Top 10 Reasons (Not?) to Be a Writer

Photo © 2008 Ed Yourdon CC BY-SA 2.0

Alan Baxter posted this list last week, and it’s still making the rounds.

“And before anyone accuses me,” Alan writes, “of being all jaded and defeatist, I prefer to look at it as arming myself with the truth in order to beat that f***er down and prove every point on this list wrong.”

He’s talking about superstar authors, who “prove every single one of these points wrong.” They’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

Or are they?

Top 10 Reasons Maybe to Be a Writer

10. For the chicks. I can’t speak to this, because I married my Beloved before I started calling myself “a writer.” What I do know is that I notice a lot more friendly women now than when I was just a software developer. And I’ve even caught women talking about how good I look over Twitter or Facebook. And I gotta tell ya, that feels kinda kewl.

Of course, most writers are heterosexual women who indeed aren’t in it for the chicks.

9. For a sense of self-worth. The almost constant rejection of trying to get published is, I agree, not good for one’s perception of one’s worth. There’s a simple solution to that: stop trying to “get published.” The desire to “get published” is root to all kinds of writing evil. (Compare “money” below.)

The reason we writers want to “get published” is for the social recognition that goes along with it. We strive to be accepted in the “in” group, so that we can look down on unpublished and self-published authors the same way we feel ourselves being looked down upon. But there are other, more psychologically healthy ways to find a sense of social recognition. Neil Shurley does a lot to bolster mine, as does every compliment I get, and most of the comments I get are compliments, and this is the pattern for everyone. As in any endeavor, writing or otherwise, we all need to turn our self-worth into a self-fulfilling prophesy: know that you are worth every word you write, and then find and associate with those who agree with you.

8. For the cool. “Most people,” says Alan, “when you say you’re a writer, will look at you with that when-are-you-going-to-get-a-real-job look.” Actually, most people, when I say I’m a writer, look at me with that “Wow! How kewl is that?!” look, and make me feel like an shmuck, because I don’t think of it as anywhere near as kewl as all that. As soon as you say that you’re a writer, they want to know what you write, and they seem to be expecting you to say something witty and profound. The Mark Twain image follows us, even today. Whether or not that’s “cool,” I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourself.

7. For the influence. “Give me a place to stand and change the world.” I have that posted on my desktop to remind me why I write, to make a difference. But what we write, claims Alan, is unlikely to break down the delusions of the populace and change the world. Granted. But as Pam Slim recently pointed out, “You don’t have to change the whole world, just one tiny corner of it.” And you need to first be a writer in order to accomplish this. Because you need to learn to persuade with words. And then once you write something, it’s there for people to read again and again. It has staying power and spreading power. This is true regardless of whether it spreads in written form, or whether you record it as an audio or video presentation. First, your ideas must be written.

6. For self-fulfillment. Okay, at this point, I am going to call Alan jaded and defeatist. Self-fulfillment is the only real reason to write. That’s what this site is about. We are the stories we write, and we have to get them out into the world, to express them, or else that part of us will die. That’s why we constantly push to be “better” writers, not to “get published” or to become rich and famous—otherwise, Stephanie Meyer would also be a “better” writer. Rather, we push to become “better” in order to stretch ourselves, to climb a mountain we previously couldn’t fathom. That’s self-fulfillment.

5. For the fame. Again, there’s a hell of a lot more fame in writing than, for example, in software development. I almost immediately increased my fame as soon as I started marketing myself as a writer, rather than as a software developer. Even among other software developers, it’s always those who have written a book—even if it’s an obscure technical book—who are made the center of attention, lauded, and asked for their opinions. (See “self-worth” and “influence” above.) And among consultants in every field, it’s common wisdom that you should write a book in order to justify higher consulting fees. (See “money” below.) Most authors who have become rich have done so not by selling books, but by using their books to increase their fame, and then charging through the nose for consulting services or speaking engagements.

4. For health. Okay, now Alan has completely lost me. “Sitting in a gloomy room hunched over a computer, spewing forth imagination from the deepest recesses of your mind. Not exactly a jog along the beach, is it?” Well, it is if you do it on the beach. And writing is one of the few activities you can literally take with you almost anywhere. If you like to write on the beach, write on the beach! Or write about the beach! Or like me, walk down to the local coffee shop mid-morning and spend some time sipping and writing there. It’s a hell of a lot better than working in an office. Or sit out in the park on a sunny day with your laptop. Nothing gloomy or unhealthy about that.

3. For a social life. Again, my experience… Maybe it’s because I come from the world of software developers, who are known for their swingin’ parties. (NOT!) Software development is known for long hours and mind-numbing hacks, one after the other after the other. That’s why I got out… Uh, I didn’t really get out, I guess. Because I still take software jobs for the money, and my current client loves me, much to my dismay, and has asked to extend my contract. But I find fulfillment in writing now, not in software. (See “self-fulfillment” above and “money” below.)

Here’s the kicker, though: Writing fiction has taught me more about people than anything else I’ve ever done. Because as a fiction author, I have to get inside the heads of my characters and understand them. That little feat of psychoanalysis has done more to help me understand others and relate to them than any other activity, and thereby has improved my social life more than any other activity.

