Why are you doing this?

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg.  Not terribly romantic.

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. Not terribly romantic.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by bad news these days.  Financial problems, health care ‘debate’ incivility, bombings in subway stations, natural disasters…. it’s grim, and seemingly ubiquitous. Writers and booksellers are no stranger to dire predictions and this week two articles were brought to my attention. One was a blog post from New York Times bestsellers list author, Lynn Viehl, talking about the financial reality of that accomplishment.  By which I mean even with that notable “success” she made very little money.  When you take into account what agents take, and taxes, and so forth, if she were dependent solely on her income from this book she would qualify, she says in a follow-up blog, for food stamps. And she’s on the New York Times bestseller list, people.

In another article, this one from the Telegraph, called Apoco-lit now the author talks of the dwindling advances received by writers.

“An advance of £20,000 is now considered generous, though that is not enough for authors whose work may take years. Writers are now paying for the excesses of the past.”

Well, that might sound like a decent wad of cash, yes?  Roughly $30,000.  But I ask you to consider how many hours it takes to write a book.  Let’s say it takes, on average, four years to see a book from conception to arriving in the bookstores.  And believe me, I’m being optimistic here.  But let’s say.  Okay, a $30,000 advance is, let’s see… $7,500 a year.  Don’t quit your day job.  I know an author who has recently published a very successful first novel.  She worked on it for eleven years.  She received a $20,000 advance.  You figure it out.  I can’t.  It makes my eyes bleed.

I was asked recently to answer some questions for a website called “SheWrites”a terrific social networking site for women writers.  One of the questions they asked me was about writer’s block, and led to a discussion of the fear of being silenced by “the business.”  I talked about how, a few years ago, when a manuscript was rejected by publishers, I fell into a horrible loss-of-faith-and-meaning depression.  As a writer, if I couldn’t publish again, what would I do?  Who was I, in fact?  I had invested so much in the idea of myself as a Real Writer, by which I meant a successfully published one. Up until that moment I thought I had surrendered to The Writer’s Life, but I hadn’t.  Not to all of it.  Oh, I’d surrendered to the sorrow of never quite writing the book you imagine, and to difficulties with agents and publishers, to envy over other writers getting bigger advances and better reviews, etc.; to the stresses of book tours, and bad sales, and the general disappointment that floods in when the publishing experience isn’t what we think it will be; BUT I hadn’t surrendered to the  possibility (inevitability) that once having been invited to the party, I might (will) be uninvited.

I thought, I can’t do this anymore.  I quit. And so I stopped writing, blocked by the business end of this life.  Or, I tried to stop.  What I discovered after several AWFUL months was that, publish or not publish, as crazy as the business makes me, I’m actually less crazy when I’m writing than when I’m not writing.  And so, I learned to surrender to a deeper level.  To write again regardless of the publishing outcome.

So the question one must ask oneself then is why are you doing this? Or, if you’re a theater type:  What’s my motivation? And this question applies not only to writers wondering why they keep writing in the face of such glum news, but  for anyone faced with opposition and few prospects for material/cultural ‘success’ in their chosen field.

Trevor Cole, who is a mighty fine writer, responds this way:

“…our job is not to fret about the markets for our work but simply to create the work to the best of our ability. The more I read the paper or the internet about the success or failure of other writers or the future of books in general, the less happy I am, because it’s nothing I can control. It just creates anxiety. The more I focus on the act of creation, which I can control, the happier I am.”

Trevor’s right.  In my case, I might replace the word ‘happier’ with ‘saner’ or ‘more useful’ but the idea is the same. So, I thought about that and followed my feet over to a noon meeting for folks who, like myself, try to get through the day without drinking and/or drugs.  The person leading this meeting wanted to talk about “The Serenity Prayer,” the one adapted from a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, which goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We often add, “Thy will, Lord, not mine, be done.” I think we add that because it’s often quite difficult to differentiate between what we can change, what we can’t, and what we shouldn’t change even if we can.

