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When Writing Becomes Just Another Lifestyle Good

11 January 2017

From Literary Hub:

The bookstore next to my apartment is one of the few places where a budding writer can go in New York to and feel nothing but optimism about their literary prospects. People don’t just go there to buy books: they go there to gape at books, to think about books, to read—or fondle—books. Among the shelves of essays, short stories and criticism, the store has also set aside a few rows for writing manuals penned by icons like Stephen King and Haruki Murakami, advising aspiring writers on everything from how to construct a sentence to the best time to go to bed. Those who have gathered the courage to actually put words on paper can move on to the store’s book printing machine; I’ve seen many MFA grads pay a few bucks to get their thesis printed in book form, just as I’ve seen many hopefuls pay some additional bucks to display their paperbacks on the store’s self-publishing shelves.

Having recently graduated from an MFA program with a price tag higher than the average annual household income myself, this store is a comforting place for a writer. Inside, it feels less outrageous to have spent all this money to study how to be a writer. If so many places and services exist just to cater for writers like me, then surely that means the industry is booming?

This daydream extends beyond my book store. After graduation, an informal system of readings, talks, and other events exists to fill up the time I would have otherwise spent in school. I can go to a panel on Elena Ferrante to mingle with other writers and feel part of a literary community. Instead of my neighborhood cafe, I can take my laptop to one of the many co-working spaces especially designated for writers that can offer me a desk, like-minded company, and a reason to get dressed in the morning. Even if I were to move away from New York entirely, the internet would still offer a wide enough net of writerly support: there are complete industries offering online seminars on pitching, or remote workers that provide an editor’s eye—as long as I’m willing to pay the fee.

What all of this seems to point to is the emergence of writing as a lifestyle good.  Grad programs and services catering for writers are growing while newspapers and magazines shrink from repeated rounds of lay-offs, and this demonstrates exactly how living like a writer is no longer necessarily correlated to actually working as one.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Books in General

34 Comments to “When Writing Becomes Just Another Lifestyle Good”

  1. “… they go there to gape at books, to think about books, to read—or fondle—books.”

    Doesn’t help keep the place open.

    “Those who have gathered the courage to actually put words on paper can move on to the store’s book printing machine …”

    Sadly not many stores have those toys.

    “I’ve seen many hopefuls pay some ‘additional’ bucks to display their paperbacks on the store’s self-publishing shelves.”

    Ouch.

    “Having recently graduated from an MFA program with a price tag higher than the average annual household income myself, this store is a comforting place for a writer. Inside, it feels less outrageous to have spent all this money to study how to be a writer.”

    Ah, the ‘why’ they hope this place is special.

    “If so many places and services exist just to cater for writers like me, then surely that means the industry is booming?”

    No, or at least not how you think/hope.

    “What all of this seems to point to is the emergence of writing as a lifestyle good. Grad programs and services catering for writers are growing while newspapers and magazines shrink from repeated rounds of lay-offs, and this demonstrates exactly how living like a writer is no longer necessarily correlated to actually working as one.”

    Say what?

    ‘Grad programs and services catering for writers are growing’, yeah, they’re finding more ways to fleece those wannabe writer types.

    ‘… this demonstrates exactly how living like a writer is no longer necessarily correlated to actually working as one.’

    A writer writes, everything else is overhead.

  2. “Instead of my neighborhood cafe, I can take my laptop to one of the many co-working spaces especially designated for writers that can offer me a desk, like-minded company, and a reason to get dressed in the morning.”

    I can take my laptop to the kitchen table and make up stuff all evening.

    Dan

  3. And god forbid this writer ever moves away from New York! Because, as everybody knows, there is no support for writers in the rest of the country!

  4. Even in the past, not all writers trained in the same way. Some, you know, just started writing.

    I hope she is happy with her expensive purchase, but I also hope she has a solid Plan B to, you know, like, eat?

    I was rather annoyed when, years later, I figured out that those of us toiling in the graduate school mills of scientific research were not carefully preselected by those who knew, and could only wait to train us each up to a peak before they placed us in the slots we would fit into in the world of science.

    Nope. Instead, about 10% would make it through the gauntlet to the special jobs – professor at MIT, researcher with a grant at CERN, NASA astronaut – and the rest would find less prestigious jobs at small colleges or in industry. No guarantees – and it was harder than getting into these programs for the softer skill of writing.

    They tell you the prizes – just not your chances of getting one. Most don’t make it.

    I’m not the least bit bitter – I had fairly good luck – but I wonder if I would have stayed the PhD course had I known the odds. And the almost 100 times higher odds of ending up with a teaching career at a school somewhere, helping to deceive the next generation about their chances.

    At least scientific training is a great base for many, many other careers, where math and logical thinking skills are welcome. Including writing (yes, I use my math skills all the time – helps avoid plot holes).

    • Alicia,
      I didn’t, largely because I knew the odds. The last year I have numbers for is, I think 2005, two years after I made my decision to stop at an MA, but the number of PhDs put out by American universities that year was close to 100,000. Admittedly, that’s all academic fields, including applied, but for the number of tenure-track teaching positions on the county: 16,000.

      Nothing quite as special as being a hundred or more grand in debt, with more likelihood of working in a coffee shop (or a bookstore) than in your field…

      But yes, my history degree is wonderful for story-fodder!

  5. Again with the would-be writers being … inappropriate … with books! “[They] go there to gape at books, to think about books, to read — or fondle — books.”

    Gape at? Fondle? That’s just perverse!

    • No kidding. It’s one thing to pick a book off the shelf and know some previous customer examined the dust jacket blurb, or perhaps even flipped through and sampled some pages, but do you really want to pay full price for a book that someone else has fondled? Eeeeee.

