Thursday, July 28, 2011

Surviving as a Writer (Or Artist...Or Musician)

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)
There's no dearth of articles on strategies for financial survival. The internet abounds in them, some excellent, but many more that seem to be unfounded blatherings. At a time when publishing is changing faster than news can spread, a person can say just about anything and be right part of the time. This isn't one of those. This is about surviving psychologically.

The two sorts of survival are connected. Struggling financially, being unable to support yourself with your writing (insert as appropriate: art, dance, music, etc.) is frustrating and discouraging. I think it's even more so when reaching that readership, that group of people who love your work and for whom your work has enduring value, is part and parcel of the rewards of being a writer. I also think that each one of us forges our own way through the thorn-forest of publishing/getting paid/writing/dreaming. Here are a few things that work for me. They might be helpful to you, too.

If the only thing I loved about writing was getting paid for it, I'd probably give up and go back into health care. If I either hated or was indifferent to the writing itself, it simply wouldn't be worth the hassle. At least, seeing sick people get better comes with warm fuzzy feelings and a regular paycheck. I'm fortunate in that writing fiction isn't the only thing I can do, or do with a little refresher training. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful to get paid. It just isn't sufficient in itself for me.

What if I knew no one would ever read what I wrote? That's stickier. I began writing, somewhere around 4th grade, without any intention of reaching an audience (well, beyond my parents, who enthused over every effort). As a teen, I sent a few stories out without any idea of what I was doing. By the time I started submitting seriously, I'd started about a gazillion novels, finished a few of them, as well as many more short pieces. All for what? For the pleasure in telling the story.

I come back to that principle again and again, in many variations. I don't see any point in slogging through a story that's drudgery to write (and will therefore be torture to read). Scenes can be difficult or painful to write. They can challenge me in terms of skill or raw emotional honesty. So pleasure in the sense of ease is misleading. Perhaps a better way to express this is the sense that this is worth doing, and worth doing right. We know that kids love mastering new skills and learning new information. Tackling a difficult story element -- a scene, a point of view, some technical aspect that presents a high-wire act -- may be excruciating at the same time as it is exhilarating.

So I write in part for the satisfaction of telling a story and telling it well. I write stories I myself want to read. But there came a time in my development as a writer when I wanted to share those stories with other people. Herein lies the challenge: what role does the completion of communication play in how I feel about writing? Is it enough to run off copies (or send files) to my family and close friends? Once upon a time, there weren't a lot of choices besides traditional publishers if I wanted to reach a wider audience. As has been, is, and will be discussed at great length elsewhere, publishers act as gatekeepers in the worst sense and as guarantors of editorial quality in the best. If I let my publisher (or editor, or agent) be the sole arbiter of my work, I may be enlisting an invaluable ally in both commercial success and in determining the worth of my work. So it's a two-edged sword, as too many have found to their sorrow.

The question for those being published in traditional ways is, How do I remain true to my internal compass and stay receptive to that advice which is valuable to me? What happens when sales figures over which I have no control result in rejection (declining advances being yet another aspect of this). How do I find satisfaction in the work itself, regardless of what's happening in New York or

If I go the self-publishing route, all too easy these days, must I sacrifice the mentor/teacher/gadfly role of a professional editor? How do I keep growing as a writer, keep learning new stuff and practicing what I know to make it seem effortless? How do I stay humble and hungry before my art? Or is that important to me? Maybe it's pretentious or destructive to think in those terms. Or maybe it's essential.

I think the real gift of all the venues offered by the internet is that they allow me to separate publication anxiety from the joy of storytelling. If all I want is to get the words down, they can stay on my computer. If what I want is to throw them out and say, I had a whale of a good time writing this and I think you might enjoy reading it, for fun and for free. I can put it up on my website or other places on the 'net. If I believe the story has merit and for whatever reason does not suit traditional publishers, I can do what many (some say, far too many) have done and make it available for money. The point is that I no longer have to feel locked in to evaluating my work by the commercial marketing decisions of a corporate publisher.

Sure, I can put up drek. But I can also use that same freedom to keep my focus on writing the stories that are wonderful to me, to the best of my ability. That is what has kept me writing all these years, and that is the only thing I know that will for sure continue to do so.

The photograph of Isadora Duncan is by Arnold Genthe (1869-1942).

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