What Does It Take?

A recurring topic of discussion on many of the writer’s forums I frequent is “how does one go about making a living as a writer?”

This is a question that has been asked by writers, both experienced and amateur, since Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type to the masses. Well, maybe. It was probably sometime in the 1800s that the question actually arose, when the concept of publishing as a business enterprise was being introduced in Europe.

Coincidentally, it was also about the same time that “hack writers” came into vogue. We all know the type – writers who will take any amount of money, just so they can see their name in print. The downside of that is the setting of standards far below equitable rates. It’s an unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon that most serious writers find it so hard to make a decent living. By decent, I mean the ability to make enough money to pay one’s debts in a timely manner and support oneself comfortably.

I’ve been a published writer for over 30 years now. My very first byline appeared in New Mexico Magazine, when I was fresh out of college in 1984. I had written for the University newspaper and supplied fodder to student literary publications, but there was no pay involved with either of those. The New Mexico magazine gig was the first time I had ever received a paycheck for my writing. It, in a sense, proclaimed to the world that I had arrived. I was a writer. No mean feat for a small town boy with big dreams.

Since that time, I’ve had over one thousand articles published in regional and national publications – like Entertainment Weekly, Pop Smear, Adult Video News and Playtime – dozens of short stories published in magazines, book anthologies and online literary sites, like Redzine, The Big Book of Orgasms and Blue Food. I’ve also had a handful of stage and screenplays produced and mountains of marketing materials processed. I have worked as a proofreader, an editor, and a managing editor and even published a few magazines of my own. You’d think, at this point in my career, I would have figured this thing out.

Instead, I find myself reading the forums and nodding in understanding as would-be writers lament the dearth of opportunities to make a decent wage for their labors. I read the comments as “professionals” attempt to dissect the process and offer advice on ways to beat the odds. I follow links to blogs and websites purporting to provide foolproof avenues for success.

Time and time again, I’m disappointed by the lack of real information being offered on these sites. Most want money before they will reveal their sage publishing secrets. I’ve never fallen for any of these gimmicks, but I have to assume that if these self-proclaimed writing gurus were truly on to something, I would have seen their names in print somewhere. Google is our friend, after all. Google quickly reveals the scams. And so it goes.

What’s really sad to me is that there was a time, not so long ago, when a writer could make a fairly good living with his work. Magazines paid by the word, newspapers paid by the inch and the resulting wages, though far lower than those being earned by any of the other positions in the publishing field, was at least fair enough to guarantee a comfortable life for the industrious scribe. It’s a point of fact that in 2001 I was clearing $48,000 a year as a freelance writer. Think about that for a minute.

So, what exactly went wrong? What changed? What caused this paradigm shift from acceptable standards to barely adequate sundries? Put simply, the world changed. And with it, so changed society’s views on what is and isn’t considered important. It all began when two passenger airliners crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

It seems disingenuous in today’s environment to blame the shift on 9/11, but hindsight affords me that luxury. Why? Because, I was a victim of the fallout resulting from that national disaster. I watched as, over the course of approximately two years, the market began to change. Companies that had formerly lavished dollars on well-written prose were suddenly taking their business in-house. Which meant office clerks with little more than a high school education and a couple semesters at a business school to their credit were being asked to fill in as copywriters.

For those who continued to recognize the value of a well-turned phrase, belt tightening necessitated renegotiation of contracts. Budgets for freelance writers dwindled and in some cases dried up completely. Set fees, far below the rates achieved by the word or inch, began to become commonplace. An article that at one time could bring in anywhere between $120 and $400, was now only being accepted for a set rate of $25 to $40. The salad years were officially behind us.

The reasons given were many, but they all dovetailed at one specific point: fear. Suddenly America didn’t seem quite as safe as it once had. Suddenly, the idea of spreading one’s business tendrils outward didn’t seem quite as safe, either. Better to consolidate, gather and store. Better to prepare for the undeniable reality that everything could be lost. And the best way to do that, was to internalize all those little things that had, up until that point, been handled by contract laborers. In this case, freelance writers.

Now, this is not to say that it is impossible to make a decent living as a writer in today’s economy. Not at all. I scrape by, but I still have to take on odd jobs and projects, utilizing other skills developed over the years, to supplement my income as a writer. I also work four times harder than I did 15 years ago to make one fourth what I was bringing in at that time. It also doesn’t help that expectations have been lowered considerably, while the belief that “anybody can write, I don’t need to spend money on that” has become a catchphrase that makes any professional writer’s skin crawl.

It’s no secret that the quality of the written word for public consumption has dropped over the past decade to the point that anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of grammar or punctuation cringes at mistakes found in everything from local newspapers to international publications like Time Magazine. Don’t even get me started on what passes for writing in the blogosphere. After 15 minutes of surfing the web, I tend to become so frustrated I slam my laptop closed and contemplate stiff cocktails with which to drown my belletristic sorrows.

Yet, still I write. Every day. I conduct interviews, I attend and review theatrical presentations, I research and report on important milestones within my community, I produce marketing materials for worthy causes and I get them all out in front of an audience hungry for knowledge. I also, occasionally, put my personal thoughts down in print, some in the form of short fiction, some in the form of essays, some in the form of journal entries and most never to be seen by anybody but me.

But when I’m asked, by writers just starting out, or by those trying to jumpstart their careers, how one goes about making a living as a writer, all I can do is shrug. I ask myself that very same question on an almost daily basis. Even as deadlines loom for two different newspapers and a handful of regional magazines, I wonder if I’ll be able to pay my bills at the end of the month. Still, it doesn’t stop me from doing that which I love. No matter how apprehensive or depressed I may become, I never stop writing.

Just like those scrubby little bushes we see every day, here in the desert, where rain is intermittent and drought a way of life, I find ways to survive. I let my writing sustain me. And I wonder, sometimes, if the mesquite tree or creosote bush allow themselves to dream of an abundance that may never come again. Or if they are just happy to have found the necessary moisture they need simply to survive one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year.

Sometimes perspective is all I can offer, both to myself and to those who ask the question.

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