Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Writer's Life . . . Now and Then

A recent discussion on the Five Star chat list and on Maine Crime Writers (http://mainecrimewriters.com) tapped into a general frustration with how hard it is to make a living as a writer these days. We have all had these moments of doubt and frustration, and I agree with everything that's been said, and I thank both Brenda Hill and Kate Flora for taking on the task of opening the discussions to others. These discussions are part of an important conversation about our expectations and roles as writers. It took me a few years before I realized that my expectations were based on the realities of the 1950s.

The path for an aspiring writer up to the 1950s and 1960s was clearly marked. Get an education, possibly an MFA in creative writing though not required, write short fiction and submit it to literary journals, publish a few stories, and work on a novel. In the summer, attend a few writers' workshops, such as the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (the original one), and meet a few editors and agents. The point was to keep writing until someone liked what you did or you gave up and got a full-time job. No one admits to giving up but there are far more first novels published than second novels.

Since all the mainstream magazines carried short stories every month in those years, a beginning or established writer could make a living selling stories while finishing a novel. Redbook, for example, paid $5,000 for a short story, and often published two a month into the 1980s. In the mid 1960s $5,000 was the starting salary for a social worker and a number of other positions. Well, those days are gone.

If you were lucky enough to sell your novel, you received an advance against royalties. You set about writing your second book while your publisher announced your first book to booksellers, conducted modest promotion, and forwarded reviews by mail. If your book was doing well, you might get a telephone call from your editor. If your sales were reasonable, which you knew from quarterly royalty reports, you had a chance to sell your second novel, assuming you could find something to write about. And yes, those days are gone.

Even in 1993, when I published my first mystery with Scribner, the drill for the beginning writer was the same--get a newspaper and radio interview, set up a few signings wherever you could, and send out a lot of flyers, newsletters, or postcards, anything to introduce your book to readers. In 1993 I sent a postcard to every library in Massachusetts, with a handwritten note on each. I sent another thousand postcards to a select group of libraries throughout the country. Those days are gone too.

Today, writers are expected to have begun promotional efforts even before the book appears. And this
is possible today only because of the Internet and the mind-numbing array of sites where writers and readers can discover each other and books. It is tempting to think that online activity is the way to sell books because that means I can sit at my desk and wear my gardening or painting clothes (which should not be seen in public) and never think about putting on stockings or high heels or do anything else that makes me miserable. But that isn't the case.

The real complaint isn't about how little we make or how much marketing we have to do as writers today but about how little original creative work is valued. Our expectations are based on another time when it seemed such work was appreciated and its producers admired. But our expectations as writers are based on life thirty or forty or more years ago, and the expectations of readers are based on life today. And life today is different. We have reduced the world to the cheapest, the fastest, the easiest. That might be all right for hamburgers but it's not all right for books.

Every one of us knows that it takes time to think through an idea, to understand human behavior and appreciate the myriad ways a single event can be interpreted. We took history in college to help with this sort of problem. But we live in a world when no one wants to take the time to explore facets of an experience, world-changing ideas must be reduced to sound bites or be ignored, and our politicians are an embarrassment to anyone with any self-respect.

When I pull back from my frustration with the low pay, the shrinking advances, the neglect of readers to try a different kind of story, I have only my own reasons for writing left to consider. I did not give up writing when I had a chance to spend all of my waking hours on a better paid job, and I did not take up writing the kinds of books that would ensure a devoted if non-thinking audience. If these things are true, then I am writing for reasons other than money and prestige.

I could end here with a sly comment--"And when I find out what those reasons are I'll let you know"--but I have come this far and will see the idea to the end.

I write because it is something in me that demands to be done. I write because I see characters and hear their voices and I want to tell their stories, to myself as well as others. Some stories feel like a physical mass inside me pushing to get out. I write because I get an idea about a character or incident and I think it's something other people should know about. I write fiction because I think it is one of the best ways to draw people into a larger world where they can learn and grow without the pain that would come from the same experiences in real life. We read to get outside of ourselves and be part of something bigger than ourselves. I write to be part of that.


  1. I totally agree with everything you wrote in the last paragraph. I came to writing late in life and missed those early years when a writer could make a living at writing. For me writing is a nice supplement which I appreciate. But I write because I love creating worlds, populating them and then living among those people for awhile. I write so I can go back to those places whenever I want to.

  2. We've created unrealistic expectations today. We forget that even successful writers had day jobs (John Leggett, teacher; Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance executive; and T.S. Eliot, poet and business?). If we're only writing for money, we should do something else. I know what you mean about revisiting the book worlds we create. I'm working on a Mellingham because I miss Joe and Gwen.

  3. Like most other writers, writing time was a luxury for me for many years. I too agree with what you've written here because it's true. Times have changed dramatically. Some things are better for writers and others are much worse. But those of us who love to write will continue regardless.

  4. The love of writing is definitely the essential piece. In my very early years I knew writers who were never published but they kept on writing. However the world changes around us, we keep on writing, and sometimes we break through all the barriers. Thanks for commenting, Jacquie.

  5. The title should then be: Why I write (today).

  6. Thanks, Ainee. Perhaps I'll write a longer blog on that topic.

  7. An excellent piece, Susan. You've expressed very well what many of us feel and why we write. If we were doing it for the money, we wouldn't still be doing it

  8. Thank you, Earl. Approval from you rates very high in my book. God knows I'm not doing this for the money, but I'm so glad I can do it. Thanks for stopping by.