness, and helping rural Cambodian women do the same.
It may be that memoirs by aviatrix-war-heroes and Cambodian social-justice heroes will never achieve the kind of sales figures that ostensibly define literary success. It’s also possible that those definitions of success are somewhat skewed. If a Russian village girl-turned-Soviet combat pilot isn’t a success (regardless of her memoir’s Amazon ranking), I ask you: Who is?
I can’t help but feel that these are stories worth telling — stories of female rebels a century ahead of their eras, of resolute, outspoken feminists who’ve lost everything and, thus, fear nothing. Fearlessness, to my mind, is a pretty potent measure of success. Because if you’re not afraid of failing, or of the world ignoring the beautiful thing you made for it, then you have won the game.
I probably won’t get rich or famous for this work. But I am having a fun life because of it. I got to shoot homemade vodka out of a canteen with a Russian lady war-hero. And I shared some extremely affordable beers one night, in a remote Southeast Asian village, with a cussed, fearless broad who has since become one of my favorite people on earth. If that’s not success, what is?
Related post: The Artist’s “We”