Write for a Living?

I just finished a long and demanding editing job, right on deadline. For the last 10 days or so, it’s been taking up seven or eight hours of every waking day. I’ve learned over the years that my daily capacity for demanding word work is about seven or eight hours. Beyond that my brain goes on auto-pilot.

deadline miracleWriting and editing aren’t the same, but they both qualify as “demanding word work.” Over the last year or so, I’ve managed to maintain a pretty good balance: edit for five or six hours a day, write for up to two. The writer grabs the first two hours after waking, my absolute best creative time. (I’m an early riser, but my internal editor tends to sleep late. I’m also easily distracted by the events of the day once they start unfolding.)

So for 10 days or so, I’ve neither blogged nor worked on the novel. My writing has consisted of a few emails and the occasional post to Facebook. This is scary. The further I get from the practice of daily writing, the more certain I am that I’ll never get back to it. My writing, I fear, is like a fire in the woodstove. If it goes long untended, it will go out.

If only I didn’t have to work! I think. If only I could write for a living!

The same thought has probably crossed your mind. Maybe more than once. Maybe whenever life — specifically your paid job — gets in the way of the writing that you’d much rather be doing. Sound familiar?

When time-pressed writers imagine writing for a living, or at least writing as part of their job, they often aren’t thinking about going into journalism or academia. They aren’t thinking about writing lengthy reports for think tanks or government agencies, or how-to manuals for computer software and hardware. They definitely aren’t thinking of writing ad copy and jingles, although this may pay better than most of the other possibilities.

The fantasy is usually about making a living writing what we want to write. The big attraction is getting paid to do what we want to do.

I get it. Most of my life I’ve been able to make my living doing work that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that seems useful to other people and sometimes even the world at large. It has nearly often involved the written word — but it’s rarely involved writing. During my several years working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write pretty much what I wanted to write — stories about interesting people and events — but my job description was “editor.” Editing has been my bread and butter, and occasionally my beer and chocolate, since the late 1970s.

If you’re determined to write for a living, or even for a substantial chunk of your living, I know I can’t talk you out of it. I’m not going to try. For sure some writers manage to do it. If you look closely, though, you’ll often see that other factors are helping them stay afloat economically: maybe a partner with a well-paying job, maybe a trust fund, maybe gigs teaching writing in one way or another. Take a hard look at your own resources before you even think of quitting your day job.

Think about this too: For me to make my living as a freelance editor, someone has to be willing and able to pay money for what I’m selling. The same goes for writing. The money coming into your checking account has to come from somewhere. It may come from a publisher. It may come direct from readers who are dying to read your books. It may come from newspapers, magazines, or online media that want to buy your feature articles and maybe send you off on assignment to write more.

These things are not going to fall into your lap. You’re going to have to hustle — to do all the research and self-promotion necessary to reach those willing and able to pay for what you’re selling, then to persuade them to part with their money. While you’re hustling, you probably aren’t writing what you what you write. You’re writing proposals, synopses, query letters, and press releases. Is it starting to sound like a day job yet?

Here’s another question: How often do you spend your hard-earned money on other writers’ writing? How often do you take a chance on a novel by someone you’ve never heard of? Will you do it for $9.99? for $2.99? for free? What would make people who’ve never heard of you take a chance on your book? This applies to attracting agents, editors, and publishers as well as to engaging individual readers in the emerging online marketplace. Perhaps even more so: If an agent, editor, or publisher takes you on, s/he will wind up investing far, far more than $9.99 in you and your work.

The real bottom line here is that if you want to make a living writing, you have to write what people are willing to pay money for, and you have to keep doing it. You’ll have deadlines that can’t be blown off. Your fallow periods and blocks will become even scarier than they are now because they’ll threaten your livelihood as well as your sanity and your sense of self-worth.

Writing, in short, will become your job.

And it may well get in the way of your writing.

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