Writing vs. being a writer
Everybody should write. Everybody. Whether through fiction, non-fiction, a blog about your thrilling hobbies, or a run-of-the-mill journal, expressing oneself is key to a person's mental and emotional health. And, in my opinion, the written word the easiest way to give one's thoughts and experiences physical form (think about it: would you rather write "I saw a pretty sunset" or have to paint an accurate watercolor of it?). You may think me biased, what with my being a professional writer who studied screenwriting in college and is about to start an MFA program in, get this, fiction writing. But plenty of studies and psychology publications agree about the benefits of putting pen to page or fingers to keys. It may sound like a tiresome and even tedious task at first, but writing is just a good thing to do.
Being a writer, however, is a royal pain. Allow me to clarify: writing is a fun and brain-healthy leisure activity, whereas being a writer is when you try to make a living doing it. As with all creative and artistic careers, it typically takes years of hard work, much of which has little to do with what you actually want to write. The odds of success are small. Since there's no point in sweating the percentages, let me point out some of the bigger downsides of pursing writing as a profession.
Looking (and waiting) for representation takes longer than the writing. My first novel took me about a year and a half to write, which probably sounds like quite a lot of time spent typing to some of you. But believe me that time passed a lot quicker than any given month of the two-plus years I've been hunting for an agent. And while a lot of that time was spent researching and querying hundreds of agencies and publishers, much of it was made up of waiting weeks on end for responses and deciding not to reach out to the depressingly large amount of agents who have sentences like "I'm looking to represent really original, unique stories and voices, anything with vampire romance and post-apocalyptic teenage heroes a plus!" in their professional profiles. The road from completing a piece to getting it sold is a long and rather frustrating one.
You have to do a lot of the PR yourself. Back in the good ol' pre-internet days, when you sent a manuscript to an agent or publisher they would either tell you they liked it or they didn't. The former probably meant they would take you on as a client and the latter meant "sorry, better luck next time." Now, however, before people will even begin to consider the quality of your writing they want to know how much of the work of actually representing you is already done. How many Twitter followers do you have? LinkedIn connections? Analytics for your professional webpage's traffic? ATM PIN and mother's maiden name? And so on. The ever-increasing expansion of social media into the professional world may make your life easier if you enjoy doing this kind stuff. But chances are if you like doing that you already have a good job running a corporate Instagram or something.
There's very little money, even for most who live off it. While those of us who make a concerted go at the "writing as a career" thing do it out of passion and happy compulsion, I think it's safe to say none of us would hate becoming a Stephen King-esque mega-success with an impressive bank balance and a grand estate with a beautiful office/library wherein we can comfortably crank out a best seller a year. Alas, the number of people who find that kind of success are few and far between. Even among writers who would be considered successful, it's not all that lucrative of a gig, which is why most authors have other jobs (like teaching, in publishing, or as ghostwriters for others) in addition to producing original works. So even if you sell that semi-autobiographical sci-fi tome you spent all those long years compiling, chances are it won't keep you set for long, let alone for life.
It can take the fun out of writing. Writing has been one of my greatest passions as far back as I can remember and it's only grown more so with age. But some days I just don't feel up to it. Maybe I'm sick, tired, just plain can't think of anything to write, or perhaps a new DLC expansion for Fallout 4 has come out and I have to fight irradiated ghouls in post-apocalyptic Boston. And when I'm endeavoring to write something creative in the hopes of someone eventually representing or even buying it, it can be even easier to get distracted, not to mention frustrated and discouraged, by all the above points. This point is definitely not universal; I know people who get motivated by things like deadlines and the pressures of life beyond the page. But for those like me, the non-writing parts of being a writer can be so exhausting and exasperating that the writing process can grow (hopefully temporarily) spoiled.
If you read through all that and still feel that familiar urge to pursue the written word as a way to make a living, then good on you. Welcome to the club. But if all that hassle comes across as too much of a pain on top of the time and focus writing takes in the first place, then maybe maintain it as the above-touted, healthy hobby recommended for all. Though if you still want to put a book or an article out without jumping through hoops, you can always look into having a co-writer or ghostwriter. Plenty of great people, and maybe a company or two, do just that. Cough cough...
Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. You can follow some of his other writing on Task & Purpose, and some of his witticisms on Uniform Stories. Paul is also the writer and director for Vetted, a television comedy highlighting the follies of veterans transitioning in NYC, and edited the first Present Tense ebook.