“Are you still writing?”

Homework Session
Homework Session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They always ask this with a little chirpy voice. Like…really?

They’re usually people with office jobs and big paychecks and paid sick days. People who line up every morning to catch the bus or train or subway and some of whom pray for reprieve from the vocational choice they’ve made.

Writing for a living looks so damn easy. No stress! No boss! No demands or deadlines!

Anyone can do it, right?

I thought I was alone in hearing this annoying question after spending my entire life as a journalist and author.

But Roger Rosenblatt, a much bigger name than I here in the U.S., gets it too, as he writes in The New York Times Book Review:

And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

Everyone wants to be a writer — it looks like so much fun! Sit around the house in your pajamas all day waiting for inspiration. Sign me up!

Even the plumber who recently came to my apartment, and socked me with a $225.00 bill for fixing our only toilet, said “Oh, when I retire I want to be a writer.”

“You don’t,” I warned him, wincing as I wrote the check. “Most of us don’t make a lot of money.”

“Oh, I just want to be a successful writer,” he replied. “You know, like John Grisham.” (Who last year raked in a cool $18 million.)

Those of us who’ve been cranking out journalism or book-focused copy for a few decades, even with some nice reviews, (my first book was called [swoon!] “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential publication), know it’s a risky way to make a living. Because your “living” can vary from $4,000 a day to $4,000 a year.

Last year I made more money from public speaking engagements and a TV option from CBS for my memoir, “Malled” than I did from the book itself. It cost me 10 percent of the option income to have an entertainment attorney review the inch-thick contract with CBS negotiated by two agents — now taking 20 percent of the option cash for their input.

I waited 12 months after publication for the final instalment of my advance, which, after my agent took her standard 15 percent cut, came to $8,500. That’s a year’s income, or more, in sub-Saharan Africa. In suburban New York, (with no kids to support), that lasts quite a bit less.

Here’s a great list from Forbes.com, and fellow journo/blogger Jeff Bercovici, why journalism still kicks ass as a way to make a living. Because it just does.

(Here’s a brilliant blog post with a visual of how “success” appears to different people, including writers.)

So, why do so many people long to be writers?

People want to be rich. If writing doesn’t make you rich (and it certainly can for those who hit and stay on the best-seller list and/or sell their work to film or television), then why the hell are you bothering?

People want to be famous. If your book is on a shelf in a store, you’re the bomb! (So is weed-killer and diapers, but hey, retail exposure is cool, right?)

People want to be on TV/radio/blogs. They crave global attention. Because then life will be so different. (Not!)

People want to feel cool and creative. As opposed to cube life with 10 days of vacation.

People want to have other people quote them as wise and witty experts. Not just their Mom.

People want to feel validated as having something compelling to say, with millions eager to listen to them. Not just their Mom.

So, having published two non-fiction books (so far), is any of this true? Does it happen?

Sort of. I’ve met a few people who knew my name before I walked into the room. That can be pleasant.

I write because it’s how I make sense of the world.

I write because it stitches me back into the crazy quilt of other people’s ideas and feelings.

I write because my skill and talent and hard work, even working freelance for most of my life, have still allowed me to earn and save more than the average American with a steady paycheck.

I write because it allows me to indulge my insatiable curiosity about the world and get paid to do so.

I write because it has allowed me to meet everyone from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes to a female admiral to the Inuk man who greeted me on a snowmobile when our tiny plane landed in his village just south of the Arctic circle.

I write because…

I’m a writer.

Why do you write?

44 thoughts on ““Are you still writing?”

  1. Jueseppi B.

    I write to piss off the TeaTardedRepubliCANT Pseudo-Freudian Psycho-Sexual Secret-Whore Pro-caucasian Pro-Racist Anti-LGBT Anti-Feminist Reich Wing Party Members.

  2. I write because it allows me to express ideas and thoughts that I had during the creation of one of my images … at least that’s how it started out. I don’t write in the expectation that anyone will pay me for it … I just think my art is somehow enhaced by my writing (my dabbling dribbles) and the image occupying adjacent space.

    I like your writing … if I wrote like you I would certainly expect to get ~something~ for it rather than the warm fuzzies of creation I get 🙂

      1. Well, the sad fact is it got very small….and then we piled up debt with the &^#!! recession so now it’s bigger. Meh. It’s not that bad, and half of what’s we’d be paying if we lived in NYC.

  3. I was thinking about this question recently – as an unestablished young person, I tend to protect my identity, dreams and goals as a writer from others, lest they decide I am simply a lazy social failure who can do nothing else.

    I work in refugee resettlement by day, where the writing I do consists of emails and case notes, mundane translations of official documents. I like this work because it is meaningful, I speak to different people and often get to hear their stories, and I feel connected to a world beyond myself. As a naturally introverted person, it’s good for me to have a reason to go out and interact with others on a daily basis. I like to keep my private writing projects, my long-term goals and dreams separate from my work, since I’ve learned that my love for language and my need to write have absolutely nothing to do with writing PR stories or keeping websites updated. But the other day something happened to make me feel that my cover had been blown – the executive director stopped by my desk to ask if I was a writer. When I asked her what made her think I was, she said, ‘Oh, I’ve read your case notes.’

    I think there is something a little oppressive about having a vocation. If you try to run away, to push it to the side, to hide…it will catch you, it will storm into the spotlight, it will reveal you. I am more than a writer, but that’s the part of me that will chase me down and tackle me to have its way.

    1. Interesting. I think it’s sort of neat that your ED noticed your talent, no matter how hard you’re trying to hide it.

      I think having a talent be so insistent is a powerful message to you to be using it. I like that you’re using it in such a great way at work, as well.

