Friday, May 07, 2021

Cold Hard Truth

 A strange thing happened during when Americans were shut in during the Covid crisis. They started reading books again. This should be terrific news for writers, but according to a recent article, they mostly read authors they already liked. They read old familiar books. The cold hard truth is that these readers were wary of newcomers. 

A friend emailed me recently who was worried about a young man she knew who was not doing too well. He had never held a "real" job. He wants to become a writer and she wanted to know what I thought of his ability.

In fact, I think he is quite talented. That said, it's very, very hard to assess the merit of a work in a genre you don't regularly read. But talent is not the problem here. The problem is reality.

Only a very few writers make really big bucks. They are very talented and have something quite special going for them. Never mind that this one or that one is not your own personal cup of tea. When they first started out, each person on the best seller list time after time brought something new to the marketplace. These are the born naturals. The cream of the crop. They cannot stop. Case in point is J.K. Rawlings. The lady doesn't need the money but she keeps on anyway. She can't help herself.

And then we move on to another wealthy tier of writers. They are really good, usually genre specific, but things can get a little weird down the line. Books are outlined and someone else does the actually writing. Names are licensed. Writing becomes harder. Trips beckon. Time with family. A cocktail at sunset. They make a terrific living. Have a sweet life.

But the cold hard truth is that most writers need a day job. Seldom does one's writing alone provide enough to support a family, generate income for research trips, or enable one to attend the endless round of conferences that compete for time and bucks.

So what kind of day job? How many hours a day? I find it puzzling that some of the people with the most demanding jobs produce phenomenal books year after year. As to the type of job? When I taught a course in writing at Fort Hays State University one spring, I found myself worrying about the students' stories, instead of my own writing. It was like trying to water two fields from the same well. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates--who is incredibly gifted--has taught writing at Columbia for decades. Our own Frankie Bailey is a professor in the department of justice.

Some writers find that working in a trade or doing something involved with physical labor is just the right contrast. That makes sense to me.

I like bookkeeping and accounting. It's comforting to do non-creative work that is exacting and precise. It's black and white. Right or wrong. Writing is a very messy occupation, but it's so exhilarating! I would rather be a writer than anything else, nevertheless sometimes I think how nice a regular paycheck would be. Sometimes I hate the fog that is a part of creativity.

So my question for the young man would be "How do you intend to support yourself?" The cold hard truth is that if you plan to become a writer you must figure something out.


Thomas Kies said...

Excellent post, Charlotte!!

Tanya said...

Charlotte, your post is an excellent dose of reality for aspiring writers of any age.

Your point about the income-generating work often needing to be different from writing (or reading others' writing) is so true. My "day job" is freelance editing and occasionally ghostwriting. When I'm dealing with a ghostwriting project, it's practically impossible to get my mind to focus on any writing of my own. I can research, plan, and make notes, but actual writing has to wait until the ghostwriting is done and the voice of that "author" is no longer in my head.

Frankie has mentioned working on nonfiction and fiction projects simultaneously. I'm really curious how she does that. Frankie -- any advice?

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thanks Thomas. What's more there's a lot more cold hard truths about writing. I don't advise taking if up unless you really like to write.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Tanya--I really admire those who can do this, but my very biggest problem always has been shutting the world out. Sometimes I envy the Bronte sisters and their lonely garret.