Concentrating here, rather than 'out there' is a far healthier option for me

Concentrating here, rather than 'out there' is a far healthier option for me

In our age of instant information and endless outlets for bad ‘news’ it’s easy to fall into cynicism and despair, but as Trevor said, that only takes our focus away from our lives, from our creativity, from the wonder of where we are right now, right this very second.

I’m so glad he reminded me of that.  I’ll get some writing done this afternoon.

As a footnote, I suspect Garrison Keillor, in this lovely little essay, agrees…


  1. Susie on March 31, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Oh my. It’s all horribly true. I am “relaunching” my career
    with a new agent and a strategy, after several years hiatus during
    which I got divorced, cared for someone ill, raised a child, etc, and
    I was horrified to hear what they’re paying for books now.

    So I’ll learn to budget. I would like to insert a smiley face here,
    but I won’t.

  2. Karen on March 31, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I can very much relate to the despair and urge to give up you discuss so eloquently. I’m unpublished and was laid low with disappointment when the big-name agent who had requested and read my mystery novel ultimately passed a few years ago. In the interim, I did write some short stories, but even that went by the wayside when I was diagnosed with breast cancer – surgery, chemo, reconstruction, and going back to work took a lot of focus and I just wasn’t there. Since then, I’ve been doing much more writing and reopened my search for an agent. I joined a new writing group and started a blog, as well. I still want to be published – I’m still working toward that goal, but the enjoying the process is very important to me. Life has enough anguish without creating more!

  3. lucky 8 on March 31, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful essay. I agree that it can be easy to fall into being cynical, but as you suggest, focusing our energy in more positive and creative directions is ultimately more personally fulfilling.

  4. Lauren B. Davis on April 1, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Susie, and Karen… I’m so touched by all you’ve been through, and by how dedicated you obviously are to your writing. I want to encourage you. Keep going. I can think of no better way to live one’s life than as a writer (for those of us who are so inclined!). I’ve been through a few (more than a few) rough patches in my own life, and it’s the writing which has seen me through, helped me cope, and made meaning of it all. And it’s these experiences which fuel our work, don’t you think? Keep going… and keep me posted, won’t you? As writers, we need to support each other.

  5. Marva on April 1, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I’d take the $20K in a New York minute. Since I’m writing full-time (when not goofing off) it sounds like pretty good pay to me.

    However, I get your point. Writers who need the income (and haven’t hit the big time yet) better find a day job.

  6. Pretty Dresses on April 2, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    A honestly felt, beautifully articulated and oh-too-true column,
    Lauren. If writers like you are having trouble with publishing,
    what hope is there for the rest of us? But the Trevor quote puts it
    all in perspective. I think sometimes the only solution is for
    writers to pull some version of United Artists, band together to
    publish and share the proceeds. The inherent problem there is that
    writers are not always the best businesspeople. Maybe there is
    something to the Kindle revolution though, some increased control
    of the means of production.

    • Lauren B. Davis on April 3, 2010 at 6:26 am

      I so agree with you “Pretty Dresses” (Ha!) about the United Artists option (and have written about that elsewhere, on a blog about self-publishing). As for the business-minded folk, well, like Virginia Woolf, some of us are lucky enough to have married WONDERFUL business-minded people. It could work. Perhaps we should start this conversation in earnest — including that certain person who lives in France still. Do we dare? Think about it and get in touch…. xoxo

  7. Lynne Spreen on April 5, 2010 at 9:49 am

    I already went thru the “who am I if not a (fill in occupation here)” when I left my career specialty as a Human Resources exec. It took me TEN YEARS to finally give up the last vestiges of that pretense (I did HR consulting on the side while trying to build a writing career). Finally I told my consulting partner, “No more.” I am now proudly, hopelessly out of date and incompetent with HR, but I am becoming a really good writer. So who, essentially, am I? Former HR pro? Aspiring novelist? Nope. I’m a girl named Lynne.

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