A couple of years back when I returned to Mississippi for a class reunion, I got asked all sorts of questions about my writing career. I hadn’t seen the woman I was staying with in well over fifty years. As children we were very close. She had in those fifty years apart collected five grown sons and a lot of grandchildren. At dinner one evening, her oldest son looked me in the eyes and asked, “How long did it take you before you made any money in the field of writing?”
That is a provocative question because income is a very elusive part of the writing game. Most people just want to write. They are hoping that some fairy godmother or godfather will drop out of the sky and make them rich and famous. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
I answered the question by replying that I was forty years old before I ever made any money to speak of in writing. I’ve answered this question many times before and I always know the reaction to my answer. It’s a follow-up question that asks how long did I keep at writing before I had any income. In my case, the answer is that I started writing when I was about twelve years old. Then I do the math for them. It took me twenty-eight years. This was not the encouraging news my friend’s son wanted to hear because his daughter was studying for a Masters of Fine Arts in college. He said, “Well, I guess she can always teach.”
Most often after I have answered those two questions, the topic drastically changes to discussing a movie everyone has seen or wants to see or some restaurant they’ve just visited. In other words, most normal people think one is a bit balmy to spend 28 years trying something and not getting ahead. It’s kind of like Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results .”
I suppose that qualifies me as crazy. However, I suppose some people have bought lottery tickets for 28 years and have never won anything over five or ten dollars. Then they would have to be thought of as crazy too.
That’s the writing game for you. It’s a lottery game. Some people win the jackpot right away and others it takes a little bit shy of forever to kick in—if indeed it ever does. Writing (like buying lottery tickets) is addictive.
Writing generally starts out as a hobby—such as it did when I was twelve years old. After a certain period of time though, you begin thinking about ways to make money out of this pastime. You then try sending what you’ve written off to people in hopes of gaining exposure. In the process, you continue learning as much as you can about the profession with the longing that some “yes” person will nod in your direction.
I suppose there are those who keep journals and write but never try to do anything with their literary output. Writing is kind of a catharsis for them so they’re not part of this discussion.
Most writers though are just like lottery ticket buyers. The money connection becomes very much a part of the equation. I can safely say that at one point in a serious writer’s life, the word marketing must take precedence over what you are writing. It has to or you will never make a dime out of your efforts. Literary purists at this point may be outraged that I would attach filthy lucre to their lyrical visions of life.
In my own case, I realized very early on in my writing that poetry was not my thing. I had several professional poets in my family and they published books of poetry or had poems printed in magazines and newspapers. I saw via them that very, very, very few people made a buck out of poetry. Even in spite of that fact, poets these days are still a robust part of the writing community.
I then thought of writing short stories. I found that I could write them but that absolutely no one wanted them. Besides, their fiscal value was not too far ahead of poetry. Of course like the lottery, somebody wins but a heck of a lot of people lose.
The first year I was in college, I wrote a play called GOOD GRIEF. My rationale for choosing this new form of writing was that it was easier to have an audience, being that all you had to do was get together some actors and have at it. In the process, you actually might generate a few bucks. So, my play was put on at Mississippi State University and actually some money was made off the project. I knew I had found my venue. I think I made something like fifty bucks but, hey, that was much more than I ever got from any other of my writing.
Fifty bucks was not enough to retire or buy a red Buick convertible but at last money had gotten connected to my little diversion. Then it only took me twenty more years of trying before I finally hit pay dirt in the playwriting department. That quickly changed into screenwriting, where I ultimately supported myself for quite a few years.
So, here you have all sorts of information in this blog. Writing is not a get-rich-quick profession except for a very special few (like lottery winners.) You can work at it and still never catch the brass ring. I suppose the thing that I am saying at the heart of this blog is that marketing is just as important or more important than that which you’ve written. The two properly wedded though can produce some positive results.
If you plan on writing and dream of making a few bucks in the process, it’s 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration. The alternative is to keep on buying those lottery tickets.