Let’s get down to brass tacks: Writing and Money
Art by Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void
I realize that this little blog post is to the topic of writing and money as one ice cube is to the 200,000-ton bulk of your average iceberg. Nevertheless, the topic has been on my mind lately so I’m going to go ahead and share my ice cube’s worth of random thoughts.
I have been self-employed since my divorce in 2007 – first as a web development project manager, but since about 2009 as a copywriter and content marketer. I may still be driving my 2002 Pathfinder and wearing many of the clothes that I packed for my move out of the “marital home,” but I have also managed to successfully maintain an income that’s kept me and my daughter well housed, well fed, and – while not exactly living in the lap of luxury – happily enjoying life’s little pleasures.
It hasn’t always been a clear or easy path, but I wouldn’t trade a single day of it for a “secure” job as a full-time employee.
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Most of us drag around some kind of emotional baggage related to money. It might be guilt or fear or a lifetime of feeling undeserving. Throw a creative pursuit like writing into the mix, and you have the added “fun” of doing battle with the “starving artist” stereotype (unheated garret, anyone?).
I’m sure I have yet to plumb the depths of my own money-related hang-ups, but the one that consistently surfaces each time I get brave enough to sit down across the table from this particular demon is the unfounded belief that I can only make “real” money (aka, the kind of money that pays the rent and utility bills) doing work that is a) difficult, b) business-related, and c) let’s just say not all that close to my heart.
Because I’ve bought into this belief, I’ve allowed my fear to keep me from even experimenting with different kinds of writing business models. Despite the fact that ten years ago I would not have believed I could support myself doing what I’m doing today, I seem unable to take a similar leap of faith to the next step in my writer’s journey. The crisis of divorce (and the prospect of being unable to stay home with my then three year-old daughter) pushed me to jump into the wild world of freelancing without a shred of experience or much of a safety net. You would think that after all these years (and learning first hand that I can do this) I would have developed the courage to jump again, but – no. I have replaced my former doubts about my ability to become a freelance writer with a new set of equally limiting doubts about being able to make a freelance living doing anything other than the kind of work I do today.
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I try not to beat myself up about these doubts. After all, they seem to be a natural and hard-to-shake part of the freelancer feast-or-famine mentality. After nearly twenty years of working jobs with steady paychecks, my transition to a freelance lifestyle included its share of sleepless nights wondering where the hell the next gig (and infusion of cash) would come from. I had to work hard to learn to believe and trust that the “next thing” would show up when I needed it.
So far (knock on wood), it always has; but that doesn’t put my anxiety to rest. On the worst days, I can even use my past good fortune to convince myself that my luck is due to run out. (Talk about self-sabotage.)
The ebb-and-flow nature of the freelance world means that – like most self-employed folks I know – I tend to say “yes” to almost every job that comes my way. Most of the time this works out fine. Sometimes, I wind up regretting it. (There are some jobs that aren’t worth any amount of money.)
When I’m suspended in limbo between gigs, coming off a particularly hellatious project, or just feeling a little insecure, I reopen my ongoing investigation into the different ways writers make money. You know – just for “fun.” I look for writers who have crafted an even more flexible, consistent and fulfilling writing life than I have. (Because, at these low points I figure there has got to be a better way.) I look for alternative business models, interesting product launches, and unique publishing strategies.
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Very few writers make a full-time living writing fiction. There are many complex reasons for for this sad-but-true reality, including (in no particular order) the labyrinthine mess that is the traditional publishing industry, the equally confusing sprawl of the burgeoning self-publishing trend, the post-Kindle challenges of convincing the average person to pay more than $.99 (or, in some cases, anything at all) for a book, the Herculean effort required to get noticed in the saturated book market, and so on.
The fact that we can’t all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King does not, however, mean that there aren’t many writers who make a good living with a variety of writing-related jobs and projects. The “entrepreneurial writer,” a creature of the Internet age, typically builds his or her writing business around multiple streams of diversified revenue that may include fiction and nonfiction book sales, blogging, copywriting, speaking, teaching, etc.
Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn is a champion of the “author entrepreneur” and very generous about sharing what she’s learned on her own journey from business consultant to full-time author/speaker. She even periodically shares detailed information about how her overall revenue breaks down across the different parts of her writing business. Joanna’s content is helpful – informative and inspiring in a step-by-step, “real world” way.
Of course, there are the anomalies of the self-publishing world – the Kindle Millionaires like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and J.A. Konrath – who have cracked the code to making a very nice living selling fiction via Amazon’s Kindle platform. The stories of these self-published stars offer inspiration of a different sort – more Cinderella story than Penn’s nuts-and-bolts breakdown.
When the Internet begins to lure me farther and farther down the rabbit hole and away from any relevance to my current life (I mean, let’s be honest, I’m not going to become a superstar Kindle author any time super soon). I forcefully guide myself back to articles that are more directly related to my current earning potential as a content marketer. Alexandra Franzen’s 50+ ways to make money as a writer is one interesting take on the topic. Peter Bowerman’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense voice at The Well-Fed Writer is always a comfort. And there are others out there who share their stories and advice freely on their blogs: James Chartrand, Ed Gandia, etc.
