It’s a well-known fact that writers rarely make a lot of money at their work. OK, there are exceptions, but most of us can barely afford to buy a blouse with our royalties, never mind J.K. Rowling and her impressive Scottish mansion.
Most of us are just regular folks – OK, regular folks with an odd quirk of imagination that won’t hush up like nice, normal people. We’re just trying to get by, pay our mortgages and educate our kids.
I found this great chart on Lapham’s Quarterly that shows how historically consistent our situation is:
Even the greatest of us rarely make a lot of dough!
So why do we do it, if it’s clearly not for money? Mostly because we can’t help it, and wouldn’t even if we could. Take Janet Burroway‘s advice in Narrative Magazine. (You’ll need to log in to read it, but it’s worth the trouble for all the great work they publish.) Most of us realize after a while that we can’t write for the market. Burroway says: “The trouble is that… the muse is likely to grow dull and depart. …Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.”
Some of us have commercial voices and others simply don’t. We each simply must write our own true work and stick to it, thick or thin – mostly thin, mostly for ourselves and, if we’re lucky, for a small audience of others that occasionally lets us know that our efforts have not been in vain.
More and more in this bold new publishing environment, we’re simply one pebble on the beach, shining and new just as the tide recedes. But soon enough our gloss will evaporate and we won’t look any more beautiful or interesting that the millions that surround us. As the scary numbers of books published in 2009 show, our odds of being noticed just get smaller and smaller. More than likely we’ll be left lying there in the sand and forgotten.
So why do we do it? Because we must. Because we’re destined to speak. Because there’s an essence in writing that helps us figure ourselves out that comes only from this kind of exploration and expression.
Most of us eventually accept that we might never become famous or rich or even published unless we publish ourselves (which apparently these days isn’t the vanity taboo it once was. But that’s an entirely different story – check out the links above).
Even well-published authors come to realize what they’re up against. Burroway quotes Adam Gopnik: “Every writer’s life can be summed up, in sequence, by the Four Permanent Titles: Great Expectations, A Sentimental Education, The Way of the World, and, finally, Lost Illusions.” Meanwhile publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman tries to explain what many newly minted authors often agonize about, Why Don’t Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?
With all this going against us, why do we do what we do? Because we must. Because we’re forever dissatisfied with the dull reality of our lives. Because we’re dying to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head. Because we’re desperate to record the fleeting wonder that comes to us in the middle of the night or in the shower or when we’re walking the dog. We do it because we hear voices and we can’t shut them up unless we listen and carefully write down every word they say.
That’s why we write. If we get paid for it, all the better. If a few of us get rich from it, God, I’m jealous! But when that rare success happens, remember again what Burroway writes, “that the joy of publication, prizes, prestige, money is never adequate and always fleeting. It is taken away every time such successes fail to be repeated…. But the moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes ‘out of nowhere,’ not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is ‘grace,’ and it does seem to ‘descend’—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.”
In the end, success is never about us or our work, it’s about happenstance and timing, the frivolities of taste and commerce. Completely separate from the power of passion, imagination, obsession, “ecstase”.
That’s why we do it. Those are the forces that drive us on.
The rest, whether we like it or not, will take care of itself.