Writing for Money, Writing for No Money

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As I write this post, I am supposed to be writing something else. I have been struggling to finish the “something else” for four days. It’s a short piece, something I know I’m capable of running off in a few hours. But instead I have swept the kitchen floor, finished a jar of jam, walked to CVS, called my parents, opened another jar of jam. This should be a familiar situation to anyone who has ever procrastinated doing anything.

But there’s another distinction between the writing I’m doing on this website and the writing I’m supposed to be doing: for writing the thing I’ve been putting off, I will eventually get paid. Not a lot, but more than zero dollars. And I wonder if that is part of the reason writing it has been like pulling teeth.

Technical writers, business writers, and grant writers take it for granted that their work will be paid, that writing is a skill that has monetary value. Poets and fiction writers, on the other hand, even as they begin to publish in good places, can never quite assume that a check will be in the mail. Especially now, some of the most interesting online places – where your work is perhaps more likely to be read by all your friends than in even the best print journal – don’t pay. What difference does this make to our writing, and how we think of it as work?

“I’m working,” or “I have to get back to work,” you have probably gchatted to someone who has interrupted your morning writing time (and what were you doing with that window open, huh?) and subsequently you might have felt a little dishonest as you glanced at your messy Word document and then clicked on “Can Men Breast Feed?” Calling our creative efforts work can be, variously, a way to impress our non-writer friends, a way to legitimize ourselves to ourselves, a way to apologize to the rest of the world for the fact that we actually kind of enjoy what we do, and many other things. But no matter what the word does for us, we probably have fewer doubts about it when it comes attached to some USD.

For most poets and fiction writers, of course, any money that elevates our work for the rest of the world probably comes after years of unpaid toil, if at all. There’s something freeing as well as frustrating in that fact – even if your mother gives you a side-eye when you disappear from a family gathering in order “to get some work done,” and even if a family friend sends you a congratulatory postcard upon hearing you have “sold a poem” (it happened to me), it’s nice to know that in the meantime, you can experiment, you can mess up, and you can take as long as you want.

But that’s just me, a worried person who hates to pull all-nighters. Is your writing work? Does your answer change based on whether you’ve been paid lately? What do you say when someone asks you what you “do”?

As I Lay Dying (While Working The Night Shift At This Power Plant)

Faulkner in a rare leisurely moment.

You may have recently heard that James Franco has bulldozed, ahem, directed, written, and starred in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But does Franco know that Faulkner finished the novel while working the night shift at a power plant? “His primary motivation was to have long periods of uninterrupted time for his own work” (sound familiar?) and he wrote the novel in only six weeks.

1929, as it happens, was a banner year for Faulkner: he also wrote Sanctuary, published Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, and wrote a fair amount of short fiction. Another day job of Faulkner’s was working as the postmaster at Ole Miss–by all accounts, he was terrible at it.

Did Faulkner care about work-life balance? Did he stress, maybe, about whether he should have looked for a more permanent job? Unclear. But it was about this time that he would say: “Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.”

In sum: back to work.