On Writing for Yourself and Writing for Money

I don’t know if you read LitHub, but last week they reprinted a 2001 New York Observer essay titled “Will Write for Merlot: The NY Curse” under the headline The Media Went Crazy When I Made $20,000 in a Week For Writing.

The piece is by the late Glenn O’Brien (whom I know very little about, apart from this essay and his Wikipedia page), but apparently at one point the internet of 2001 was as eager to discuss the week he earned $20K as this year’s internet was to discuss that Taffy Brodesser-Akner earns $4 a word for some of her work.

During the week in question, O’Brien had been given the task of drafting all of the copy on a new ecommerce site:

Never mind that I actually wrote everything on the site in that week, edited all the automated responses, gave a charming voice to their animated “personal shopper” Miss Boo, who, by the way, had several top hairdressers flown in to redesign her cartoon hair. Never mind that the company had purchased warehouses full of time-critical merchandise for inventory. I don’t think it was mentioned that even after their way-delayed launch Boo.com was not accessible by Macintoshes.

So yes, if you asked me how much I would charge to write every word that appeared on a new website, $20,000 might seem fair. (Of course, it’s two decades later, so technically I should charge more.)

But that’s not why I wanted to share this piece with you.

This is why:

Perhaps the worst indignity for someone like myself, who writes poems and the occasional side of a bus, is when someone says, with all good intentions, “So, are you getting to do any writing for yourself?”

What is the answer? “I only write for the others.” “I’m writing for Christ.” I wonder if that’s what got to Andy Warhol when he was drawing shoes for I. Magnin? “Doing any drawing for yourself, Andy?” The genius was that Warhol did every ad like it was a painting for the Met (and maybe vice versa.)

We have to find a way to make people accept that working for food, even Beluga, does not invalidate one’s Parnassian credentials, that writers deserve luxuries too. Writing tag lines and care instructions or e-commerce caveats does not detract from my sonnets or essays. 

Now, I’m not sure that’s true for everyone. You might remember Michelle Song’s guest post from last week about how she can’t do corporate writing and personal writing at the same time:

“Just write in your free time,” they say. “Do both. Keep your day job and invest in your creative pursuits in the evenings and weekends,” they say. Right. Perform at a level that keeps you employed at a top consulting firm, at a job that squeezes the work and life out of you, and re-energize yourself afterwards to squeeze more blood out of the stone. 

And I had to get very very strategic about my schedule and my sleep and my meals and my energy in order to both keep up my freelance schedule and draft my mystery book (current word count: 20,488).

But if you’ve read my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People, you know my feelings on the “write for yourself” thing:

Then he asked the question. “Do you do any writing for yourself?”

“It’s all for me,” Meredith said, keeping her hands still and steady on the table and looking right into Travis’s eyes, forcing him to see the idiocy of his question.

“No, no,” Travis said, “I meant for fun.”

Meredith kept her gaze. “It’s all fun. I mean, there’s work in it, it’s not easy, but you don’t write three thousand words a day unless you love it. You don’t start a magazine.”

“I guess I meant”—and Travis looked like he could not decide whether to apologize or double down on whatever power he had hoped to command throughout the evening—“I meant fiction.”

“I write fiction for Effable,” Meredith said. “I’ve written fiction for a few other sites as well. I get paid for it.”

She also wrote diary entries, the occasional half-sentence scribbled across a notebook in the ten minutes before sleep just because she found the phrase beautiful, and the novel she was working on nearly every night, after the three thousand words. She wouldn’t be able to work on it tonight, because she had gone on this date. There wouldn’t be time.

It’s been a few years since I wrote that and it’s still all for me. I mean, it’s obviously for my clients, to their specifications, but my freelance business— and my decision to stay in this business—is for me.

It’s also for the reader, which is to say that I’m writing as performance instead of play, which might be why part of my meticulously crafted schedule includes time to bang on the piano or play puzzle games on Steam. That kind of stuff is for me in the sense that nobody sees it but myself (and, I guess, the people who keep track of Steam achievements). It’s for me to take and keep, not for me to shape and polish and give back to the world.

WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT is that what people mean when they ask “are you doing any writing for yourself?” Are they literally asking if we’re all doing writing that isn’t designed for any eyes besides our own? If we’re making time for play as well as performance?

I always assumed they were asking me whether I was writing fiction, because that’s supposed to be the “fun” kind of writing (spoiler alert: fiction is just as fun, and just as challenging, as writing a post for Lifehacker or Bankrate).

But maybe I misunderstood the question, all these years. ❤️

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