Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Realities of Writing

Jonathan Langford has made some comments recently in two venues about the realities of writing, and I've felt myself prompted to respond to him in both venues.

First, in response to his very interesting post at A Motley Vision:

I have an ongoing mental conversation with myself about the role that creative/fiction writing should have in my life. Sometimes I’ve got myself convinced that it’s the equivalent of a hobby, but other times I realize that it’s too much work to be considered a hobby, and you can’t help but hope the work might lead to successful publication, which makes it a would-be profession, not a hobby.

I too write/edit for a living. Even when I’m doing all kinds of whorish work solely for money, as I have been doing with all my spare time recently, I am fantasizing about getting back to my novel, memoir, personal blog, etc. I do get a buzz from working on all of those personal outlets, although I also cause myself some anxiety by trying to get myself onto schedules and by thinking too much about publication prospects. I really do hope to get my personal creative writing more onto the hobby level, somehow, something that may be possible now that I’m middle aged and have already tried and failed so many times at monetizing/professionalizing my creative writing.

I’m really hoping 2009 brings me a few open months for personal writing, but hopefully not because the paying work dries up!

And now, my response to Jonathan's recent post on AML-List, titled "Economic downturn and Mormon letters":

Well, as I think I've already pointed out, the downturn has directly affected Mormon publishing, with Signature on hiatus and Cedar Fort holding an emergency liquidation sale due to massive returns of unsold merchandise from retailers. At Zarahemla Books, we've noticed a big slowdown in sales in the last quarter of 2008, and our wholesale distributor in the LDS market is nearly a year behind in our consignment payments, which fortunately hasn't affected our cash flow needs yet but will catch up to us soon, if they don't cough up.

Z had a good 2008 because of Doug Thayer's Hooligan, even though we released only one new book (Angel Falling Softly) that has sold only about 100 copies. Total revenues for Z were about $18,000 for 2008 with no grants, all book sales, and we spent about that much too. (I don't take any direct salary out now that I've paid off my personal loans to the biz, but I do have Z pay for business-related computers, cell phone, travel, meals, etc. And every book or magazine I ever buy is paid for by Z. I wish I could justify having Z pay for my music and movies too...)

Personally, my problem is that I have way too much paid writing/editing work on my plate, for which I'm very grateful, but it's taking away from time I can spend on Z and my own personal creative writing, let alone family, house, church, community, etc. I've been working 60-hour weeks for several months now on both salaried and freelance writing/editing jobs, and I find the constant deadline pressure quite wearying. There have been layoffs at my day job but I have survived and feel pretty secure, as the executives seem to value having a strong communications guy around (there's another good writer on staff here too).

For me, freelance shows no sign of slowing down yet. The Dummies people keep pitching editing projects my way, some of which I've had to turn down, and the publisher I work with in England is, at this very moment, pitching a new line of seven Mormon-themed books to a big distributor owned by Baker & Taylor; he even wants to start a new Mormon-themed imprint. If even just some of that plays out, I'll be slammed for years to come and may even need to subcontract out some writing.

I live in almost daily fear of layoffs and the financial privation and debt that would ensue, but part of me would relish having six months off to really focus on my own personal projects, especially getting out another novel. The reality, of course, is that those six months would be very stressful and go by very fast, so it's not something I really do wish. And of course, you wouldn't know if it would turn out to be six months or longer, so you couldn't really relax and enjoy it. If unemployed, I would feel guilty taking 3-4 hours a day for a novel when I should be spending all my waking hours looking for real income-earning opportunities. Plus, I have so many kids and other distractions at home that I wonder how much work I would really get done as a home-based writer.

Nevertheless, I wonder very often about seeing if I could match my corporate salary through freelance, including teaching adjunct courses at local colleges. (I wouldn't expect to match corporate benefits, but fortunately my wife could get those through her half-day kindergarten teaching gig.) I fear that it would be feast or famine, though. I think that if I get laid off this year, I would give myself a year to see if I could develop a viable full-time freelance writing/editing business, but I fear that at the end of that year I'd be frazzled and in debt tens of thousands on my home equity line just to keep my family functioning. I really admire people who can make self-employment work. My dad has been largely self-employed for more than 30 years, and while he managed to keep our family of 10 kids functioning and my mom out of the workforce except for giving piano lessons at home (often full time), he's had some desperate times and financial hardships, and he's got no retirement cushion. I'm not sure I have the stomach for that.

I think many creative/literary writers have produced good work under economic stress, though. Dickens and Twain both did, I understand. And I think I remember hearing that Orson Scott Card has felt pressure to produce work that would bring in the most income for his family and staff. I wonder if, under economic stress, I could get myself to think more commercially and write something creative that would actually sell rather than something I just feel like writing for self-expression. I would love it if I could run a full-time freelance operation in which creative writing earned a certain percentage of my income and I made up the rest with work for hire, marketing/business communications, teaching, eBay sales, lawn care, gigolo services, etc.

1 comment:

Abel Keogh said...

Sometimes the pressure of putting out something to feed your family can be a good. I know I seem to write better (and faster) when there’s a chance to earn money for my family. When times are good, I tend to not put as much effort into my novel or other creative forms of writing. When times are bad I write better and faster.

(Note to God: I’m not asking for any economic hardships right now. I’m just making an observation.)