The value of writing

When I was a kid, I’d write stories for fun. As a five or six year old, I thought being an author would be the same: I’d write what I liked and it would magically appear as a book. But the reality is somewhat different and writing for pure pleasure is something I haven’t done for a long time. Maybe that’s why Stephenie Meyer is so successful. Think what you want about the books, her motives were unblemished by thoughts of money.

But writers do need to worry about money. Erica Jong’s oft-quoted, though rarely-cited New York Times article* stated that in a 2004 poll, only 14% of writers made their income that year solely on writing. And 54% of writers made zilch. To put that even more in perspective, 276,649 new books and editions were published in the U.S. in 2007 according to Bowker (sorry, couldn’t find the 2004 numbers, but Bowker admits that book numbers have flatlined, so they’re probably not far off). Let’s pretend that each book represents an individual writer. 14% of that number means approximately 38,730 writers making a living from writing and about 149,390 making nothing with about 88,529 struggling in-between, doing other work to clothe and feed the kids.

The thing is, Jong’s article wasn’t so much about writer pay as it was about the value of the actual act of writing. And I think we forget, in the eternal struggle to see our names in print, that any and all writing is valuable whether or not we’re paid for it, and whether or not it garners the kind of sales as J.K. Rowling. The fact is, though we’d all like to make a living based on the stories we make up in our head, that kind of freedom is restricted to a miniscule number of people. That 14% is based on people who made a living writing. I write for a living**, but most of my paid work isn’t fiction.

Having been raised in an ambitious, hardworking family, my sense of self-worth is tied to my success. And with my recent rejections and thus far being unable to make a living solely off my fiction, I’m downright crazed. If you’re anything like me, you’re fighting crushing odds with your self-esteem hanging in the balance. Maybe it’s time we all stopped worrying about publication money and writing the kinds of books that would just make us good and happy whether they’re published or not. Because they’re valuable enough.

Just don’t tell my husband I said that.

* Jong’s article

** by “write for a living” I mean it’s the only thing I do for work, though if it wasn’t for my husband’s full-time job, we’d be living in a cardboard box somewhere. Again, this article is between you and me. Shhh!