Myths of the Writing Life: A Cautionary Tale

On a writers’ list I’m on, we started talking about the Great Myths of the Writing Life.  You know, like “You have to be a drunk to be a writer.  Look at Hemingway!” or “All editors are jealous of writers,” or “There is a great secret conspiracy to keep the really good stuff [which usually means the speaker’s work] from the public.”  There are drunken writers.  There might be editors who are jealous, but mostly they’re just delighted when they find something worth publishing.  There is no secret conspiracy to keep a good work from the public. Conspiracy theories make great fiction, but it takes a tightly controlled group of people with extraordinary purpose to keep a secret over time, and those are few and far between–remember Watergate.

But my favorite Writing Myth is: once you start publishing you will be rich, set up for life.  I took my publications off my resume years ago when, during a job hunt, someone said he was reluctant to hire me because when I hit the New York Times Bestseller List I’d quit.  So: my cautionary tale:

I was living in New York, but commuting up to Boston three times a season to teach a one-day seminar on the nuts and bolts of writing.  I had a big-ish packet of material I handed out, including a piece from the Wall Street Journal about the statistical likelihood of finishing a book, selling the book, writing another book, etc.  So class starts one day and I ask everyone to introduce themselves and say something about what they want from the class–standard Teacher Fare.  Things go fine until the turn of a pretty woman of, maybe, 25.

“I’m an actress,” she told us.  “It’s a really tough life.  A lot of rejection, and it’s really hard to make a living.  I really don’t want to waitress; everyone waitresses.  So I thought I could support myself by writing.”

I did not laugh at her.  My hallucinatory memory is that I dropped to my knees in awe at her innocence.  In fact, what I think I did was to nod and tell her she would want to pay particular attention to the statistics I’d be handing out soon.  And, to her credit, she did.  I saw her shuffling through the packet and listening as I repeated the statistics in that Wall Street Journal article.  She did not come back after lunch.

Did I feel bad about this?  Nope.  My feeling is that I saved her from wasting time and energy.  I hope her acting career prospered.

As far as making a bundle as a writer?  I come back to lyrics from the musical Pippin, wherein Charlemagne notes, “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”

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Madeleine Robins blogs at BVC on the 7th and 21st of the month, and more regularly at Running Air.  Her short stories are available–for free!–from her Bookshelf.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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Myths of the Writing Life: A Cautionary Tale — 13 Comments

  1. Your actress was looking at the wrong kind of writing. When my sister moved to NYC to dance, she primarily supported herself by proofreading. Over the years, she became an editor and these days her day job is working on textbooks. She’s a poet now — she stopped dancing in her 30s — but she’s still got a day job, since poetry pays worse than fiction or even dancing.

    Journalism is a little iffy these days, but I think there’s still plenty of work in tech writing.

  2. I remember when I finally sold sometihng after years of trying. A family member said, “So are you finally going to move out of that dinky apartment and buy a house?”

  3. My sister can’t believe I’m not a millionaire after 20+ books and short stories. She hears the cash register go ca-ching every time a used book sells and refuses to believe I don’t get half of every sale. When I tell her I get 6% of the FIRST sale and nothing more she hears 60% of all sales.

    sigh.

  4. Nancy Jane–this was during the first big Romance Boom, and she was not looking for a job so much as a magical cash infusion on the basis of very little input. I think she believed that one Harlequin romance would set her up for life. And my job was to disabuse her of the notion (in the after-lunch part of the class I went over one of my contracts with the class; if she’d stayed for that part she really really would have been disillusioned).

  5. Until I hit the bestseller lists, I think I’ll take up a little acting. A commercial here, a movie role there, a guest appearance on Oprah. You know, something that pays really well with no investment of time.

    Otoh, if someone does make it big in acting, they don’t seem to have any difficulty getting book contracts. How fat those are, I couldn’t say, but in my snarkier moments I suspect the advances are quite a bit higher than a story of similar quality and appeal would be, coming from an unknown.

  6. Ah, well, just trying to be helpful to those who don’t want to waitress. I’m amazed that anyone thinks writing is the road to riches. I was thumbing through the seatback magazine on the airplane trip the other day and saw a chart with comparisons of the popularity of various new books, movies, etc. (Popularity was measured in some kind of google hits or Internet mentions.) The book on the chart was by Stephen King, and while it had a respectable number of popularity hits — I forget the actual numbers — that figure was dwarfed by the movie and musician items. Stephen King has become rich by writing, but even he isn’t as popular, or as rich, as superstars in other fields.

    You wanna get rich quick, study finance and get a job on Wall Street.

  7. I am told that the US Department of Commerce ranks all job categories in various ways. Of course one of them is by income. Up at the very tippy top are those hedge fund traders, CEOS of Microsoft, and so forth. Down at the very bottom is migrant farm workers. And you know who is one notch up from migrant farm workers? Yes, it’s freelance writers!

  8. Perceptions of writers definitely bounce all over the spectrum. I mentioned above that when I finally sold something, one relative asked if we were going to get a house. (Which didn’t happen for another ten years, and then it was a very, very small house.)

    That same holiday gathering, another relative looked incredulously at me. “You got something published? How much did you have to pay to get them to take it?” And the thing is, the relative wasn’t being mean–genuinely wanted to know!

  9. We could probably do an entire series of these Myths. There is the one about the author’s control over the cover of the book — always good for a laugh among writer circles! And it’s corollary, that you as the author of a book also get input into all the other books that the conglomerate publishes. (“Can’t you do something about that awful thing they published about Hillary Clinton?”)

  10. I don’t want to take over the means of production! I want to write, and have the people who are good at it do things like promotion and sales and stuff like that.

    **pouts**