The Writer’s What-if

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?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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The Writer’s What-if — 39 Comments

  1. With me it’s definitely the words — it can be a single sentence or image, it can be a scene, it can be a sense of shape or direction, but it’s always about that book-bubble that wells up inside and must be expressed. Sometimes, inevitably, there’s a deadline pushing me, too, but it’s only when I hit that groove with the words that everything comes together and the real writing starts.

  2. Because if I didn’t write, I would be so bored.

    Before I could write, i illustrated the scenes of the stories i made up in my head. When I could, i would lie on the floor in my room, scribbling down the story that the people in my head were acting out. When I got a computer, i wrote because I didn’t know any reason why not to.

    Fanfiction with its instant feedback is a little like a drug, very tempting and demanding, but it’s not real writing for me. It’s storytelling. Real writing is stuff you edit, stuff you finish.
    As publication hasn’t yet happened for me, I don’t write for the money. Even with fanfic, i don’t write for my readers – though I’ll make an effort to finish things if they beg. 😀

    The question, I suppose, for me should be – you write for fun, and do grad school for the money – would you be in school still if you had a patron?
    It’s probable. Maybe I wouldn’t be in a degree program, but I’d be taking classes. That’s also something I do for fun.

  3. Cara: you sound a lot like me. (I would have stayed in grad school had there been a way to do it without waitressing six days a week; I finally had to get out because of physical and emotional exhaustion.)

    Kari: oh yes, I know that groove.

  4. Oh, Writer 4, I hardly know how to react to that statement.

    I’ve been unemployed since December, working mostly as a freelance legal assistant for a law firm I hope to be picked up by full-time eventually. I’ve had A LOT of time off, and though I’m not rich, I’m comfortable. During the time off, I wrote like a demon, finished one book and sold it (still waiting on the pub date though…) and just finished another. I would love love LOVE to do this full-time, though I have learned I do have a daily limit of what I can pound out–my hands, my brain, say 3-4k most days is good. That leaves a lot of hours to do other things. So I am thinking, if I suddenly Got Money, I would be like I’ve been–writing some every day, as I do love it for its sake, and for the joy it brings others when it sells, and doing other things as well. I think getting out and doing other things enriches the writing time.

  5. You bet! Does someone out there want to pay me to travel and write about it? Puleeesse!

  6. I would write anything the patron asked. (Yeah, not what you meant)

    On a more serious note, I spent my adolescence going from crisis to crisis (real potentially deadly ones) and as soon as I managed to get my health and safety under some kind of control, I fell into a deep depression, and among other things, didn’t write. I needed some kind of struggle to keep going. I’m afraid the same thing would happen if I didn’t have to worry about a career.

  7. Those *are* really varied responses.

    The short answer for me is that yes, if I were freed of money obligations, I’d write more. But as it is, writing never feels like a burden to me; it’s always something I fly to, and I’m glad it’s like that.

  8. Attackfish: yes, several people in the discussion talked about this. It wasn’t that they weren’t serious about writing, it was just that writing seemed to come best when it was therapeutic, or escape . . . and it could be that that writing worked for readers in the same sort of situation.

    Pilgrimsoul: you and me both!

    Carolyn: every single day (that is, when there isn’t a family crisis) I am thankful to be retired. Every day. Sometimes ten times a day, or fifty.

  9. It sounds perfect for me. For one thing, having a patron would imply that someone thought my work was so good it should be supported, which would help a lot in dealing with rejection and the resulting depression. For another, such support would enable me to spend time reading, thinking, walking, talking to others, going to concerts, seeing movies and plays, going to museums, taking long walks and drives, and doing the other countless activities that influence my ideas and make my writing richer. At this point, with a day job and responsibilities for the care of my elderly father, time without other duties should be spent writing — which means I feel guilty if I do other things. Also, since I spend my work day sitting in front of a computer manipulating words so that complicated ideas make sense, it’s hard to do more of the same in the off hours.

    But mostly it’s because I have the feeling that there is a great work I haven’t written yet, and having time to write and think and write and think will make it happen. (Oh, dear. I am still afflicted with the rules laid down for good girls. I find it embarrassing to have admitted that.)

