Recently the good folks who run the Indies Unlimited website asked me to start contributing a monthly column on the writing profession. They suggested I talk about my experiences and feelings on being a writer. I mentioned that might cause severe depression leading to mass suicide among the site’s followers. But the webmasters don’t care whether you live or die, so here we are.
Like many people who make their living as writers, I have a love/hate relationship with the craft. While you sometimes love the feeling of turning out a piece of finely phrased prose, unless you are one of the tiny handful of writers who are vastly successful, you pretty much hate everything else about the business. You don’t make much money, frequently have to write on topics that don’t interest you to make any money at all, often have to deal with editors who either don’t have the time or the interest to give your story the attention you feel it deserves, suffer bouts of writer’s block, feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, jealousy, and have to deal with massive amounts of rejection. And that’s all on a good day.
It’s the last of those, the rejection, that is often the most daunting aspect of the writing business. Everyone in the field, from best-selling authors to people writing blurbs for the local newspaper, has had to suffer through this miserable aspect of the profession. And no matter how much you believe in your work, no matter how confident you are in your own abilities, it hurts. Because the stuff you write, especially the more personal stuff, is a part of you, a reflection of you. So cache it any way you want but a rejection of your writing always feels very personal, like a rejection of you as an individual.
Then why write? There are a lot of answers to that. The quick, flip one is “I can’t do anything else.” A slightly more thoughtful answer has been espoused by author Richard Bach, who said that he doesn’t like to write, it’s just something he’s compelled to do.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. A lot of people feel compelled to get their thoughts down on paper (or computer screen). Some people even enjoy the process. But it’s when you try to make a living out of this writing compulsion that things start to get hairy for you and you run into that long list of negatives I highlighted above.
So am I trying to discourage people from becoming professional writers? Not exactly (unless you stink, then you probably shouldn’t). But I am trying to be honest about it.
As a young man, my father was a drummer. He was moderately successful, even recording a few minor albums with his band before giving it up to actually make money at something. Years later, an older cousin of mine became fascinated with drumming, himself. He wanted nothing more than to become a professional drummer. My father was asked to sit down with him and explain the difficulties of such a career choice. As the story was related to me, he took my cousin aside and told him, “Look, being a professional musician is one of the toughest things you can do. You’ll often be on the road, away from your family, living out of cheap hotel rooms. You won’t make much money, you’ll deal with constant rejection. It’s a miserable life. Now if you can believe everything I’m telling you is the truth and you still want to do it, then go ahead. Otherwise, don’t bother.”
For anyone seriously considering becoming professional writers, I cannot offer any better advice.
17 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Profession”
Writing is a pursuit that is definitely not for the faint of heart or irresolute of purpose.
Welcome Mark. A producer once said to me, “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” I am compelled to write, and I think we are all masochists. The analogy to music is on target. Good post.
Excellent analogy, Mark. You need a heck of a lot of determination and luck to make it in this profession. I think most of us do it because we love writing. (And, as has just been mentioned…we are masochists!)
I’ve said it before, I’ll say now, and chances are I’ll say it again: ‘writers write.’ Some get paid handsomely, some not so much, while others get nothing at all; however, whether we enjoy it or not it makes little difference – you quoted Richard Bach as having said he writes because he is compelled to do so – most writers are compelled to write. Some of us enjoy it more than others but what makes us ‘brothers (and sisters) in arms’, in other words what makes us writers is that, to whatever extent, we are all compelled to write.
Excellent article, Mark, and welcome aboard.
Great post, Mark. For me, what’s worse than rejection, whether it is a “no thanks” letter from a publisher or a harsh one-star review, is what I call The Great Silence. No comments or feedback at all. Nada. Zip. That stings. But I still write and publish. Hooray for us masochists.
That sums it up pretty well. I’m still waiting to break even. Thanks, Mark.
Welcome aboard, Mark! I am also compelled to write. When I don’t write, there is no living with me.
Good advice. My friend’s father was an engineer-turned-minister, and he used to say something similar: You should only be a minister if you have to. I suppose writing is like a calling in that way, but with a heavy coat of compulsion-obsession.
Hmmphh. I’m really on the fence about this one, if only because having been an author (30 books) AND a publishing professional for most of my adult life, I don’t really see it as an either/or sort of proposition. When you can’t earn a living as a writer, you can always get writing related work. If the business of publishing and self publishing is daunting, consider a job in publishing. If you get bad reviews, write better books. Heck, I once wrote obits to support my fiction habit, and I did a LOT of terrible work for hires for packagers and series. But I saw each of those things as an opportunity to get better, to hone my craft–and to expand my skill set. Am I compelled to write? I don’t know the answer to that question–but I do know, it’s always been my great good fortune to work at something that gives me joy..
Great post. I do wonder whether we will see a decline in the number of new self-published books going forward as those who have jumped on the bandwagon with the idea that it’s an easy way to make money realize the truth and drop out after their first attempt. I can’t imagine anything worse than writing if you don’t feel compelled to – as you say it can be tough enough when you love it!
As mentioned above the advice at the end is spot on – If you are passionate about something (and it could be anything) enough to put up with the downsides, why not take the risk rather than go for safety.
I am of similar mind to Teresa Kennedy (above). I have felt compelled to write fiction since my teens. I never expected to make a living from it. My income came from professional non-fiction writing: mostly journalism and computer technical writing. And, those forms of writing made my fiction better. So be a writer if you must, but be practical about it.
Before I published my book I wrote many articles, mostly unpaid, for various publications. My main success was from public speaking, which I stopped doing for quite a while before publishing because I realized I was missing opportunities to have book signings. However, it seems I paid it forward by getting known as an “expert” in my subject, so now I get many calls to speak. I love writing as well as speaking, and my advice to writers is to include something in your writing that is of general interest and requires a lot of research, which will get you on a speaking tour and generate a lot of sales. Make sure you do good work–word get around pretty quickly if you’re not presenting authentic information.
Mark, I consider this one of the top writing blogs around – and terrific articles like yours are what keeps Indies Unlimited ON TOP of the pile! Great stuff mate. I added a link to my Interviews and Articles board on Pinterest.
Thanks, Mark, for a beautiful precis of the whole business. Australian humorist Lennie Lower in his ’50s novel HERE’S LUCK, said he’d never felt expressed until one day day he saw a painting entitled, ‘Workman falling off building’. I feel the same way about this post. Thank you.
Nice post. Great analogy, why is it that the arts are so tough?
Great post, Mark. Making a living as an artist is fraught with peril, rejection, and incredibly interesting people, all of which we can use to write more great stuff. If you’re not part masochist with a healthy dash of egoist, you probably won’t have any fun in this biz.
Thanks, Mark. A friend told me their writing professor said being a writer is like swimming with the sharks. I would like to point out, though, that there’s a lot less rejection for those of us who are strictly indie publishers of our own work. The only rejection is when our work fails to sell.
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