When the thing you love to do becomes the thing you have to do, everything changes. Yet nothing really changes at all, does it?
It’s not at all surprising that getting paid to write is both the thing we all dream about as well as the thing we all dread. Some of the reasons are obvious. Some are not.
The biggest roadblock when it comes to writing and work isn’t finding the time to do it, or conserving enough energy to finish it … or even taking this mess of a thing you made and convincing someone it might be good enough to sell.
These are all things we commonly struggle with as writers, sure. There’s no denying that.
But the biggest struggle of all — the one so many don’t even realize they might be struggling with — is remembering that beneath all the work, the hours of effort, the days and months and years of hoping, and the sweat and tears and sorrow and joy and everything between, there is only one thing that really keeps a writer moving forward.
It’s the most important thing. And the thing we so often forget about.
Let me ask you this: When you first started writing, what made you want to do it?
I think I must have been six or seven years old when my long road to writerhood began. I didn’t know you could make money writing back then. I had read plenty of books (or had many books read to me), I knew books existed. But I don’t think my intention in writing down my own stories, at least at first, was ever to “get famous.”
Something inside me just longed to create things with words, and being six with a seemingly limitless imagination and nothing much else to do, that’s what I did.
I wasn’t good at it, mind you. I’m still not, some days. But it didn’t matter then the way it seems to matter so much now. It didn’t matter if I was good at it or not, if my stories were too predictable or not. If they were creative and unique and strong enough to earn the attention I thought they deserved.
I started telling stories because it felt like the thing I was supposed to be doing. That’s it. That’s all.
Eventually, of course, I got older, and as so often happens when you do that, I learned not only that you could make writing a real job and get paid real money for doing it, but also that this is a very difficult, draining, and stressful thing to do.
I learned that people will tell you if your work isn’t good. And they’ll share it whether they like it or not (which isn’t always a good thing, believe it or not). I learned that everyone (it sometimes seems) wants to get paid to write, and that not everyone who is good at writing actually gets paid to do it. Or they do get paid, but not much. Or they do get paid a decent amount, but they don’t get a byline for it. (I have no issues with ghostwriting professionally, but personally, I prefer to attach my name.)
Now, 20 years later, I am fortunate to be able to call myself a writer professionally. For some reason, people pay me to write things, and hey, I’m certainly not complaining. Thank you, people who pay me to write things. I enjoy being able to afford heat and running water and bagels and Disney+. Huzzah!
But when you work so hard so many hours a day to do all the things we have all been taught we have to do — to “stay relevant” or whatever they’re saying now — you forget that all the reasons you’re exhausting yourself to produce content (whether people are reading it or not) are not the reasons you started doing this in the first place.
Yes, we all want to get paid for what we do. We all want to be recognized for doing good work, and hey, I don’t think there’s a human out there who doesn’t appreciate a nice unsolicited compliment every now and then. It’s OK — you can admit it. No shame here.
But these aren’t the REAL reasons we want to keep writing. Not really.
Since I’m technically no longer a full-time writer — I edit mostly at my day job, if we’re being technical — I could very easily stop doing all the “extra” writing outside of work that takes up so much of my free time. I could stop freelancing. I could stop blogging. I could stop working on three separate books at a time (I really do need to stop working on three separate books at a time …).
I could. But I won’t.
The extra income is nice. The extra interaction I get from readers is (mostly) nice. I love slowly building an audience because I really do feel like I’m helping people that way. Also? Writing makes setting goals super fun, and I’m the kind of person who starts running in circles if I don’t have even a seemingly insignificant goal to work toward. I’ve accepted it. This is who I am.
But why do I keep writing? When I’m frustrated and want to quit, why don’t I? When I convince myself I could do without the money and the audience and the writing-specific goals — because really, I could — why do I continuously return to my keyboard and pound away?
I do it for the same reason I did it when I was six.
I write because I feel, deep within myself, that it is something I am meant to do.
All I want is to have the freedom and the space, the time and the desire, to write.
All the other things? They’re perks. They’re luxuries. I know this. Not a second goes by that I am not grateful to have had access to the opportunities that have given me these things.
But writing, as a general pastime — creating, as an art — that is never something I could give up. It isn’t something I could lose. No one could take it away from me. Writing is so much a part of me that I actually feel unwell when I do not do it. I can’t help it. Writing IS me.
A writer longs for many things, and everyone writes for different reasons on the surface. But deep down, there is really only one thing a true, dedicated writer desires: To write. To share ideas. To express themselves. To be able to quite literally think something into existence and then watch it come to form before their eyes.
This isn’t something that is easy to explain to people who don’t live this life. So we have to come up with all kinds of analogies that don’t quite cut it, but have to suffice. Writing is like breathing … or it’s like exercise? Writing is food? What?
But it’s comforting, nonetheless, to know that there are plenty of us out there who understand this on an almost spiritual level. We just want to get all those stories out of our heads. It’s so crowded up there. And some of the stories we have inside are even … good? Maybe? So we want to share them because we want other people to experience them. Every time I get to share something I write, it just brings me so much joy knowing someone out there might have their whole day turned around by reading it.
Never forget the reason you’re doing all this.
Never forget that writing is more than just a job or even more than just a hobby. I don’t know you. But I can imagine this thing, putting ideas into words, means a whole lot to you. Always remind yourself of that. This is what you want. You want your words to mean something. Let that carry you through … everything, I guess. Everything, and more.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.