2. For the satisfaction. Alan says you’ll never be happy with what you achieve as a writer. Well, that’s true of any career. It’s part of our need always to expand our horizons, climb ever high mountains, perform ever bigger feats. But as we achieve each one… Haven’t you ever experienced the rush of having completed a story that left you in awe of yourself? Or after you unwrap the first copy of your new book? Or—best of all—when someone reads one of your stories and gets it.

1. For the money. Most writers never make money off their writing. This is especially true of fiction authors. And most writers who become rich off their writing make very little money from sales of their books. But one of the best reasons to write and publish a book in your area of expertise is that it can increase your earning power. On the other hand, the love of money is root to all kinds of evil. And if you’re writing because of the money…

Well, you could do almost anything for the money. As one tee-shirt says, “I’m only writing novels until I make it as a checkout clerk.” Money is a poor motivator, whether as a reason to do something or as a reason not to do it. This is true in any occupation. For now, I may be developing software for the money, but I no longer call myself a software developer, because I’m no longer invested in the software. After all, I’m only doing it for the money. So, true, you don’t write for the money. But you also don’t avoid writing because of the money.

The Bottom Line

I think everyone should be a writer, as least part-time. And I think there’s plenty of room in the world for everyone to love to write and love what they write. Because writing—as any occupation—is what you make of it.

Alan says his list “seems blatantly obvious,” but it’s only obvious if you define writing success as being Neil Gaiman. There can only be one Neil Gaiman, and we’ve already got him. Fortunately, life is broader than that, and there is much more that you can do with self-expression than just to copy someone else.

Success is whatever you make of it.

A writing career is whatever you make of it.

Life is whatever you make of it.

Keep writing!

P.S. In a follow-up comment on his blog, Alan dismissively accuses me of not knowing the difference between serious and funny. “Hey Tim,” he says. “Here’s a dollar. Go buy yourself a sense of humour.” Except that there’s nothing wrong with my sense of humor. And if he bought his for a dollar, he got gypped.

Believe it or not, before I even wrote this post, I did consider whether he was trying to be funny. As a writer, I can’t help but analyze the post’s humor potential. Either it’s “funny ’cause it’s true”—except it’s not true; therefore, not funny. Or else it’s funny because he was playing the fool, saying something so obviously absurd that he was pulling our legs—except that he didn’t do that, either. He’s not the first writer to make the points he made, in all seriousness. These are old writing myths that we ought to shed. (Did Alan intend to mock the myths?)

P.P.S. So as not to ignore his most important point, that there’s only one reason we write: No I’m not deliberately ignoring it. I just disagree with it. There isn’t one reason we write. “Because you have to” is a cop-out. Why do you have to? And “because we have stories to tell” begs the question. Of course we have stories to tell. Everyone, writer or not, has stories to tell. That’s part of being a human being. Except we writers have decided to tell them. But why have we decided to tell them?

Like anyone else—like any of our characters—we do what we do in order to meet our needs. We write for all of the reasons he mocks. And some of us even write for the money, and there’s nothing wrong with that (if you can stomach it).


3 responses to “Top 10 Reasons (Not?) to Be a Writer”

  1. Cullen, Edward M. Avatar

    In all honesty, I didn’t find this post enjoyable at ALL. Maybe it’s the mood I’m in but why does anybody who can pick up a pencil get
    to call themselves “writers”?
    To me, a writer is someone paid to write. It’s like a person calling themelves a “singer” but when asked
    what they’ve done, they say they’ve been singing in the shower for a couple of years. It cheapens the profession when anybody with a pair
    of vocal chords (which everyone has by default) can call themselves “singers”.

    Also, I don’t think $ is the root of all evil, as you keep saying (even though you may be playing). Literary Agents and publishers need to
    make $$. Simple as that. If they don’t a certain novel will make any, they won’t publish it. Maybe do a little more research into the industry
    before you make such comments? Also “fine literature” doesn’t sell that well at ALL because people don’t buy it.So if that’s what you’re spending
    your time working on you might as well save yourself the “query letters” and just reject yourself, or self publish. No offense, just trying to be honest
    like you are. Take care.

  2. Cullen, Edward M. Avatar

    P.S Young Adult Urban Fantasy is what’s hot right, and Agents are looking for Middle Grade.

  3. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Well, you’re welcome to your opinion, Pseudonymous Twilight Fan. You’re probably just not the kind of writer I’m hoping to reach out to with this blog.

    A couple clarifications: Firstly, I never said money is the root of all evil. I did say that the love of money is root to all kinds of evil. Or to put it another way, a part of a writer dies when he starts writing just for fame and fortune. If you can be happy and fulfilled writing and selling Twilight wannabe knockoffs, then more power to you! But most of us will never be happy pursuing the latest fad, because writing is partly a spiritual journey, developing your own perceptions and materializing those perceptions in the world around you. If you’re merely chasing fame and fortune, you’ll be letting the fads determine your journey, rather than following the spiritual path your own life has set for you.

    Secondly, I do not particularly care for fine literature, so-called. (I’m not sure what I said to give the impression that I did.) I do enjoy deep, complex characters who live gripping, substantive stories.


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