And then I suddenly realize that my investigation has brought me back to where I started. Though I struck out in search of the new, the bold, and the creative, I have come full circle and am once again focusing my attention on what is instead of what might be – what I have already achieved instead of the things that would push me outside my comfort zone and into the next part of my adventure.
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It’s at this point in my well-worn routine that I come face to face with the real question: Why not me?
My inner critic is practically salivating to answer this one. That insidious voice hisses eagerly in my ear, mocking me for daring to think I might succeed without experience, training, or a massive audience. Who am I, the voice asks earnestly, compared to these obviously more qualified individuals about whom I’ve been reading?
I am momentarily cowed by this line of questioning, but then I counter with a question of my own: who were they when they started?
Everyone has to start somewhere. Who’s to say that these superstars and role models didn’t come from beginnings as modest as my own? Who’s to say they didn’t face the very same demons jeering me today? In fact, is there any other way for them to have embarked on their writer’s journeys than as a nobody, a newbie, a wannabe? My guess is that there is no more fertile soil for success.
It’s cliche, but it’s also true that the people who succeed are the ones who show up. Stellar talent, unique concepts, and connections in high places are nice, but optional. The one non-negotiable is showing up. You have to be brave, be bold, and do the work. You have to leap into the gap even though you’re not sure you have wings. That’s how we learn to fly.
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In the end, the thing about writing and money is that the writing has to come first. I don’t just mean that you must deliver the work before you can get paid; but also – and more importantly – that your choices must be driven first by creative impulses, not money. As a single mom, I know only too well the real-life necessity of including financial factors when deciding how to spend my precious time. However, I also know that consistently putting financial considerations before artistic ones is like building your own prison – each time you choose money over passion placing another brick in the wall.
Though I am deeply grateful for the writing life I have created so far, I do feel like I need to create some windows and maybe even a door or two in the walls of this structure. It’s scary to think about removing pieces of what I’ve already built, but I know that unless I start blowing out some walls, the view will never change and I’ll never find the openings that lead to new and exciting spaces in my writer’s world. It will take a both intentional plotting and opportunistic pantsing to craft the next iteration of my writing life, and I’m excited about both parts of the adventure.
How about you?
What I’m Writing:
I’m happy to report that I’m gently easing back into my morning journaling practice. It felt strange, after all those long weeks of absence, to return to the page. I felt like I was having coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I was happy to be there, but felt slightly awkward and even a little guilty for the long time apart. I didn’t know what to say at first, but once I settled in, the rhythm of the words began to flow the way it used to. The comforting familiarity returned and I lost my inhibitions.
Since getting back to this routine, I have noticed that my other writing – blog posts, columns, even client work – seems a little easier. It’s like the free-form nature of the morning pages has begun to untangle what was becoming a bit of creative gridlock in my head. The experience reminds me that we cannot work all the time. We must sometimes come to the page simply to play – to dabble and meander and muse aimlessly about everything and nothing. Otherwise, our minds become rigid and unyielding. Everything about our work tightens and closes up. This is not a good place to be, no matter what you are writing.
Do you have a warm-up or letting-loose routine that helps you clear your head and get the juices flowing? Have you ever fallen out of sync with that routine and started to feel the effects of the loss?
What I’m Reading:
I bought Alice Hoffman’s middle-grade novel Nightbird for my mom as part of her Mother’s Day gift. The film adaptation of Hoffman’s Practical Magic is one of my family’s favorite movies, so I thought that we might enjoy this contemporary fairytale set in a fictitious Massachusetts town not that different from the one we live in.
The tale had many of my favorite elements – magic, spells, a good witch, a small community, and even owls. There was a bit of mystery, a bit of history, and the touch of several romances strung out over the centuries.
This wasn’t a story that had me sitting on the edge of my seat, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. It was the comforting kind of read where you know that everything is going to turn out alright in the end, so you aren’t troubled if you have to set it aside for a few days. Things were, in fact, tied up a little too neatly at the end. Though I’m all for happy endings, the perfection of the way things worked out felt a little contrived. Though one might argue that this is appropriate for the intended reader (middle grade, not adult), I would counter that there are many middle grade books that handle difficult situations in a more realistic manner.
Despite the Hollywood ending, I enjoyed Nightbird. It was a quick read that let me escape for a few hours to an idyllic town in rural Massachusetts – a place with pink apples, black owls, and a magical history.
A break from the blogs …
I took an unintentional break from blog reading this week. The pockets of time usually reserved for reading blog posts were spent on other things, mostly “real life” things. But, perhaps the pause in my blog consumption was well timed since it dovetails with the start of my friend Shanna Trenholm’s annual social media sabbatical – The Silent Treatment.
She hasn’t yet posted about this year’s time away from the Internet, but here is last year’s Silent Treatment announcement post, and here is her wrap-up of what she learned after last year’s second annual sabbatical.
I don’t know that I’m ready to unplug from social media completely, even if it’s only for a month, but I love the concept behind her time away from the noise of social media. Learning to not only exist, but to work amidst all that chaos and distraction is a serious challenge for writers. Maybe I could start small with a week or even just a few days away.
Have you ever taken a leave of absence from the digital life? How did you make it work? What differences did it make in your creative life?
Finally, a quote for the week:
Here’s to facing your (money) demons, getting to know yourself (again), and finding pockets of quiet amidst the (Internet) chaos.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.