Sunday, October 10, 2010

Working for Free

A few weeks ago I ran into my OB/GYN at a restaurant. (Don’t worry, this story will not get weird or gross. I’m just trying to make a point, okay?) After kind salutations, looks of confusion and vague recognition, (“Remember me? I was 30 pounds heavier the last time you saw me!”) we started talking about each others’ lives. I asked her about her job and she asked what I was up to. I sighed (which I always do when asked this question) and babbled something about my web design classes at the community college. My husband (who was having lunch with me) told her I was a writer. I cringed at the forbidden word. Here I was, sitting in front of one of the most practical/economically-stable professionals talking about this job title that I don’t even know I’ve earned yet. She surprised me with her honest excitement about my chosen career path. But sure enough, the obligatory question ensued:

“Are you published?”
The obligatory answer (justification) followed.
“No, but a couple of agents and an editor are reading my work.”
She expressed admiration for my determination as she said she couldn’t take the delayed gratification a career in publishing represents.

I started thinking about the term “delayed gratification.” I don’t think I could begin to explain to a non-writer how gratifying it is to create a world of your own where you get to control every event, every word, and every movement a character makes. But how does this (guilty) pleasure measure in the concrete world if there is no monetary retribution?

There are many hard things about being a writer. Learning how a plot develops is one of them. Creating engaging characters is another. Being able to write believable and interesting dialogue is definitely a challenge. So is finding the perfect balance between a vivid description and long narration that can easily bore a reader out of his/her mind. But perhaps one of the hardest things for me is to call myself a “writer” and convince myself that what I do is valid in the eyes of society when I’m not getting paid.

So how do we keep going at times when it seems like NOBODY cares whether we write or not; times when we wonder if all these years of writing have been a waste of time. How do we find the motivation when there is no gratification other than our own pats on the back after we’ve written a masterful sentence—or the compliments of a nice writing partner? Should it be considered work if there is no monetary gain?

I don’t have an answer. I can only tell you what keeps me motivated:
  1. The process of creating characters that fascinate me and accompany me everywhere I go.
  2. Being absorbed in a wonderful setting.
  3. Finding a solution to a conflict I established and didn’t know how to solve.
  4. Getting an email every few weeks from an agent telling me she enjoyed my work and wants to read more.
  5. Not finding fulfillment in anything other than writing.
And you, how do you keep motivated? Do you think it is valid to call yourself a writer if you haven’t earned a dime yet? How long should you spend developing your art/craft before you give up and become a “productive” citizen again? Are you productive if you’re not bringing cash home? And lastly, do you think it takes a special kind of person to be a writer? (A patient one, for sure!)


  1. My dear Lorena,

    I love your reasons for staying motivated. You have been an inspiration to me in the querying process and I think this post is super keen. Btw, I saw a marquee this morning that answers your question about how long you should spend developing your craft before becoming a 'productive' citizen. It read 'Never give up.' Simple in an austere Churchillonian sort of way, but a fair reply. My personal variation on the theme goes kinda like this:


    (And I'm really needing a bit of that spirit to persevere with my query letters because they are, truly, abysmal.)

    Thank you for your wisdom and light.

  2. Sister Lorena,

    I feel your pain when it comes to being a 'productive citizen' in society now days. Many times, I've gotten that same question -- "Are you published? -- and every time I cringe. But it's like my husband says when it comes to engineering -- "You don't really have to have a degree in engineering to be an engineer." And it's true. You don't actually have to be published to call yourself a writer. But it sure helps! I'm off now to be 'unproductive' and do some writing!


  3. It is hard to define who is a writer, but certainly making money and selling books is not a yardstick to measure, since crap writers proliferate in bestseller lists. Some of us put bread on the table thanks to our writing skills, but are idiots when it comes to writing fiction. Someone once defined “writers” as those who are unable to quit. Who need to write, who put years of their lives into it, polishing their skills, learning constantly, always coming up with ideas. Since you fulfill those requirements, I would have no qualms to acknowledge you as a writer. Kafka was only recognized as a literary genius after his death. Was he no less a writer in his lifetime?

  4. Violante- I am throwing long-stemmed roses at your feet.

  5. Violante, I know as a fact that you're not an idiot at fiction writing. You may be a little dusty lately because you've been doing so much non-fiction writing, but please don't ever doubt that what you do is good.

    Mary, I like your husband's comparison. He should know about engineers. :)

    Aurora, I'm starting to believe there's no right or wrongs when it comes to queries, because if that was the case, how come some agents request more material based on a letter and others plainly reject the SAME letter? It really is a matter of taste and finding the right fit for your work.

  6. I think we've all had that uncomfortable moment when people want to hear about the fruits of our success, but the only fruits we have to offer are a (finally) completed manuscript and maybe a couple of requests. Little do they know how monumental these things are!

  7. Exactly, Krista. It's so hard to explain the publishing process to non-writers and how we *really* are making progress even when we haven't sold our novels yet.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. You know, this post is reminding me why, although it feels very circular at times, it's nice to blog about writing to fellow writers. Aside from others in the publishing industry, they're the only ones who can understand the excitement we unpublished ones get from:

    a) finishing a first draft
    b) revising and polishing said draft
    c) writing synopsis and query and sending manuscript into the world
    d) getting feedback or requests - of any kind! - from agents/publishers
    e) finding an agent to represent our work

    In other words, only other writers who share the same dream really understand how drawn out the process is and how hard it is to get to that stage of being able to say "Yes, I'm published!"

    The answer to why I do this: I love it. I can't imagine not doing it. And if I wasn't typing my stories down they'd be writing themselves in my head anyway. Given how difficult it is to achieve the publication dream and how low the chances of success, that's the only reason which really sticks for me, in the end.

    Great post!

  9. Hi Adina,

    Welcome to our little blog!

    It does seem like a circular effort at times, but extremely encouraging. Since it's a hard business to break into, we need all the support/advise/experience we can get from our peers.

    Thanks for your comments!

  10. It took quite a while for me to call myself a writer out loud. It helped when I was published in an anthology, but I still find myself qualifying that little success by saying, "It's only an anthology."

    I've pondered the lack of financial gain that goes hand in hand with writing, but the trouble is, after three years of steady writing and learning, I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing.

    So, money or not, here I come.


  11. Hi Debbie,

    I recently met a professional pianist who told me that in her profession 90% was technique and 10% was passion. Without the passion, she said, a pianist will quit because it is so hard to make a living in music. I believe the same to be true in writing (perhaps more passion and less technique than in music? who knows!) But like you say, artists cannot stop doing what they love regardless of the little or no financial gain. It's like you say, as vital as breathing.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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