Why writers write, even when they can’t make a living out of it
Patti Miller’s article in last weekend’s The Sydney Morning Herald is depressing. Although nothing she says is new, most writers are already painfully aware that they can’t make a living from their writing and hence they need to look at other means in order to survive, she fails to give hope to new writers.
In her article, The writer’s life: belly dancing to make a living, Patti lists the paid jobs she did since she left school in order to support herself while writing. The list is exhaustive – nanny/ house slave, waitress, housemaid, nurse-aide, artist model, women’s center organizer, arts event organizer, university lecturer, TAFE teacher, writing workshop tutor, manuscript mentor, and editor.
She surveyed more than 50 well-known published writers and found that all of them, at various times, had to supplement their income from other sources.
She then raises the obvious question.
If writers cannot earn a living from writing then why they are doing it.
A fair question. An important one too.
But she fails to satisfactorily answer it. At least not to my satisfaction.
Earning money is not the sole purpose of choosing a profession. There are many professions other than writing where the money is not good but people still choose them. All the artists and academics fall into this category, so do the people working in the emergency and health services.
There are many reasons, why writers write.
I am reading a book by Meredith Maran, Why We Write, where the author has interviewed twenty writers, a mix of genders, genres, ethnicities, and ages, and asked them the same question.
Their responses are impressive at the least and touching at the most.
Terry Tempest William gives his reasons as “I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create fabric in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change.”
Armistead Maupin wrote, “I write to explain myself to myself. It’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to land symmetry and meaning to it… Sometimes I write to explain myself to others. Thirty-forty years ago I told my folks I was a gay through the Tales of the City character Michael Molliver.”
Mary Kerr writes, to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit dead. “I have a primitive need to leave a mark on the world.”
Kathryn Harrison said, “I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love… I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.”
David Baldacci goes to the extreme, “If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It is a compulsion.”
Writing is a compulsion too for Gish Jen. She goes on to say, “Writing is part and parcel of how I am in the world. Eating, sleeping, writing: they all go together. I don’t think about why I am writing any more than I think about why I’m breathing. Its absence is bad, just as not breathing would be bad.”
George Orwell wrote a whole book “Why I Write” to explain why he writes. He gave four reasons which pretty much encapsulates everyone else’s reasons too:
- Sheer egoism. “To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups, etc.”
- Aesthetic enthusiasm. “To take pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”
- Historical impulse. “The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
- Political purposes. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself is a political attitude.”
But I think for many of us writing is a vocation, a calling, a life’s work.
And when you start pursuing your calling, it is not easy. It is rich and fulfilling but not easy.
Your life’s work causes you more pain than ease, but it is worth it.
It provides you with a purpose, an opportunity to make a difference, a legacy to leave behind.
We write because every one of us is searching for a purpose in our lives. A purpose that is beyond material success. A purpose that could justify our existence in this world. Writing provides that purpose.
It allows us to make a difference, a real difference in our lives and in the lives of other people.
Think about it, how much other people’s writing has helped you understand life, show you the way, guide you out of misery and help you become a better person. This is what you are trying to do with your writing – help others.
Your words can make things easier for someone else is big enough a reason to continue to write.
That is the reason the writes will continue to write even if they are not able to make a living out of it.