When I first started teaching creative writing, most of my students had the impression that publishing a novel would immediately lead to instant fame and money, and that it would be easy to become a world-famous novelist. The toughest part about teaching back then was to lower their expectations and to balance the bummer pecuniary reality of writing creatively with the upside of it: that writing can be a lot of fun.
These days the attitude is completely reversed. While the myth persists that writing creatively is easy, most of my students do not look at writing as a viable career at all. Intro creative writing classes still fill, but most of my students are merely curious, interested in exploring a different way to write. They are not at all interested in writing book-length works. We continue in extreme perceptions, however. Those who do major in writing find themselves constantly having to justify their choice, even though writing skills are the most sought after in this market’s economy.
To be clear: there are lots of jobs for writers. Lots. It’s just that those jobs are likely not going to be about writing novels or short stories and poems.
If you’re already an author, it’s likely that you know how difficult it is today not just to “break” into the industry, but also to stay in the industry, once you’ve published that first book, especially if that first one wasn’t a bestseller. Even writers whose books sell relatively well don’t earn enough to live off their writing alone, at least none that I know, and I know a lot of writers. While the J.K. Rowlings of the world are getting rarer, most writers have traditionally relied on academic careers to keep them afloat, but those positions are also becoming ever more rare and difficult to obtain due to budget cuts to education and an emphasis on STEM. They also don’t pay very well and though rewarding in other ways, they often can make overwhelming demands on a writer’s time and creative energy, in many cases, significantly slowing down a writer’s creative output.
So why be a writer at all?
I address this question with my students. They pay tuition or even if they’re on financial aid, they make sacrifices to stay in school and juggle work and family, so they deserve an honest answer. As I said, there are lots of jobs for writers, and if you can learn to write creatively, the skills that you pick up in a creative writing class will apply across the board to every type of writing you will ever do. I have written quite a lot of different things. Nothing exhausts me and exhilarates me as much as writing creative works. Nothing challenges the mind quite in the same way – and that challenge is tough training that will repay with skillsets. However, job skills cannot be the only reason to write creatively, at least not for the long term.
When I talk to my students about that state of “flow” that I sometimes get into, particularly when I’m writing a longer work, they look at me like I’m discussing Voodoo or religious ecstasy and screw their faces with skepticism. Some of them have experienced it, and that’s why they’re in my class in the first place, but some of them have not. Not yet. They don’t believe me when I tell them it’s like falling in love.
One of the most satisfying moments in my teaching is when I meet one of my formerly skeptical students in the hallway midsemester, and they are wondering around, their eyes unfocused, involved in their own intense mindstream. They slow to an amble when they recognize me, and without greeting they say something to the effect of, “All I care about is my novel, now. I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to write.”
It’s not like that all the time, of course. There are times when writing feels like it’s laying bricks. I also know friends who have published many books with reputable publishers who lose that sense of flow. On the phone, I find myself having to remind them: “If you’re not having fun anymore, then why do it?”
Usually something is getting in their way: their agent is making too many demands; their editor’s vision and sense of aesthetics do not match their own. And then of course, there are bad reviews and internet trolls, making writers feel like the months or even years they spent inside a cramped office, sacrificing time with their family or more lucrative opportunities to support themselves was all just so they could be humiliated publicly by strangers.
The challenges that writers encounter professionally can really obstruct that sense of personal satisfaction, wonder, and discovery that made them become writers in the first place.
But for as long as there is that hope that the “flow” may surprise us today as we sit at our “job” – for as long as there is the possibility that I will look up from my desk and realize that twelve hours have passed and I’ve forgotten to eat and brush my teeth, but I feel like I’ve just emerged from having been underwater, exploring Atlantis, I will continue to want to be a writer. I believe it is so for my friends as well. Many of us are writers because, well, because it’s what gives us purpose. What else would we do?