The Tightrope of Writing for Love and Pay

Money looks the same regardless of how it is earned. Money made waitressing or cutting lawns looks no different from the money you would make for publishing a bestselling masterpiece destined to survive for millennia. Maybe in the moment, when the bills are due, money seems paramount, but in the end it is the writing that compels interest, surprises, enchants, persuades, and inspires.

That being said, I must admit that when I was a child penning stories about talking animals and dreaming of being an author when I grew up, I also hoped that I would make a living at writing.

It was not because I considered writing to be an onerous chore that would only be worthwhile if someone greased my peanut- butter-and-jelly-stained palms. Writing enchanted me; Otherwise I would have chosen a different career to idealize. I imagined I would be paid because whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew they were not asking about my future hobbies. They were asking how I was planning to earn a salary. Salaries, I thought, made writers official.

I no longer care about being “official.” I am a writer regardless of how many books I sell, because I write every day.

However, the earnings from my books are not yet enough to support me. I hope they will be someday, if only because I want to spend most of my time writing.

On the other hand, sometimes I am tempted to write just for the sake of writing and not complicate my art with gritty and mundane marketing concerns; the advantage of not pursuing payment is that I would never face any conflict between what my art needs and what selling seems to require. There is something appealing about having an avocation driven solely by love.

When your main goal is money, you risk trading artistic power for purchasing power. A drive to make money can, if you let it, erode the art itself. For example, in self-publishing there is a widely accepted belief that releasing a new book every few months is the essential rule of financial success, especially sequels in a series.

If that is my main goal, I may be tempted to avoid ambitious projects in favor of easier, quicker ones; to write according to a formula; to limit content to whatever the marketing research says is selling at the moment; and to prioritize deadlines over quality.

Writing purely for love of the art comes without any of those shackles. A writer not leashed to a boss, editor, client, publisher, or marketing plan can devote every resource to bringing the imaginary to life in the best way possible. When I write without pay, I also write without creative boundaries, and nothing feels better.

At least until the bills come in or my dentist tells me I need an $1800.00 root canal or else my tooth is history. At that point I am tempted to compromise. I ask the inevitable question: how can I spend my time doing what I love and still pay for groceries, cat food, antidepressants, water service, and shoes?

There are no easy answers, but I did find comfort and inspiration in a poem.

In “Two Tramps in Mud Time” Robert Frost creates a memorable scenario in which the narrator forges a seamless bond between what he needs to do and what he loves to do.

The narrator is in a wooded area chopping firewood for the winter. He is doing it himself instead of hiring someone, because he enjoys the activity so much. He describes in detail the almost sensual experience of physical labor in a scenic natural environment.

A couple of tramps approach the narrator and mock him for doing a task for the love of it that they could be doing for pay, pay that they desperately need; from their perspective, their need to fill their stomachs outweighs his love of chopping wood, so they think he should just step aside and let them have the job.

The narrator strongly disagrees with their assumption that their need outweighs his love, bringing him an extraordinary conclusion in the final stanza:

But yield who will to their separation

My object in living
Is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Robert Frost, one of the most famous American poets, was ultimately successful in uniting his “avocation and vocation” — that is, to get paid for what he loved to do so that he could spend most of his time doing it. Few writers ever achieve that ideal union between love and need and many spend much of their lives searching for it.

Will I? After all, it is not as if anybody ever says, “Know what I wish? I wish there were more books in this world. There just are not enough books to read on this planet, and the ones we do have are all drivel.” In reality, there are tens of thousands of extraordinary books in the world. Even if no one published anything else ever again, I could never skim the surface in ten lifetimes. I wonder how many books in the world would be among my absolute favorites if I only knew to read them. From the standpoint of a writer “competing” with writers both living and dead, the market can seem hopeless.

However, there is a silver lining. I take consolation in knowing that, even though there are countless books in the world, there is not room on my mental radar for all of them. When I start to buy a book, I will often think of a book I recently loved reading and I will actively search for another book by the author who awed me. I get attached to certain authors and start to view them as friends. From talking to others, I know I am not alone in this. For that reason, if no other, even a relatively unknown writer should be able to earn a living writing fiction with the right marketing.

But is uniting vocation and avocation really necessary? Are hobbies so bad? Do love and need really have to work “as one” for a job to be “really done”?

Robert Frost suggests that for a task to be truly complete, they must satisfy “heaven” and “the future.” What does he mean by that? “Heaven” appears to mean the intrinsic joy of an activity, and “the future” suggests using the activity to survive beyond the present moment.

But I am not willing to pronounce all my novels and stories not “really done” just because they were not used to pay rent. I consider my own stories complete if they accomplish whatever artistic purpose I have assigned to them, whether it is exploring a philosophy, working through a personal conflict, or describing my cat.

However, I consider uniting “vocation and avocation as my two eyes make one in sight” a compelling aspiration. I especially like the part about eyes making “one in sight” because it suggests that if my “need” for money ever begins to shove aside my love of writing by demanding artistic dishonesty or sloppy shortcuts, then I will know I have become cross-eyed and lost my way, so I can course-correct.

But what if I never realize the ideal in the poem, that perfect, yet elusive, union between vocation and avocation?

The answer is simple. I will still write. I will write forever no matter how much I am paid. Making money is only one of the many powers of the written word. Writing moves, captivates, transports, persuades, and inspires.

The poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” by Robert Frost proves it. But, in the earliest days of my childhood, long before I ever read the poem, I already knew.

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