I Write for the Money

picjumbo.com_HNCK5108 500

I was one of those kids who could wander off into the woods and spend the better part of a day on a project.

When my teacher gave me a notebook that I could use for anything, anything at all, I filled it up with stories and drawings.

When my friend and I started thinking about a fun thing to do after school, we started writing a book together.

By the time I got to college, I’d heard all about finding a job that is respectable, like a lawyer or a doctor, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Writing wasn’t even close to being on the radar. I honestly didn’t even know there were people called “copy writers” or “business writers” who got paid a living wage to work with words. I believed that words were just part of my childhood and that part of me needed to die in the service of finding a career.

My wife once said to me, “I can’t even imagine what kind of major you should have been in college.”

Truer words have never been spoken. I didn’t fit into any tidy career boxes. I have creative inclinations that drew me toward writing and reading, but I also had more interpersonal, pastoral inclinations that drew me toward ministry. The English and Bible majors weren’t good fits, and in the presence of both camps I felt like an imposter.

I replied to my wife, “Maybe if they had a major called ‘Professional F – – k ups’?”

Those were darker days.

I couldn’t even trace a clear path between that little kid who filled up piles of notebooks with stories and the young adult who set off for seminary for a career in ministry that never felt right. It was the least-worst least-right thing.

In the back of my mind, I kept hearing a little voice whispering: You could write on the side. I continued to hear it as I earned a degree for a career I wouldn’t pursue. When I turned to a job in the nonprofit sector, I still felt like an imposter, and that voice in the back of my mind grew louder: you could write on the side…

When I finally started listening to that voice to write, I had no idea how to make a living as a writer. I just knew that it was my last shot at some kind of a career.

I thought that I was finally becoming the kind of adult who made some sense out of that kid who would wander in the woods all day or who would fill up notebooks with stories. This was going to be the time when I finally linked a career with my actual identity. Right?

Not quite.

I started out with writing with the simple hope of earning a sustainable living. Yes, I wrote for the money. Writers should never be ashamed of creating high quality creative work or professional business pieces for a fair wage. That isn’t the same thing as being annoying about promotion or selling out for a paycheck. That also isn’t the same thing as writing in order to get famous. In fact, the latter distinction has been essential for me.

Unfortunately, many writers today are stuck in a kind of limbo between a perception that writing for a sustainable income means writing in order to get famous. This perception is grounded in an unnecessary reality that has unfortunately become all too normal.

When I started out as an author, I had the modest goal of writing for a respectable, sustainable audience. I never wanted to be the headliner at conferences, the go-to guy for hot takes on cable news, or a social media rock star. I just wanted to write and get paid for it.

I imagined my dad working long days as a plumber, often taking me on estimates in the evenings or going in for half or full days on Saturdays. That’s what I had in mind: hard work, a career that used my talents and abilities, and a paycheck at the end of the week.

Instead I found a carnival of conferences, social media personalities, Middle-school-style blog fights, and popularity contests.

I had no idea that the traditional publishing world has less and less room (and use?) for a working author. Rather, what I’ve discovered is a huge gap between the haves and have nots. There are the new authors who get picked up as a kind of Hail Mary pass and the big names who consistently earn their keep. The majority of the resources go the big names, and I honestly don’t blame publishers for choosing what works. However, the number of authors who can earn a living without engaging in the publicity circus are growing fewer and fewer.

I write for the money. I don’t write for fame or publicity. Today many authors are finding that you can’t write books for a living wage unless you also gun for the fame and publicity. A select few have carved their own way between the two, but I assure you they don’t have much by way of long term security. For the most part, I’ve chosen to release my latest books independently in order to earn a modest monthly wage on my own terms.

I don’t have easy answers here. I have found a middle ground that includes lots of freelancing, writing for blogs and websites combined with author coaching and editing things like books and proposals. I write my own books and release them independently while keeping communication channels with publishers open.

Perhaps I’m foolish, but I can’t let go of a few images in my mind.

I see that kid who filled up notebooks and then took long walks in the woods.

I see my dad removing his muddy boots in the garage and then scrubbing his hands in the kitchen sink.