    Still, if there are any patrons out there reading this, please get in touch!

  10. I don’t know if anything would change. I write because I have to and there is an urge. Sometimes it’s there and I can’t follow it because of practical concerns. Sometimes its not there and well it’s not there and it’s not there and I hate life. I don’t get any money now. I don’t see myself ever getting any money. After reading slush I do kind of agree that if you’re good, really good people will chase you and you won’t have to chase anyway. I’m praying I’ll get to that stage one day.

    More than anything, I want to find a big story blooming inside of me. And I wonder if simply wanting that feeling is enough to get it. I’m afraid it isn’t. And if I don’t have that, I think I’ll never really feel satisfied with my life.

  11. As I keep protesting, I am Not a Writer, but it’s noticeable that although I have three contracts at the moment, I am still plugging away at the project without a contract.

    I suppose a university is a bit like a patron. At least it was once. Now, not so much…

  12. A good question. I have a patron, the Social Security Administration, and I have almost every day free. I am still, after two years, struggling to create a schedule, so I write — or do something else useful — every day. I need to get dressed and go to my poetry workshop right now. I think I’ll add more later.

  13. I sit down at the desk every day because of my love for writing, for the love of my characters, for the love of telling a story, for the love of learning and growth. I would write even if I was the only reader.

    However, having said that: what do I want out of writing? I want people to read. I hope people will love my characters and stories and want to read more. I don’t write for money because I don’t NEED to write for money. I have a job. It pays the bills. Even if it didn’t, I know that writing is NOT a guaranteed way to make money.

    If someone offered to pay my bills so I could write full-time? I would ask them if I could have a different option: could I work part-time and would they pay the bills I couldn’t cover so I didn’t have to worry about money all the time. Work is part of my drive. My drive to live, my drive to write, part of my value as a person.

    But, I would love to have more time to write and also not to have to worry about money so much of the time. That seriously inhibits my creativity.

  14. I wrote when unemployed. Perhaps less than I should have, but I think that was stress. Security might let me get better organized.

  15. Milton from very early on meditated on the sweep and significance of history — he wrote a great deal of history, he studied history, he wrote about history and how its sweep created vision for those who would see. He wrote about this in his introductions to just about everything, as well as in his correspondence, as you point out, with Charle Diodati, and another friend whose name is escaping me.

    And Milton did write The History of Britain, that Part especially now called England; from the first traditional Beginning, continued to the Norman Conquest. Collected out of the antientest and best Authours thereof, a prose work by the English poet John Milton. It was published in 1670.

    Love, C.

  16. O, yes, like Milton also — my Partner in Crime and I write, no matter what because the world is such a parlous place.

    Love, C.

  17. Wow, there are such interesting answers here, just like the roundtable whose highlights I reported above. I really appreciate people coming here to discuss this–Eleanor, I hope you come back and share more thoughts.

  18. I’m fortunate to have a husband with a good-paying job and health insurance coverage, so I am in a position to write what I want. When I do make a big sale, it’s very rewarding, but I am most certainly not doing this for the money. (I’m pretty darn proud that my writing has been bringing in an annual salary in the three-figure range for a few years.)

    I want to add that having all day to write is also an obstacle at times as it is too easy to catwax; my son’s school days can help in that regard, as I have specific hours where I MUST get stuff done.

    I agree with the sentiments of Writer #1 even though I don’t write fanfic. It’s an amazing feeling to get emails from total strangers about how my story moved them to tears. Just… wow. I read my work in its published form and I feel like someone else wrote it.

  19. Oh, having a patron would be…marvelous. I would still have writing time structure. My husband is a teacher, and I find it difficult to write with him in the house. But I know exactly how I would structure that day, including walks, how I would set up the workstation (laptop writing fries my lap after a while), and when I would work on first draft and when I would edit (I know I would have more than one project going at a time). I have a list of nearly 40 books I plan to write (a good thing Nana lived to be 97, I may need that amount of time).

  20. Travel’s always been my first drug of choice, and, since I was around 28, writing has always been my second.

    I love my job, but I’m not getting a lot of writing done. This is more a function of health than job, though.

