I’d like to pay for that with a sonnet, okay?

“You’re cool with that, right? Yeah, I know the grocery bill is $120 – so how about three sonnets? You’re not cool with that? Dude, you used to be cool.”

And so, another starving artist is thrown out of Woolworths or Coles or IGA, etc. I bring you this tone of disdain because (a) it’s my default setting, and (b) because the other eve I had one of those conversations that makes my head go “pop”.

Not thirty minutes earlier, I’d listened to someone bang on about creating sustainable careers for writers. Nice, a good goal, keeping writers out of the Poorhouse – we don’t do well there, we tend to steal other people’s socks and pens. Then the next chat I had (not with the same person) was with someone who uttered the words “But you don’t do it for the money”, with quite a degree of contempt when I spoke about attempting to make one of those sustainable careers for myself.  

And so we fall into the yawning abyss between artistic integrity and the compelling need to eat and pay bills.

Certainly, if you become a writer thinking it’s the path to fame and riches, then please go away and hand your pen in at the door. This is crazy talk. You don’t know what’s going to next catch the reading public’s imagination. You don’t know your book is going to be a best-seller. Publishers don’t know what’s going to be a best-seller – they surely have some role as taste-makers, but they cannot guarantee that the next book they release with go all Harry Potter on your ass. The next wave of the zeitgeist is notoriously hard to predict.

If, however, you write because you cannot do anything else, and you find you have some success, and you decide you’d like to do this as a career, then by all means, approach it as you would any career: train, learn, advance, and get paid for your efforts. The last one isn’t an unreasonable expectation – writing has value. Work has value. Writing should be a paid career. The fact of the matter is that we don’t all get to be Bryce Courtney, Neil Gaiman, Wilbur Smith, JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyers.

As you move up the ladder, your payment should, in theory, increase as you get into better paying, more professional markets (I speak as someone who cut her teeth in short stories and is now trying to transition across to novels). As your reputation and skill grows, people will begin to seek you out for submissions. Publishers will start to notice your name appearing in various places (hopefully not on toilet walls), and with any luck one of them will sidle up to you at a conference and say ‘So, got any novels on the boil?’

If you’re not writing fiction, but non-fiction, then this is often the place where money is more easily made. Recognised writerly jobs include publications and promotions officer, advertising and marketing copywriters, textbook writers. In fact, non-fiction writing is an area where you can approach a publisher with an idea for a book without actually having written the book, and be commissioned to do so. Not always, but sometimes. But you better have a kick-ass proposal.

Most of the time, you’re going to have to have other day jobs to supplement your income – receptionist, bus driver, waitress, gynaecologist, pole dancer, lawyer-by-day-writer-by-night. I have it on good authority that Batman is still trying to finish his first novel but he just can’t find the time, what with all the crime and taking his Batsuits to the cleaners.

We certainly don’t do it for the money, but we are entitled to expect to be paid for our efforts. So, don’t curl up the lip at someone who wants to make a living out of their writing and mutter about “filthy lucre and sell-outs” because I, for one, will find a way to get you in a dark alley and yell multisyllabic words at you from an Oxford Thesaurus (not the concise version either).

Writing for a living is a hard row to hoe. It takes planning and strategising and sacrifice, and not a little writing talent. People who pursue this dream give up a lot to do so, to make the space in their lives to have writing time – which I have blogged about previously here.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to try and exchange a villanelle for a new fridge.

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