by Sherwood Smith
Usually I am bored by “What if?” questions. I’ve never had any interest in “What if you won the lottery?” I am not the lucky winner type—as far as the lottery is concerned, if I ever bought a ticket, I’d be afraid mine would say From now on you PAY ten thousand dollars a month for the rest of your life!
But a what-if came up in a writers’ discussion that I did find interesting: supposing we writers were given a patron, one who cheerfully guaranteed that all living expenses would be covered. Away goes the worry about the bills, the car insurance and repairs, new shoes for growing kids, the plumbing shaken loose by the last quake.
So we’re not talking about millions of dollars and the boring willo-wisps about yachts and designer clothes and houses in four countries. One’s day-to-day comfort is guaranteed: so, would one write? Would one really write?
The first one to answer was the one who apparently had already answered some form of this question over and over. Being a fanfiction writer, she said that writing has never meant the agony of waiting for two or three years until someone gets around to reading one’s piece and deciding yea or nay: fannish writing means instant publication, and instant feedback. The drive to create for that writer has never had to do with earning money, but is centered on creative and social feedback within the fandom.
Second writer: “I could dump the work-for-hire and get going on my Great Project, the one I’ve been making notes for, and thinking about, for many years.”
Third writer: “I’d probably end up writing less and less.”
At that point, the discussion took off. People got into honest assessments of how they use (or juggle, or prioritize) their time—without the pressure (the positive term is structure) of dayjob demands and house demands, does your time get frittered away? Not just in tube and net cruising, but in things like going to a concert, or taking the kids to the beach where you read a book just for fun. As one writer put it, do you make time for writing, or does your writing force you to make time for living?
Writer 3 admitted to mixed feelings—some of the drive for his writing was the hope for recognition, but realistically he wrote for money. Guaranteed complete non-worry about money would probably lure him back to his old motorcycle, and making a another try at playing his guitar, and the writing would probably be blog or flash pieces, if some idea sparked. There would be no more necessity for butt-in-chair every day.
Then Writer 2 said quite suddenly, “It’s not money I want, it’s fame. I am probably going to work on my big project until someone give me an advance. And a deadline. I have been tooling around with it for years, and I used to think that those years just automatically made it richer and deeper, but now I wonder if I’m just cat vacuuming. But one thing for sure, I need to know someone is waiting for it.”
At that point Writer 4, who had been published in small press early, and not for a long time since, said, “I haven’t finished anything for years. If I meet an editor at a party who offers me real money and the top slot for the book, I’ll finish it. I believe if you really write well, they come to you. It’s only the second-rate who have to ambulance-chase after agents and editors, who talk endlessly about rejectomancy, who write cookie-cutter crap in hopes of hooking onto the latest trend. Unless I see a serious commitment first, it’s a waste of my time.”
Nobody in this particular conversation likened themselves to Tappan Lloyd Wright, working away at a cherished project knowing it would lie on the desk until they died.
I wish I could find that letter of Milton’s wherein he talked about how he felt he had a great story in him. I am quite certain I did not hallucinate it: he was young, it was right before the mess of 1648, and he had this best friend with whom he shared his creative thoughts and efforts. He said he felt a big project coming on, something important. He was poised between something on the Matter of Britain (imagine his Mordred, cast in the mold of his Satan!), and something that had religious meaning, and he decided to go to the continent to figure things out. When he returned there was a grim war, his friend was dead. . . and his big drive shaped itself to what we have today.
I read that years ago, and too little time and too many other demands have kept me from excavating to rediscover it. I remember being astonished that Milton and Tolkien both shared with their young friends that sense of a big story ballooning inside them, a story so big it would take years to chip away at its shape; the effort was done quietly over many years, behind the other work, deeply satisfying, especially when there was appreciative feedback in their immediate circle.
Big motivations like these bring the writer eagerly back to their desk, their mind sinking with grateful joy into the life-long familiarity of the work, hours passing without awareness (perhaps while others in the here-and-now get quite exasperated about that extended absentness when the trash needs taking out right now).
What brings you back to the desk each day, if it isn’t a contract, the yearning for cash, or that huge, lifelong thing pushing at the backbrain? What sits you down in the chair today. Is it a scene? Is it the sound of a sentence that you’ve been mulling? Would you do it if someone showered money on you so you wouldn’t have to work?