    I’m not sure if I would love being a full-time writer with a patron. Those relationships tend to involve power struggles, and I’m really not into that. If it didn’t, it might be interesting. Catch is, I’d probably be doing a lot more travel essay and possibly less fiction.

  21. I would write a whole trilogy so I could shape it properly rather than mostly shaping it properly because of the exigencies of publishing the earlier parts before I’ve finished with the later parts.

  22. If money ceased to be a concern I’d probably still write, but different things, and probably less. And I’m not sure I’d ever finish anything.

  23. This question was circulating somewhere a little while back, and I came to the conclusion: yes, I’d still write, because it’s what I do. But I would rarely push beyond the hard parts, and more rarely still, finish anything. But there would be writing–sporadic, intense, mad, incoherent, incomplete, and solely from the id. Like almost everything I wrote before I got serious about trying to sell anything.

  24. Oh, wait. Sorry. Wrong answer. The question that was going around previously was “would you write if you *knew* you would never be published again.”

    I don’t think much would change for me under your question, actually. I might eschew contracts on proposal and just write on spec, but that might be about it.

  25. I’m late to the party, but I would still write, even if I had a patron. So far, the money I earn with my writing is not a whole lot, so I basically view it as a nice extra.

    I would probably spend more time on projects that are difficult to impossible to sell and are basically “just for fun”. I might even write fanfiction again, which I did quite a bit before I knew that other people did the same and that there actually was a name for it. I gave up fanfiction once I got serious about writing and banished the fanfic impulse to daydreaming, unless it would transform into something so far removed from the source material that the serial numbers could be safely filed off.

    I’m not sure if I would continue to write academic non-fiction. I probably would, but only if the subject absolutely fascinated me. I definitely would give up translating, because it consumes many of the writing braincells and because I really don’t care about 98 percent of the tech and business stuff I translate. Most of it is not even useful as story fodder. That’s something I do purely for the money.

    I would probably still teach a few hours a week, because I like the interaction. But if money wasn’t an issue, I would only do classes I really want to do, e.g. the creative writing workshop for teens that I’ve been trying to implement for years now. Or in a university setting, I would do all of those offbeat classes I would love to teach, rather than take what I can get.

  26. I’d want a lump sum in my account, enough to live comfortable – all bills paid, and a little extra to spend as I like on holidays and books, and then some more so I can save up for my next car etc. The idea that the patronage might end and leave me without income (only with a hole in my CV) is, quite honestly, a bit frightening and would ot be conductive to work.

    Would I write? Hell, yes. I write anyway, but the ability to write when I want rather than having to go to the dayjob or doing freelance work or looking for copyediting clients sounds like bliss to me. Instead of needing to do income-generating things I could concentrate on writing – polish & self-publish an older work, polish and submit the one that I think has commercial potential, work on the WIP, and finish- just because *I* want to know what happens – a couple of things that are unlikely to gain a paying audience.

    I find that I am *more* productive, much more productive when I’m not worrying about how I pay my bills. Right now, that means having freelance work (and having freelance work means that I can’t cash in on the enthusiasm and ideas).

    Would I *not* work? Probably not. The best freelance jobs are energising, they open new avenues. Engaging with another writer’s skills, *having* to engage with them word by word and sentence by sentence is wonderful; reading, in depth and several times over, a scholarly work on a topic that I would not have picked up on my own account equally expands my world; I would not want to give that up completely, though I would choose to donate part of the fee so that _someone else_ might write (and live) without anxiety.

  27. When I was unemployed, I didn’t write notably more than now. If anything, I wrote less, because I had so little structure to my days; my sleep schedule was haphazard and mostly nocturnal, I’d lose track of what day it was, and I found it incredibly easy to spend hours faffing about on the internet instead of doing anything productive. So I think that, if I had a patron, I would still want to work a part-time job, or volunteer regularly somewhere, or something to keep me on a regular externally motivated schedule and to make sure I interacted with other people face to face. Not only do I feel better when I have that, but it keeps me in touch with a broader variety of people, and I think that makes me a better writer. If I had a patron, I’d still write, and I think nowadays I would consciously structure my time to make sure I did write more, but I would have to consciously structure it.

