The Intonation of Shame

The impossible dream for most writers is to actually make money writing.  I can’t imagine how many times I’ve been told through my years of studies that I’m working really hard but I’ll just end up in food service—by the way, I worked in restaurants for fourteen years and still really miss that work, so this is not to say that a career in food service is unimportant or unfulfilling (though at times it can be very thankless).  The point is that still when I say I want to make a living as a writer, I am brushed off by family and friends as if I’d asked for a unicorn for my birthday:  “Great dreams, kid, but let’s be realistic.”

Over the past year, this has been further complicated by colleagues and peers.  I have said on many occasions, “If I have to make money writing calendars and Valentines’ cards, that’s what I’ll do.”  But then comes a sort of slut-shaming of writers; “If you take a job like that, you’re a sellout.”  Nobody ever says that phrase, but it is intoned.  If you take a job where you are producing anything less than your greatest works, you are not to be a respected writer.  At AWP last year, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

Person A:  I just got offered a job writing for Buzzfeed!

Person B:  Ugh, don’t tell me you’re going to write those stupid lists.

Person A:  No, I’m going to write articles.

Person B:  As long as you don’t write those stupid fucking lists.

Without knowing either party, I was super stoked for A, then felt really bad for A, then decided that B was being incredibly judgmental when they should have been happy for the friend getting a job writing that actually included getting paid.  I was bummed for A.  Whatever you feel about those lists, congratulations seemed in order. Over the last year a fellow fiction writer posted an article to several poets’ Facebook timelines including my own; the article was about a small group of poets that were getting work at weddings and corporate events for writing personalized haikus on demand.  The group members in the article were making money doing something fun and it actually involved writing.  I remember one response to the article was that we shouldn’t espouse the corporatization of poetry.  Beyond the fact I don’t think this group of poets was “corporatizing” anything, it still begs the question:  Why would that be so bad?

And then there’s the other side of the spectrum.  A woman recently asked me how to publish her children’s books (which she had not completed yet).  As I started to answer—this is the research you need to do, these are some options—she interrupted me, wanting to know how she could make just “a little money” off the project.  I shot her hopes down immediately.  “You can’t go into writing to make money.  No one makes money.  For every Stephen King there are a million good writers that don’t make a dime.”  This is the reality I realized I had accepted for her:  Even calendars and cards are too hard to make a living at if you aren’t willing to put in the time, research, and effort, so buck up sweetheart cause unicorns won’t be making an appearance before the cake.  I’ve known this woman a long time, and she goes through bursts of creative energy evidenced by abandoned kilns, canvases, and metal working tools in her garage.  For her, I don’t think there is a way to make “a little money” let alone a living because she doesn’t have the commitment to hard work and rejection that is required of a writer.  There is no doubt she is an artist, but for now she needs to have her dreams crushed.

That’s the thing.  In today’s writing community, there are those who prefer to be elitist, see their work as pure and above monetary compensation (well, not above it, but there have been no excellent offers yet).  There are those like me, that are willing to pump out droll to get a reference, the experience, some edge.  But it isn’t an impossible dream to make money as a writer—it isn’t even impossible to make money and maintain your artistic integrity—just don’t knock others who are writing for a living though not creating writing you enjoy, because somebody enjoys it, and that’s why we can get paid.  As a writing community, we should understand these struggles.  Leave the shame, and instead, support each other.

-Jess Marshall