Every now and then, someone asks me if I’d consider leaving my job and making a go at writing full time. Usually, my response to that is, “What was the last novel you bought?” The most popular answer I get is, “Do magazine subscriptions count?”
Here’s some numbers if you want to do the math. The last story I published in a reputable lit mag earned me $25. From first draft to final copy, it’s a conservative estimate to say I spent 60 hours on it. Other stories I’ve published have been rewarded by one or two contributor’s copies. I’d say “do the math,” but dividing by zero is a mathematical impossibility. Many writers teach, but even that is an incredibly competitive market to crack at the career-track levels. In fact, when I decided to major in fiction writing at Northwestern, the school apparently sent a letter to my parents informing them that I’d chosen a major with no possible job prospects.
Of course, I’m doing this for the sake of art. I only care about connecting with an audience, getting my voice out into the world. Well, here’s another sobering thought: a well-pedigreed lit mag that was kind enough to accept one of my stories sent out an email to all their subscribers, contributors, donors, staff, etc. and forgot to use the BCC field. There were about 200 addresses. If even half of those read the issue, that’s 100 readers.
I read a brutally honest essay by Chicago author Christine Sneed the other day and encourage you to check it out: http://thebillfold.com/2015/06/publish-a-book-and-change-your-life-or-well-maybe-not/. She talks frankly about some of the struggles and sacrifices she’s made as a writer, and Christine is a celebrated, prize-winning author. She’s been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and her most recent novel was recommended in Oprah’s magazine. That’s the kind of literary success that writers like me dream of. What hope, then, for us?
Well, she answers that question in her essay: “When people ask me if they should become writers, I tell them yes, if the experience of writing—all by itself—brings them joy.”
Right now, I’m struggling through a first draft of a story that’s giving me fits, refreshing the “recent responses” section of duotrope.com a dozen times a day (seriously, [lit mag names redacted], 309 days without a response and you can’t even reply to a gently-worded follow-up email?) and I have to ask myself, “Does the experience of writing bring me joy?”
Friends of mine who have children love to complain about their kids. The sleepless nights, the frustration, the anger, the expense. Yet they all say parenthood is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Writing is like that to me. On the micro level, the day-to-day toil is frequently infuriating, embarrassing, exhausting and futile. But on the macro level, I can’t imagine not doing it.
There is an anonymous saying I love to quote: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” That pretty much sums it up for me. Nothing of value is cheaply earned. If I could see into the future only to find out that I’ll never publish the great american novel, never make it into the New Yorker, never find myself in the “honorable mention” pages of the Pushcart series, that’s ok. It’s not going to be for lack of trying.
Good thing I like my day job.