    I don’t write primarily for the money; maybe in the future, that will become more of a motivating factor, but at the moment I’ve had all of one story published. (Which I’m still delighted by!) Most of my experience in having other people read my writing has been in fanfic, which is, as others have said, much better about instant response. Which means that I think of my day job as the thing that pays the bills, and writing as a hobby I do for myself.

    But neither am I one of those people who has to write stories, has to get her words down on paper. I am, in a way — I have to play with words, I have to write things in my head, I have to turn language over in my brain and in my mouth and in my fingers, and play what-if with places and people and ideas. But the reason I write those stories down and try to make them into finished products is so that I can share them with other people. I want them to like my creations, and to say “Oh, cool” to the ideas and turns of phrase that I said oh, cool! to my own brain about.

  28. I like Nancy Jane Moore’s comment. It reminds me of all the things I need to do besides write: concerts, museums, walks, reading, thinking. Something else to structure into my life, now that I have time.

    I spent most of my working life working part time or saving money and quitting to write full time, then getting another job when the money ran out. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew writing was financially risky. It seemed smarter to have a day job and write what I wanted, when I wanted. It meant that I never had enough writing time, but it enabled me to walk away from contracts I didn’t like and to take all the time necessary to do a good job.

    It’s unsettling to know I may never have another day job. But I am writing more, and I think that’s my priority right now.

    Why to I write? Because I always have, since childhood; and I like the attention; and I think making art is an important job, worth doing; and because it helps me deal with a difficult world.

  29. I would LOVE to have a patron, but I would still probably have a job, even if a volunteer duty.

    I need to have time I can’t be writing to write well. But I do just fine producing without financial motivation, I think. I want readers more than anything.

  30. Person 4’s final assertion sounds to me more like an ideal world than the real one. I think truly, genuinely, amazing writers get overlooked rather than sought out all the time.

    (Especially if they leave their genius in a computer file or a desk drawer somewhere and don’t show anyone. but since they were published at some point, they clearly didn’t do that.)

    And wouldn’t a patron be rather like explicit recognition of one’s work, in that case?

    My short answer is, I’ve been tested on this through a number of circumstances, and I write through almost anything, to greater or lesser degree. The biggest roadblock has been time spent on other creative work, and generally, without a patron, or class time, or a specific deadline, writing wins over any other creative project. Period. I don’t fear I will stop.

    Of course, I don’t write for money, yet. My writing income over the past 11 years has been less than half, possibly less than a third, of my art income, and the latter wouldn’t pay all the bills for one of the larger out-of-town conventions.

    I want readers. Which requires several steps beyond merely writing to acquire, but also means I must write. The projects on my computer, however finished they look, aren’t finished until someone who isn’t merely a supportive relative for friend or fellow workshopper reads them.

    But more specifically:

    Most people seem to be taking patronage as a pressure free windfall of money and free time? I pretty much have that until roughly November (Not much money, but no worry on bills. I’m working part time and the pressure is definitely off for making me do too much other labour, so to speak, on my off hours, until then.)

    Even knowing this specific of windfall of time has a decided deadline, and what I wanted to accomplish by then, I write a bit less than is ideal for the number of free hours, but I make decent progress. I’m not sure how it adds up against how much I write during a full-time day job; when I work full-time, less time per computer session is used on internet and random fluff, but the hours are flat-out fewer.

    However, I feel a *patron*, a person behind the money, would give me pressure *to* produce something. After all, they would question what the purpose of their money was if I didn’t. I don’t think I’d feel pressure to produce specific work to please them (I can’t produce on commission now, why would I then?), but if they’ve decided to pay me, they’ve clearly already decided they trust the work I produce on my own. But I would feel the pressure that someone out there *expected* work to come of this.

    Of course, I’d then want to negotiate what the terms of their expectations are. A minimum word count in a week (and does that change when editing?) Or a minimum number of hours at a desk per week, barring emergencies? Sticking to a specific project even when another one calls? And that’;s without worrying about how it fit with other aspects of life and family and priorities.

    Yes, I would look a gift horse in the mouth. Because, as green_knight said, there’s always the possibility of the patronage vanishing if I don’t hold up my end.

