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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Writing for money, or what?

Writing for money, or what?

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Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Harlan Ellison said, "The amateurs are the ones who give their stories away, because they want to be recognized; and that's fine, I suppose, if they want to be patsies, but then when the time comes for a publisher to pay, the well has been poisoned, and the publisher says, 'Well, everybody else gave us their story. Why do you want a fee?' And I say, 'well, Cowboy, just because everybody else is a simp, jumped off the cliff, and paid you for the privilege, doesn't mean I'm going do it. I'm a pro, mudduhfugguh, and you can prey on the ignorance and hayseed naïveté of these hungry fish, but not me. Pay me!' "

</a></b></a>nicolagriffith   said, "If you're a writer, stop and think for a minute: who is profiting from the time you're donating? From your name? You can bet someone is. Make sure it's you. . . . I write fiction for the art, for free, for love. For myself. Anyone else who wants access pays."

I sympathize more with Ellison and Griffith than I do with Johnson. Their point is that professionals should be paid for their work and not be exploited.


However, the fact of the matter is -- the fact of the matter has always been -- that only a tiny percentage of writers and artists are able to support themselves on their writing. Even if every publisher, producer, viewer and reader in the world were to consent to pay for every word or moment they produced, published, viewed or read, and that money went directly to the writer and no one else, the great majority of writers would not earn a living wage from their writing. So for those who are good enough, or lucky enough, or just persistent enough to reach that goal, I say that Ellison and Griffith are right on target: get paid for everything you do.

But someone like me is in a different position. I'm 49, I have a full-time job and adult commitments, and am just getting started in the writing. The chance that I will be able to support my family on my writing is nearly zero. The chance that I'll be able to do it on short stories alone is exactly zero. If I'm very, very good at it, work hard, constantly improve, and also luck out, I may earn a few thousand a year. But it will never pay my mortgage, put my kids through college or significantly aid in my retirement. (Middle-class, Western goals? Yeah: I'm a middle-class, Western fellow. Sorry.)

So, okay, why do I want to write? I want to write so that others will read. I want people to see the things I see, imagine the things I imagine, react to them, play with them, fight with them.

Here is my thought-experiment:

  • If someone said, "I will pay you $10 million per year for your writing, on the condition that you give it to me without showing it to anyone else, and that I will lock it away so that no one will ever read it" -- I would refuse. (Okay: I think I would refuse; no one's ever offered me $10 million…)
  • If someone said, "I will guarantee that a million people every year will read what you write, respond to it, care about it, play with it, and communicate back to you about it, on the condition that you never get a dime from it and must earn your bread by some other means" -- I would accept.

Sure, it's an unrealistic set of hypotheticals; no one's going to offer me any such thing. But it's designed to force the issue and highlight what my priorities are.

I don't think I'm a blockhead, or a simp, or a patsy, or a hayseed, or any of the other things Harlan Ellison loves to call people who do things differently than he does.

That is the bottom line. I write so that people will read. I would love to make my living by writing; it would be a fantastic dream. I would be proud and joyful to not have to do anything but writing. But ultimately, that is not why I write. I write so that others will read. Period.

  • I've had people pay me to make them a quilt, which I do normally as a work of love and for fun and creative expression. Honestly, it felt totally different... too much stress and not filled with the joy and love that usually accompanies such projects. Now, I'll only do it for pay only under very limited conditions.

    Writing is the same sort of thing. You... and I as well... write because there is something that needs to be written... an idea, a character, a situation, a random bit of dialogue. They burrow in our brains and bug us until we sit down and DO what is needed to get it out on paper. And it is true that we want others to read it: for feedback, for encouragement, for... whatever.

    Who cares, ultimately, if we get paid for it? It feeds our souls to enter and exercise in the realm of our creativity. We're lucky we have real life work to pay the bills and time enough to play in our imaginations.

    Samuel Johnson was a curmudgeon.
    • Thanks, Shelly. You're right.

      I don't mean to say that I wouldn't accept payment if it came my way. I'd gobble it up! I just don't want to refrain from publishing merely because I can't get money for it.
  • If you're a blockhead, Ken, at least be comforted that you're not alone.

    It's strange to me, though. I can't think of any other creative art where professionals spend so much time complaining about the existence of amateurs.
  • Being one of the million readers I selfishly applaud your principles!

    I don't think I'm a blockhead, or a simp, or a patsy, or a hayseed, or any of the other things Harlan Ellison loves to call people who do things differently than he does.

    Heh. Harlan Ellison is, for me, the perfect emodiment of the 'loud American' stereotype. I couldn't believe what I was seeing/hearing when I went to my first science fiction convention in the USA and attended his keynote speech. He's lucky he doesn't live in the wild west where folk pack sixguns and shooting your mouth means you'd be pressed to shoot your gun as well. :-)
  • I don't think you're a blockhead or any of those other things if you make money off your writing. But I do agree with iamstarmom; when someone is paying me for something that I normally enjoy doing, I don't enjoy it as much.

    I used to make jewelry as a hobby and eventually quit because it wasn't fun to make stuff to spec for other people. I certainly wouldn't do technical writing for free, but I also don't think I could get paid for fiction because the perfectionist in me would never think it was good enough to get paid for.
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