    2. Hey, I really like your comment. Quite naturally, I like it because I see myself in it. Having always been a rather private person, I have found it difficult to promote my writing. I grew up with the idea that it improper to brag about oneself so I think I understand how you feel. In fact, it has been a challenge for me to break out into social networking because I am uncomfortable with talking about myself. I dougt that I would have even written these words six months ago. I think that it is fantastic that you are doing the work you do.

  4. Don Scrooby

    I just write, not because I have any great dreams about being a writer or earning millions. You said it – it’s the way I make sense of the world. It’s like a quiet little fountain in the mountains of life somewhere just quietly bubbling over. Not sure where the water goes, and that’s okay. Not many see it or take much note, but it’s true to what it is and it’s in the bubbling that fulfilment is found. I suppose this sounds rather trite and unambitious, but I’m comfortable with it.

  5. I write because I love it! There is no other way to do it. You said it best. I write because I’m a writer.

    Being creative is almost a curse, in a way. When you get an idea, you have to chase it, like a compulsive disorder. Being a writer gets in the way of school, relationships and your money-making job.

    Being creative is really a pain in the ass when it isn’t awesome.

    1. oooh, that last sentence is a T-shirt. Make it, I’ll buy it! 🙂

      One also becomes predatory and voracious…everything I see and hear becomes a story idea or material: conversation, people I know, things I see walking down the street. Would be so nice to turn my brain OFF. Sleep helps.

  6. All of the above.
    Plus “because I can”
    Plus “because I have a purpose”
    Plus “because with platforms like this why wouldn’t you?”

    BTW, thanks for the hook up at thoughts on theatre. Very cool!

    1. You’re welcome.

      I will (in a Canadian kind of way) disagree with you about the platform. I do feel pretty strongly (and have blogged this) that simply having a platform from which to express yourself doesn’t mean you’re de facto interesting. A lot of blogs are nothing more than overly personal ramblings about…not very much. “Writing” to me (as design likely is to you) is an art and a skill. After studying design at NYSID, I came away awed and humbled by the skill and discipline it takes to create a truly excellent space. I think writing has become devalued as people conflate ease of access to an audience with that audience’s interest in their material.

  7. Well said….but you are a writer I suppose! 😉

    BTW San Francisco is BOOKED – yippee! Ive printed out all your foodie tips, thanks so much 🙂

    ps. love your new colouring, looks hip & creative.

    1. Cool. San Francisco is such a great city…you will have so much fun. You MUST go out to Pt. Reyes and take lots of photos.

      Thanks…The hair is now me, once the initial shock wore off. I like it much better, too.

  8. I write because I just can’t stop. Tempting as the idea sometimes is because I love writing only fractionally more than I hate not being part of a team working in an office any more. Resistance is futile though, I know that…

    1. I looked at your blog…you’ve written a lot! I see this all over the blogosphere, the question of what’s “enough”. For me, its a higher income and specific markets I want to achieve.

      1. for me it’s my name on something in print. self published is a nice thing, but it doesn’t allow me to consider myself a “writer” yet. but thanks for the thoughts.

  9. I like your final line “I write because I’m a writer.” That’s the best description for me. After plowing through the 30 days of NaNoWriMo (that’s when I do my first drafts) I once whined “why do I do this to myself?” and my mother said “Because you love it.” My husband has noticed I get depressed and bitchy when I don’t have enough time to get meaningful progress done on a project. It’s like an addiction, only I didn’t get hooked on it by someone else – the stories were always in my head, as long as I can remember. It just wasn’t until I got the idea of writing being a profession that I thought to write them down.

  10. I also write because of curiosity. I write because, unless I fall victim to digital distraction, I can focus in on ideas and the task at hand. Time flies by when I’m into a blog post, essay, or article.

    Thanks for the sound insight and advice for all aspiring writers and those intrigued by the profession.

  11. I’ve recently started down the writing path, and it’s a lot more difficult and draining than I imagined. I love it so far though – I love establishing a routine, love feeling the sense of accomplishment after a good session, love reading something that sparks a connection, love getting validation from someone reading and liking it. I write because I make sense of my thoughts through the writing process.

    I definitely get the “are you still writing?” thing from others, and because of that, I’m very hesitant to discuss that side of my life with others. That has the unintentional side effect of making me incredibly boring to be around. Luckily, I have my wife’s full support.

  12. Like breathing, I have to write. Even when I am not writing, I am writing. It’s a dreadful infliction, a complete life saviour, and a great excuse not to obsess over housework. You can read more here http://aileenmcgee.wordpress.com/welcome/author/ but when I read blogs like yours and read about writers like Roger Rosenblatt I am inspired because big fish and little fish can swim at different speeds in different waters but our experiences and feelings about writing is what connects us. As a side note, it turned out my plumber was happy being a plumber but he had to sit down when he realised I was the author of the only book he ever read since he left school! Apparently, his wife didn’t feed him for a whole day because she couldn’t put it down so he picked it up after she was finished to see what it was all about. Now that to me was like winning an oscar…yeah I’m still writing.

  13. Why do I write is a thought provoking question and, while I’m thinking about it, I will throw in a few words to tell you that I really enjoyed this post. I am very new to this writing business and reading your posts have answered a lot of questions for me. I had assumed that starting a writing career early in life would make it easier and that once you had made your mark in the field you would pretty much have it made. I see that is not quite the way it works.
    Why do I write? I mostly write fiction and I do it because I enjoy it. For me, writing a story is very much the same as reading one. The story developes and blossoms in my mind as I go along and each new development is as new to me as it will be to my readers, But the frosting on the cake is when one of my readers tells me, “I couldn’t put it down! When is the next book?” Could that have something to do with ego? Opinions and other non-fiction (such as this) provide a different kind of satisfaction but I won’t take up more space here for that.

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