    Of course, if I need that kind of “a patron is watching” pressure for anything, it would be the pottery and painting. Because, again, the writing happens anyhow. The art… gets set aside more than it should, considering I know how it feels like it fills a gap in my life.

  31. Art is worth doing–oh yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    Lenora Rose: as I recall, Person 4’s context was a bit of sour grapes, judging from later comments on other things. It was apparent that that writer resented the success of persons considered ‘lesser’ writers, and spoke a great deal of denigration of ‘Tolclones’ and ‘crap sf’ and ‘cookie cutter,’ whoring and ambulance chasing after agents and editors.

  32. I treasure person # 4’s remark, because it seems so perfect of its kind; and it reminds me that writing is work — putting words on paper, getting criticism, networking with other writiers, finding an agent, establishing relationships with editors, learning everything one can about the business of writing.

    I have done far too little of all of the above, and I think it’s hurt me. But at least I know where I have gone wrong. Though I wouldn’t write cookie cutter fiction, though I often write fiction that uses the cliches of science fiction and fantasy. I think that’s called metafiction or writing within a tradition.

  33. I don’t think any writer sets out to write cookie cutter fiction.

    Most every writer I’ve met thought their work special, even if it was something that someone else scorned as cliche from plot to prose.

    In recent years my view of literature has changed. I see it more as a long conversation, in which the so-called cookie cutter book is participating just like any other, but perhaps from a phatic position, that is, reiterating points, affirming points, spreading points while adding their own emphasis?

    The “greats” are the one who cause the bends in the stream, or branches.

    Well, that made sense in my head, anyway.

    On the third tentacle, when I think back about Writer 4 (who angered most people there, but no one was more angry than 4 was themself) I wonder if that statement that if one is really talented enough, or has something trule great to say that the world comes to you wasn’t in some wise a harsh self-judgment.

  34. Of -course- the ideal career arc would be like Jimmy Thudpucker’s, in DOONESBURY: overnight success at the age of 16. It would be much much more fun to not have to hustle, market, submit work, or trim your sail to the needs of the marketplace. If that happens to you, fine. What if it doesn’t? At that point you have to either do more, or bail out. In a class I taught recently, a pupil complained about harsh critiques. I suggested that there is no way to get away from them; if your editor doesn’t supply rejection slips then the comments on Amazon will.

  35. I love discussions about writing. I can go on for days…

    If one is very frustrated and angry with one’s writing career, one may say, “New York and cruel fate has destroyed a brilliant career. And to make sure the career is destroyed, I will stop writing.” This is obviously self-destructive. But if one is angry enough, self-destruction becomes a way to express anger and maybe even get anger out.

    There is something very intimidating about writing for many people, and they do screw up as writers, though the rest of their life may be in control.

  36. This is true. And that is another factor, the “New York is at fault” one. Mostly I’ve seen it from frustrated writers who have yet to make that first sale–New York is at fault because all they want is cookie-cutter, pablum, vampires, they are afraid of edge, they are afraid of real creativity, they want stupid instead of elegant prose, you name it I’ve seen it. And it’s not always unpublished writers, as Writer 4 demonstrated.

    My observation after so many decades of hanging out with writers all along the publication axis is that nobody sets out to write pablum. In fact, most feel that they are writing literature.

    (Though I can’t help but wonder what Barbara Cartland really thought of her stuff, along about book 400.)

  37. I was in the position where I could write unlimited and have my comforts met. I would write days and nights; hermit myself away. Rejections stung double-hurt because I couldn’t help but berate myself: You don’t even have the excuse of not having enough time to write something good.

    I did find the time creatively productive, but it felt dangerous. I definitely made myself ill. Also, I believe being alone so much drastically reduces input, and it’s those little interactions in daily routine life that often spark something to make a story.

  38. Moof, that is an excellent point. How many books by a given writer have you read that gradually gave you the sense that the person had locked themself in an ivory tower, surrounded by comforts, and so were resorting to repeated themes, characters, anhd stereotypical situations?

    That other aspect is one of the downsides of writing: it can hurt just as much when one is summarily rejected after squeezing out five and seven minute snatches, shorting sleep, etc.