Writing for a living is hard, for all new reasons

At the LA Times, Dani Shapiro writes an article about how it used to be that writing as a career was difficult because of the time commitment involved for success, and now you don't even get that. She writes:
The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all.
Bleak? Yes. Truthful? Absolutely. Sure, a major house can support the literary equivalent of Arrested Development, and keep saying, "Everyone loves it! It'll break out!" But eventually, all those jerkwads who looooove the show but don't bother to actually watch it while it's on (or buy the book when it first comes out) snowball and everything goes out of business. And, for realsies, the Arrested Development model almost never happens, in books or on TV.

This brings me to the inevitable question: if you're not doing it for profit or being published, voluntarily or otherwise, are you still a writer? This question is posed in relation to Salinger--he wrote a handful of books and then stopped publishing (but we can now assume kept writing). Can you quit being a writer, or is it like being in the Mob? And is it the act of writing that makes you count, or the recognition of credibility through being published?


  1. Although I admit to more or less buying into the model that publishing is the way people distinguish between "real writers" and people who call themselves "writers," it seems pretty snobbish. (Definitely all the non-writers in my life see publishing as validation.) When you read interviews with writers (real writers) nobody says, "I write because I want to get published." It's usually something about a drive to tell stories or investigate the unknown or whatever. Artsy-fartsy stuff.

    Maybe we're all a bunch of liars. Maybe, insecure and insular as writers tend to be, we can't help but seek that outside approval/reward for these things we do. Or maybe we all want the book deals, the fame, the money and the "commitment to our art" is what we say drives us in the meantime...

  2. I've been published in magazines; I'm a freelance journalist; I blog every day; and I make my living in communications...but I am not to the point in my career where I tell people, "I'm a writer."

    So I guess I'm guilty of viewing the finish line as the publishing industry pushes it: You're a writer when you make it big with us.

    Of course, half the time I hate whatever writing is "big and mainstream," so it's not like I'm striving to be that either.

    Thanks for confusing me even more.

  3. Give me the fortune, hold the fame. I might write for fun, but for now, I stupidly write for money.

  4. I have been paid for my writing but never enough to make a living at it. It has been 15 years since my last sale (to write and produce a film that never got made). I have never stopped writing but have stopped selling.
    Writing is simply a part of me. My writing has never been for money. I once wrote a local Baton Rouge TV show for one dollar a week. As I look back I believe my writing is more about being a control freak than fame or money. In a world that can be down right rude it is nice to have a world that makes sense. Even if that world is only in your own head.

  5. I found SarahAnn's comment interesting... I call myself a writer even though I've never been published. Because I write. So I'm an unpublished writer. (But if I had my blog on Wordpress, would I be a published writer? On Wordpress you "publish" your ramblings rather than "post" them.)

    What I wouldn't call myself is an author. That, to me, implies publication of something book-length. Whether you can legitimately call yourself an author if you self-pub is a thorny problem I've seen discussed on other blogs.

    I don't see how else I could describe myself to clients, or to friends who ask what I'm doing these days. "I'm a freelance writer" conveys the essence of my day, and hopefully leads to a conversation about what kind of writing I do and how I can be of use to them. And having only just started to dip my toe into some creative projects of my own, I still have no clue how to talk about myself as a creative writer.

  6. I rarely admit to my writing side. I find it difficult to explain to the average person the writing process without me feeling like a failure. The average money, the time it takes to write one book or screenplay, the time between success, the need for a "real" job to support yourself because most of us are not James Patterson, all result in such a sad look of pity from whoever I am talking to that only my closest friends and people I am trying to sell my work to know I write.

  7. I read Dani's concise and well-meaning article a day or two after it was published in the LATimes. I bit my lip and said this was a more dire summary of the writer's dilemma than I had read anyplace up until now. Then I went back to writing with more confidence--and hope--than ever before.