Ever been asked why you write if there’s no money in it?
A Writer’s Intervention
There is such a thing as a stupid question. I get asked the same one all the time.
“Why waste your time writing fiction? Don’t you know there’s no money in it anymore?”
There’s no mockery in this well-wisher’s tone, only concern. They ask with all the sincerity of, “Can’t you see, you’re drinking is killing you?”
The well-wisher holds an impromptu intervention challenging my life decisions. They put me through the Socratic method, pulling apart my reasons like Russian dolls, dismissing every one that could be open to interpretation. They keep looking for a motivation they can understand.
“Why not take all the skills you learned building your author’s platform and go into marketing?”
The well-wisher thinks the move from writing narratives to writing copy is a vertical transition, that coming up with a story and a content strategy are the exact same thing, that dialogue written for dramas and advertisements are equally engaging.
They see writing across genres as a diversity of brand voice. They see putting in your 2k a day as a clear workflow. They see editing as back end development.
They think that intensely personal memoirs and top ten lists are created equally, that the words are interchangeable, that all writing should have the same goal: get the reader to open their hearts by way of their billfold.
If your thought cloud doesn’t have a dollar sign on it, the well-wisher brushes it away. Having pursued financial incentives long enough, they forgot why people do things for any other reason. They only understand you if you’re trying to get paid, laid, or famous.
Conjuring up a smile, I rub my hands together. “Yeah but, there’s this story I have to tell…” I give them my pitch like my dignity depends on it. When their eyes roll, I warp my story to fit their sightline.
The well-wisher gives my life’s work a wishy-washy hand gesture. “Tell it in your free time. Trust me, I know people who’ve been published. They’re dirt poor. The printed word has no future.”
Their anecdote about a small publisher releasing a book with no promotion has become the best case scenario they tell everyone. They warn me about going down the same road, for they have found the dead end.
I try to tell them that they found a dead end, that their are brand new avenues for authors to pursue.
Shaking their head, they give that look that’s both a smile and a frown. Signing their tab, they calculate for tip. “If you ever want to eat again, you need to apply this talent of yours to digital content creation.”
I see flashes of headlines on a thumbnail grid, over pictures of movie stars, kittens, and kids. They’re all some variation of “AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.” Feeling ill, my inner punk persona wants to bubble to the service. I want to Hulk out, flip the table, and quote Bill Hicks. Instead, I just sit there and take it. In the absence of a rebuttal, the well-wisher believes my argument has been defeated.
When it comes to finger painting, parents nurture their children’s creativity. When the time comes to purchase an easel, they suggest an alternate activity.
I imagine this reaction transcends artistic mediums. The well-wishers of the world see your sketchpads and think you’re hoarding. They hear your demo tape and think it’s a cry for help. They watch your monologue and wonder why you’re talking to yourself.
The well-wishers want to help with your recovery, and the first step is to figure how to fit your artistic pursuits into a job with a suit. Do you like to draw? Get a job in design. Do you make music? Get a job writing jingles for commercials. Do you like to act? Get in front of a white backdrop and shill.
It’s not about living your dream, it’s about defining your brand. It’s not about getting your message out there, it’s about establishing a presence. It’s not about inspiring people, it’s about making sales.
To them, the highest form of human communication is a dollar exchanging hands.
When I was young, it was easier to get away with doing things just to do them. While I thought I was bringing something to life, the well-wishers thought I was killing time. It didn’t matter if I was writing pros or playing Super Mario, I was being quiet and I wasn’t breaking anything. When the well-wishers saw a division of labor between my art and homework, they saw cause for concern. When I was filling notebooks with poems while my peers filled out college applications, the well-wishers confronted me about my addictions. The time had come to put away childish things.
When I went off on my own, my actions suddenly required an explanation.
Roommates would ask, “Why are you smashing frozen vegetables in the bath tub?”
Prying my hammer out of the bunch of celery, I hit the pause button on my cassette recorder. “Because I needed something that sounds like bones snapping.”
Bystanders would ask, “Why do you keep stopping every few steps to set up your tripod in the middle of the sidewalk?”
Taking a snapshot, I glanced up from the viewfinder. “I’m making a stop-motion music video by walking the length of Hennepin Avenue.”
Park patrons would ask, “Why does your football have a power screwdriver sticking out the back?”
Mounting the contraption beneath my telephoto lens, I flicked the switch, letting the ball spin. “So I can show the world what a groin hit looks like from the football’s point of view.”
I got accustomed to their look of confusion.
My Relationship with Money
At family gatherings, I let the well-wishers define my blogging as some form of training. On Thanksgiving, they went around the table giving suggestions.
“You like movies, right? You could write reviews for a living.”
“You like giving advice, have you looked into life coaching?”
“You like technology, I just saw an ad looking for someone to write code for smartphone apps.”
I rub my forehead, “‘Write’ is a verb with many meanings, literature and programming languages are not the same thing.”
Any time I mention I’ve had a successful article they point out the black hole at the end of my rainbow.
“Now if there was only a way you could turn that into a paycheck.”
Money and I are spending some time apart. We were never madly in love. I was never rolling in it. It played hard to get and I got tired of pursuing it. It didn’t leave me broke, we’re just on a break. Of course my parents don’t understand. They thought we were good for each other, but really I’m just no good with it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for things to work out between us. I’d love to write a novel that woos the riches out of the world. I’d love for my debut to dispense with all my debts, for release date riches to release me from rent, for premiere profits to payback my parents.
I just can’t have money be the focus in my writing room. It makes a terrible muse. It never has an original idea. The unfamiliar scares it. Its notes suggest I change my story to resemble a young adult film franchise. Money talks, it prattles on and on.
Money can be sweet when it wants to. It’s always so much more attractive in someone else’s embrace. It’s hard to call its suitors “sellouts” with a straight face. Every writer wants love. Every writer wants to get paid.
Why Write, if not for the Money?
Because my mind is a frontier worth exploring, a genome worth mapping, a record of all my findings. I need to show my evidence, to externalize my emotions, to share my experience with someone, with everyone. It would be such a shame for this vision to go to waste, for this spark to fade before anyone can see it, for this brainstorm to run down the gutter into a puddle of pipe dreams.
Inspiration is my incentive. Creativity is my currency. Revelations are my restitution.
I do this because I have a hypothesis to test, a hunch to lay to rest, an experiment in artistic inventiveness. Every canvas comes with its own discovery, every study piques my curiosity, and every brush stroke an epiphany.
Brainchildren are my benefactors. Daydreams are my directors. Ideas are my investors.
I do this because I enjoy experiencing the fruits of my labor as I’m tending to them. In this result driven world, sometimes the process is the payment. Sometimes mastering a new medium feels like an accomplishment, even if I don’t show it to anyone.
The world needs disruptive innovators if it’s ever going to change. Franchises have turned into dynasties with simultaneous sequels, reboots, and spinoffs veering into their own realities. Hollywood keeps trying to sell our old action figures back to us. Actors who’ve played the same role are stepping on each others toes. I want to put my disgust to use.
I do this because I’m not satisfied with the offerings on the billboard, bestseller, or box office list. I don’t hear myself in their lyrics. I don’t find myself on their pages. I don’t see myself on their screens. I imagine I’m not the only one looking for something worth relating to. Something that took the words right out of our mouths, said what we all were thinking, and told it like it was.
I will pursue my foolish endeavor, until I’m wise for my efforts. I will write until I’ve written the book I’ve been waiting to read. Life is short. Art is long. Writing is telepathy, and my thoughts will be my legacy.
Why do I do what I do, if not for money? If you still have to ask, then you’ll never know.