Monday, March 17, 2014

Write what you love, and other bad advice

One of the first pieces of writing advice a new writer hears is, “Write what you love. Don’t worry about chasing trends.” And for a new writer, these are definitely wise words. Writing is hard enough when you’re just beginning, and working on a story and characters you’re not absolutely in love with makes it that much harder. Your first story should be one that you can’t stop thinking about, about characters that feel like your best friends, your family. It should be a true labor of love.

After that, though…. Writing is a job. It’s work. And the thing about work is, whether you love it or not, you still have to do it. If you want to be a traditionally published writer, you have to write stories that publishers can make money publishing. And even though self-publishing has really taken off in the past few years, eighty percent of self-published writers make less than a thousand dollars a year. (and so do 54% of traditionally published writers) So the solution is obvious (if not easy): You have to write the stories that sell. Not the stories you love … you CAN love them, and it’s certainly easier if you DO love them. But in order to make money as a writer, your love isn’t the most important part of the equation.

What I hate about the “write what you love” advice is the nasty subtext it carries: If you don’t love what you’re writing, it can’t be any good. Because you’re not a good-enough writer to create a compelling story in a genre you don’t love.

If that’s true, then perhaps professional, full-time writing isn’t the best career choice.

There was a time in my life when I did not love what I was writing, and I was successful anyway. I always wanted to write fiction, but in college I realized that no one hired you to write that great American novel, or even just a good one. I majored in public relations and began a series of jobs centered around writing. I spent my days writing about issues I didn’t really care much about. I tried to find ways to make these issues interesting and relevant to the media, by structuring them as Cinderella stories (everyone loves an underdog) or heroes’ journeys.

That was my job and I did it. At no point did I ever fall in love with a speech or an op-ed I was working on. But if I couldn’t make the writing shine, the piece wasn’t going to get published. And I got a lot of pieces published.

If you want writing to be your job, you have to accept that it’s work, and you’re not going to love everything about it.

Similar advice is given to young athletes (and their parents). In that case, they are asked, “Are you still having fun? Because if you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it.” Of course no child should be forced to play a sport they have no interest in, but the fact is, if a kid is talented enough, sooner or later he or she will reach a point where it’s not always fun. Where work is involved. Where the athlete is spending more time off the field preparing for the game than actually playing the game.

And this is the point – usually freshman year of high school – when those words “Don’t do it if you’re not having fun” reveal themselves for the dangerous mantra they are. Rather than encouraging a talented young person to keep it, they provide a way out. “Early-morning work-outs aren’t fun. Weight-lifting isn’t fun. Since I’m not having fun anymore, I should quit.”

Fulltime, professional working writers – like fulltime, professional working athletes – have the jobs that many of us dream about. But they don’t kid themselves about loving every aspect of it, or always having fun. They work out when they don’t feel like it. They set aside that idea in a genre no one’s buying. They listen to their agent, or their coach, or their publisher.

They don’t listen to those who say, “If you’re not having fun anymore, why are you doing it?”Like Nike said, they just do it.

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