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. ❤️

Two Stories About Waiting

These pieces harmonize in an interesting way—not the part where the Baffler piece gets nostalgic about My So-Called Life, but the idea that there are certain stages of life that involve a lot of waiting, and that we can still make choices about what we do while we wait.

LitHub: Kate Mulgrew on the Work of Waiting, in Acting and in Life

As I climbed the stairs bearing a tray on which rested a glass of ice, a washcloth, and a can of Ensure, I realized that my father’s imminent death had filled me with a purpose not unlike the two-hour one-woman show I had been performing for more than a year. The process was surprisingly similar: both were physically as well as emotionally challenging, both called on certain unique skills, and both promised a closing. I could address my father’s dying with the same concentration I brought to playing a difficult role, a discipline acquired over many years of practice. Most important, the waiting was ameliorated by the intensity of my daily workload, self-imposed or otherwise.

The Baffler: Girl, Uninterrupted

In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela spends an evening in the parking lot of a cheesy dance club, waiting for someone named Tino—who, Rayanne vouches, can get them past the ID-checkers at the door. Waiting for Tino, Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie pass the time laughing and gossiping. Hours later, the girls try on each other’s shoes to entertain themselves. Tino never shows. Monday, at school, Rayanne boasts about their amazing night out as the chords of the show’s theme swell. “I’m telling you, we had a time. Didn’t we? Didn’t we have a time?” Angela smiles in return, “We did. We had a time.” The scene closes on Angela’s beaming face, the music cresting. It’s a brilliant dénouement—the teen years are mostly about waiting, and elevating the mundane to high drama.

Two Articles About Writing and One Short Story About Taxes

Chicago Review of Books: Richard Powers: Writing ‘The Overstory’ Quite Literally Changed My Life

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Earlier this week, The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize—and it is very, very worth reading, so go check it out if you haven’t already.

LitHub: Unsilencing the Writing Workshop

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

YES. I AGREE. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT.

The Paris Review: As Certain as Death and Taxes

The job I had before was for an investment advice publisher, where I learned that I liked numbers. I liked that the number four was always four and no one could argue with you about that. Every number had its own narrative power, even if you couldn’t see it right away. When a number changed, or when you expected it to and it didn’t change, that meant someone out there in the world had done something to make that happen. People made big decisions because of a little number. Everyone had a theory and a prediction about it. I had been an English major, but I didn’t feel out of place in the class. The theories we read and studied were really about people, and the tax return was a way of telling their stories.

Remember—this one’s fiction. ❤️

Three Articles on the Creative Practice

Catapult: Watchword: A Writer Should Keep the Future in Mind

It is hard to be straightforward. It’s hard to be yourself. I don’t know why, but both statements are true. “The artist,” I believe, represents a mode of living best examined both from the outside, as an object, and from within, as a living, daily, and often frustrating practice—with the goal of becoming more straightforward, and being yourself.

I love everything about this Mensah Demary essay. Go read it twice.

Verabee: How the Sausage Gets Made

I thought it might be fun to show how I paint a page of my book from start to finish. I know I’m always curious about how artists work, maybe you are too.

Hat tip to Lucy Bellwood for sharing this link on Twitter, which is how I found it. (Also, I’m just now realizing that Verabee is Vera Brosgol, whom I met at a creative retreat in Juneau, Alaska a few years ago. Her book Leave Me Alone! is great, trust me.)

LitHub: On the Daily Rituals of Joan Didion, Patti Smith, and More

In 2005, Didion told an interviewer that she typically spends “most of the day working on a piece not actually putting anything on paper, just sitting there, trying to form a coherent idea and then maybe something will come to me about five in the afternoon and then I’ll work for a couple of hours and get three or four sentences, maybe a paragraph.” The slowness of the writing process stems, Didion has said, from the sheer difficulty of thinking clearly. “Writing,” she said in 2011, “forces you to think.”

I can’t be the only person who finds these kinds of interviews fascinating, if not inspiring. ❤️

Two Articles on Never Being Too Old to Go After What You Want

Longreads: Is it ever too late to pursue a dream?

In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”

Can a 39-year-old play college basketball? Absolutely.

LitHub: When 80 Famous Writers Published Their First (and Last) Books

In compiling these figures, I found it interesting to see how the length of a writer’s publishing career didn’t necessarily have any bearing on their current level of fame. Just look at the ten writers with the shortest number of years spent publishing: Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, Toni Cade Bambara, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen. You wouldn’t exactly call any of these people “minor” or “forgotten.”

It doesn’t matter when you start doing THE WORK. It doesn’t even matter whether you can devote your whole life or just part of your life to THE WORK. All that matters is that you do THE WORK you want to do.

Whether it’s writing or singing or playing basketball. ❤️