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?
And – possibly worst of all – are you lying if you say you aren’t in it for the do-re-mi?
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
19 responses to “Do We Write for Love or Money?”
Reblogged this on Armand Rosamilia and commented:
Reblog: Tim Baker Wants To Know – Do We Write For Love Or Money?
For the love of it, first.
I’ve always enjoyed telling story; whether around a campfire, across the gaming table or to my children before bed, I’ve never been happier than to share some of the madness from upstairs.
Everything that comes afterwards is a kindness from my readers.
I’ll continue to tell strange, new stories for as long as I am able to, and I hope that the readers follow my journey until then.
I have a unique perspective on this subject. I became a new author at the age of 62. My husband and I are retired (multiple sclerosis retired me in 2002 against my will.) We are on fixed income. While we were working, we managed to put away our nest egg. But, as is the case with most American seniors, the amount of the nest egg fell short of our goals. Our old house is paid for. We drive old paid-for Buicks. I don’t see cruising in that new Corvette convertible in my future anymore. My husband works part-time at the age of 69 in order to provide our ‘fun money’ so we don’t have to dip into our savings when we want a weekend away, or the big steak dinner at our local Applebee’s. And, I have to say that, from our points of view, we are loving retirement and all the many joys that go with it. Life is sweet and simple, and fairly inexpensive.
And, then — I haul off and get a book deal!
I’ve been a frustrated writer all my life. My goal at the age of 17 was to have written The Great American Novel by the time I turned 25. I had the talent. I got the encouragement from teachers and professors. I aced the basic skills of a fledgling writer. I was ready to roll.
Then, life happened. I worked as a hospital staff nurse for over 30 years. I have my father’s German work ethic. I really like to work. I got caught up in the salary. I lusted after the material things I’d wanted as a normal woman who was living the financial American dream. I was a money-hog. I was the nurse who worked all the extra shifts. I worked holidays whenever possible in order to stash the overtime. I even worked part-time nursing jobs in other hospitals and nursing homes. I walked that accelerating treadmill for decades, like the working beast that I was, dreaming of a secure retirement. That Florida condo was out there in my future, calling to me. I was going to make it happen if it killed me. And, it almost did.
We traveled extensively. We bought things we really didn’t need. And, I thought I was happy.
But, I didn’t have time to write anymore. My dream was put away on a high, dusty shelf. I intentionally didn’t think about it anymore. In my frenzy to secure our financial future, I refused to allow myself to dream that old dream. I had an ache in my heart at the loss of it. I realize now, looking back, that I was grieving, in a way. It’s not a happy time when you watch an old dream die and fade away.
These days, the dream lives. I’m writing my brains out. I love every second of it. Would I be thrilled to have my little book series become as successful as the Harry Potter series? Of course I would! My mama didn’t raise no idiots.
But, I can sit here pecking away at my keyboard with the letters faded from constant use, and assure you that, at this glorious time in my life, I’d probably do this for nothing. The feedback I get from the fans of my writing is priceless to me. I’ve waited a long time for a reader to hold my book in their hands, read it, appreciate it, and tell me about it.
I’ll soon be 64 years old, and I know that my time is limited. Grandma Moses did great things, but she died. Imagine what she could have accomplished if she’d started earlier.
So, I’ll keep writing to feed my writer’s ego that long ago had given up on ever being fed. And, if there’s a shiny new candy-apple red Corvette convertible waiting somewhere down the road for me, so be it. My husband and I will drive it to the Florida condo, and I’ll write on the beach. If I can make one huge dream come true, why not shoot for the others?
That is definitely a different perspective – I’m glad to hear that you enjoy writing regardless of the paycheck, it would be a waste of talent if you stopped!!!
How about this. The writer writes for money because it confirms his worth as a writer. That would explain why a baseball player, making 10 million a year, would go to a losing team in Bloomington, Minnesota, or Kansas City, Missouri for 13 million a year. He’s 3 million dollars better at the sport! (My wife tells me I’ve got to stop using baseball analogies.)
Never have enough baseball analogies!
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Reblogged this on Camicia Bennett and commented:
There are two quotes that explain my feelings about this better than I can. I’d love to get paid for writing, but I’d still write either way.
I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind – and to work some of those contradictions out for myself. – Michel de Montaigne
I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die. – Isaac Asimov
I see my stories in my mind’s eye…the characters have flesh, faces and action. The places seem real as well as the drama. If I don’t write what I’m seeing onto paper, all of that drama and character and detail slip away like cigarette smoke on the wind. I have many film scripts in my mind. Getting them on paper is giving them a life of their own, which I suppose is gives me the tremendous feeling of creation.
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I love to write, which is the reason I’ve written for years, way before I ever got published. But who in their right mind doesn’t want to work doing something they love and get paid for it?
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I write for a lot of reasons. To inform and entertain, sure, but also because it’s a part of me. If I’m not creating, I don’t feel whole. I’d like to replace my existing income with money I make from being creative, but I’m struggling with how to do that, both in a practical and emotional sense. More important to me than the money, though, is making a difference in people’s live, if only for a moment.
Thanks for sharing your perspective!
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What an excellent read – cheers for posting