I see my own notebook filled with ideas, dreams, and hopes. Sometimes the ideas in that notebook translate into a check, direct deposit from Amazon, or a PayPal payment. Sometimes those ideas turn into an appreciative note from a reader or a five-star review.

My kids don’t see muddy work boots or blackened hands in our home. They see torn-open envelopes, a computer, and a pile of fine point black pens next to my notebook.

I remember my dad sharing a plumber joke with me one day when he came home covered in mud.

“That’s not dirt,” he said. “That’s money.”

And so as I scribble again and again in my notebook…

“That’s not ink… that’s money.”

This is my career. This is my calling—who I’ve always been deep down to my core from the earliest days that I could write in a notebook or tap away on a keyboard. I write for the money that leads to a sustainable creative career, and I hope that more writers can do the same.

You’re an Amazing Writer and I Hate You

fist-hate-writers

When my friend J.R. moved to Texas in order to take a new job as a pastor, he started tagging every related post on social media with the hashtag: #Texodus. I had the simultaneous reaction of absolutely loving that tag and hating myself for not being so fresh, clever, and inventive.

It’s as if all of the creativity in the world had been bottled up and shipped to Texas that week. Creativity had taken its own #Texodus…

And then the other day, author Jen Hatmaker shared that her family had just discovered this parody of hipster parenting on Pinterest, complete with a fictional child named Quinoa. Hatmaker mentioned on Facebook that she both loved it and hated it because it was so clever.

It was basically a transcript of my own thoughts… just with the implied southern drawl that I add to everyone from Texas on social media.

I love how author Anne Lamott writes with bracing honesty about both celebrating and lamenting the success of other authors. This isn’t just about the fear of fellow authors filling up the coveted spots at major publishers—though I’m sure there’s some fear of that too. This is about guilt and comparison and the fear that we’re never doing enough or never writing anything good enough. Fellow writers become our anecdotal evidence.

See! She’s publishing articles in those journals! I’ll never keep up with her!

He just wrote an amazing book for my favorite publisher. I can’t match that!

It’s also really easy to overestimate the success of other writers. Perhaps I see a writer publish a great book, and I’m filled with envy at his talent and notoriety, but he’s on the other end lamenting that the book hasn’t sold enough to earn back an advance and is looking at the writers above him who are getting bestseller stickers slapped on their books left and right.

And let’s not overlook this: it’s hard to sell books—especially if you want to do everything ethically. Some of my favorite books aren’t bestsellers, and some of the books I hate—I mean with a white, hot, passionate hate—are bestsellers that make someone’s list of amazeball books every year. So when you’re struggling as a commercial or indie author, it’s easy to start making comparisons and to start wondering if your book would do a bit better if you had half of the resources available to another author.

I can’t speak definitively on this, but as I try to sort out the state of my own soul with all of this book publishing envy, jealousy, and carefully controlled hatred, I think most of my restlessness is based on a low opinion of myself. I lack confidence most days in my own calling and in my own developing talent. I forget all of the times that I’ve felt God giving me a steady shove to keep at this writing thing.

Perhaps I even begin to envy the gifts or callings of others. I forget that I have my own style, stories, and messages to pass along, and so long as I’m offering them to others as a gift, I don’t have to worry about the success that others have.

That feels like the kind of cliché line a loser writer believes when he can’t measure up to “successful writers.” However, I always have to remind myself that someone will sell more books and achieve more success. Comparison is its own never ending punishment. You can only break out of it by writing out of a sense of conviction and always improving your work because you’ve been called to do your best as a service to others, not because you want to hit a bestseller list or ten.

As with most things, there’s a fine line here. Every writer needs to read in order to improve. I’ve flipped through memoirs and novels and marveled at how a particular author wove the various storylines and characters together. Those books challenged me to become a better writer.

However, if we aren’t rooted in God’s presence, calling, and strength, we’ll move from disappointment to envy to self-loathing over and over again.

We each have to sort out our own paths to peace and contentment within the callings God give us. What works for me may not work for everyone else. But I do know what has failed me over and over again. I know what other writers have shared with me.

The envy and jealousy that comes with comparing ourselves to others minimizes the work God is doing in and through us. God can work through us, but sometimes we have to turn our eyes away from what everyone else is doing so that we can say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”