Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a British poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He is generally regarded as the greatest man-of-letters in English history.
In Johnson’s biography, written by James Boswell in 1791, Dr. Johnson is quoted as saying “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
An author friend of mine named Tony Walker shared that quote with me back in 2009. At the time I hadn’t published my first novel yet and I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted or not. I respected Tony both as a writer and as a person, so I felt obligated to at least consider the possibility.
Four years and seven novels later I have had time to give it some serious thought and I’m still not totally convinced of the statement’s accuracy.
If I accept it as true, it sort of makes me feel shallow and greedy – but, if I deny it applies to me, does that make me a blockhead?
Worse is when I expand the concept to artists, musicians and the rest of the creative ones out there. Is the concept of Art for Art’s Sake just pie-in-the-sky thinking?
Perhaps, in our 21st century society it would be easy to say that we are creating for money because our world…our culture forces us to choose a vocation in order to survive and we are merely doing that which comes to us naturally.
Okay – but Dr. Johnson said this in the 18th century. Back in the days of wooden ships and iron men—when writing a novel was practically a lifetime endeavor, and hardly a get-rich-quick plan.
Let’s, for a minute, assume that what Dr. Johnson said is true…
Is it bad?
Is it wrong to do something you love in the hopes of getting paid?
Are you betraying your art and yourself by admitting you want to be rich and famous?
Let’s try looking at it from another angle…let’s pretend we aren’t talking about writing (or painting or music). Let’s say, for the purposes of this discussion, that we are talking about roofing, podiatry or real estate sales. All fine professions, but does anybody ever say “I want to climb a 24 foot ladder carrying an 80 lb bundle of shingles in the scorching sun because I love doing it?”
I know I never said that…I’ve shingled many-a-roof and I only did it for one reason – it paid.
Probably not a completely fair comparison, but my point is this: At some point in our lives we make a conscious choice to write, and I know from experience that when I sat down and typed the first words of Living the Dream…it wasn’t long before I started wondering if I could get paid for it.
Right now, I have a full-time job. Writing is my second job, but if you gave me the option of being able to write full-time and make the same amount of money I make at my job…the very next thing I would write would be my two-week-notice. I’m not even talking about JK Rowling money…I’m just talking about being able to pay the bills.
My good friend and fellow author Armand Rosamilia has no job other than writing. He has been writing full-time for almost two years and he illustrates both sides of the argument.
He obviously writes for the payday, because if he doesn’t get paid, he doesn’t eat…but he also loves doing it or he never would have left a job he had held for 15 years to write. I asked him for his thoughts on this topic and he said;
“Being able to write full-time without the safety net of a job or a spouse who supports me (or an inheritance or all the stripper money I’ve made over the years) is both exhilarating and scary at the same time. If I don’t sell a story I don’t get paid. So, with that in mind, I do have to look at the big picture. It would be great to just haphazardly write whatever struck me. But I’d be crazy to not try to also write what will sell, and the previous projects that do well are the ones that get the sequels first.”
I don’t know how much money he made as a stripper, but I hope he makes more writing.
My friend David Royall is retired and has (basically) no need for additional income. His writing is, at least for the moment, a hobby. He had this to say;
“To write something entertaining is a challenge for me. My novel is entertaining ME, so far. I look at it as a collection of babble that has no redeeming social value, so I wouldn’t ask anyone to pay for it, yet.”
Some might say his use of the word “yet” is a Freudian admission that he would someday like to get money for it, but from what I know of him, it’s unlikely. I believe he is genuine in his indifference toward financial gain.
Another published author friend, Becky Pourchot, is a stay-at-home mom with three children and a working husband, so for her, the money is not necessary, but it is important;
“I write because I love it…but that’s the obvious part. The money validates me as a writer. It is the essential element that makes me more than a little wife who likes to type on her laptop. I am driven to make money…not out of hunger but out of pride.”
The fourth person I spoke to is a single woman, living on a fixed income. Mary Beth is 62 years old and has dreamed of writing a book since she was a teenager. She has a more organic opinion;
“I am doing what I love and I believe the Universe will work out the details of helping me make a living following my dream.”
In the end I can only speak for myself, and I am not ashamed to admit that while I love writing, I can’t say that I would keep doing it if there was no chance of ever getting paid. Maybe I would, I don’t know, but it would probably go way down on the priority scale.
I didn’t write this post in hopes of finding an answer, because I already know mine. I am curious about yours, though.
Do you write (or create) solely for the love of it? If you were told you would never make a dime, would you still do it?
In closing, I thought I’d share this nugget…
“I’d have stopped writing years ago if it were for the money.” ~Paulo Coelho
As always – thank you for reading