  6. To be fair, this young woman seems to be getting articles into venues that pay (her MFA is in non-fiction). How much they pay being kind of an open question, I guess, but the Guardian, Vogue, WNYC radio, etc., are all a step above HuffPo where you do it for Hot Pockets… err, exposure.

    • I did wonder what she was living on. I admit I assumed she had rich and indulgent parents.

      • FYI, when I worked in NYC magazine publishing, it was common knowledge that a vast number of assistant editors were doing it on Daddy’s money, and many of them were graduates of the Seven Sisters.

        The production editor and I were the token working class members of the staff. Production people tended to be from that class, as they do the actual work of putting the issues together. Nobody goes to Vassar to learn Adobe InDesign.

        • Several very wealthy parents have made arrangements with their children that they will supplement the children’s incomes if the children go into nursing, teaching, or some other public good career that pays less than the lifestyle they are accustomed to.

          I wonder if assistant editor counts.

  7. “Writing as a lifestyle good” makes me think of pipes and tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t smoke, and I’m more comfortable writing in my everyday clothes or even my jammies.

  8. How exactly is living as a writer not working?

    • She has spent an amount “higher than the average annual household income” to get an MFA, and thus she is a “writer”, regardless of what she actually does.

      Quoted further on…

      It’s in this sense that the MFA has contributed to a larger phenomenon: writing is no longer something you simply do; the life of a writer has become something you can buy.

      The ending is a bit muddled. She touches on the idea that people who can’t buy all these writing-related services might be dissuaded from writing at all, and then says that the best thing about her MFA program was the community of peers she was part of.

      The initial point is true however, for a certain part of the upper middle class, perusing a career as a ‘writer’ is something that you buy rather than something that you do.

      • A matter of defining terms, then. To me, a writer is someone who writes, and my experience of writing is that it is not only work, but hard work.

  9. Consider writing as a lifestyle good, or in common language a pastime. Someone interested in writing — the nuts and bolts of the craft — has rich resources to hand. There is an abundance of free blogs on the internet. There are several very good overview and special topic texts. One can take a creative writing extension course at ones local university or college for under $200. There are numerous online and local peer groups. Quality critiques are available for free, via pay-it-forward arrangements, or small subscription fees. (Research is needed to find the quality sites, but craft enthusiasts will research.) Professional quality covers can be had for as little as $100. An copy edit pass can cost as little as a few hundred. There are automated services that help one self edit.

    All in all, one could take courses and hire the occasional professional service for less than $1000 a year. Reasonable for a hobby. In the words of charity drives, it’s less than the price of a cup of (fancy) coffee per day. It’s also possible to spend far less.

    The existence of these services and their availability to the hoi polloi does not lessen writing.

    A hobbyist obsessed with craft might produce more readable work than someone obsessed with being a writer. It’s the difference between wanting to write and wanting to be a writer. An added benefit is the steps to get an impressive looking copy for ones own self also make the book available to anyone. A hobbyist writer self publishing their work is far less likely to cause chaos and injury than a train enthusiast is taking a diesel engine out for a spin.

    As long as one keeps ones expenses in line with ones resources, there is nothing wrong with writing as a pastime.

    • “A hobbyist writer self publishing their work is far less likely to cause chaos and injury than a train enthusiast is taking a diesel engine out for a spin.”

      I like this bit.

  10. I’ve been thinking about INDIE writing as a lifestyle. (Actually thinking about rebooting my blog with that as the concept.) Bootstrapping, entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency are lifestyles — and “lifestyle goods” (if that means what I think he means, in that it’s something that can be marketed to dreamers).

    Those longstanding alternative lifestyles are truly suited for for the new wave of writers. Thanks to self-publishing, hobbies and professions can blend and scale. Like my Great Great Great Grandmother — the value of the extra socks she knitted appears in the 1855 New York Farm Census as a part of the product of the family farm. 12 pairs, $4.50.

    • I love your writing posts, Camille. I still think about your mystery plot twist one. Please consider rebooting, or just writing!

      +12 for your grandmother’s socks

      • Well, thank you!

        This blog would be less about writing and more about the alternative lifestyle — about keeping heart and soul together while writing without a net, so to speak. Lifehacks. Financial issues. Making your own cheese. It’s called Wordsteading, and and I’ll post on Daring Novelist when I finally accumulate enough drafts of posts that I feel I could keep it going.

        (I’m dealing with full time caregiving right now and the only writing I’m doing is family history, and not so much of that, alas.)

  11. Sounds like someone who dreams of being a writer, without actually wanting to do the work.

    If she has to have a “reason” to get up in the morning, or a need to go somewhere else to write, this is not a job suited to her. I’m afraid she paid all that money for a MFA for nothing.

    Writers write. It doesn’t matter what their education is, their economic background, their ethnic heritage, their gender, age or familial duties. Writers write. They need nothing but a means to convey their stories to the reader.

    I’m starting to see why some disparage the ivory tower crowd.

    • Particularly when this “discovery” is about the commoditization of the Writer’s Lifestyle: that industry started back in the 1920s or earlier. It’s what Writer’s Digest is all about. (And MFAs in writing have been common since at least the 1940s.)

  12. My take on the OP: OMG!

  13. I figure it is all good. Whatever reasons someone writes and how much they write is a personal choice, and everyone’s journey is unique. If I had a trust fund, I would make different choices. If I am pursuing something as a hobby, I make certain choices. If I am more interested in how something can provide a particular lifestyle, I make appropriate choices. If I need to make a living from something, then that also influences my choices. And if I just love to do something even if it actually never makes money, then I make the most of it.

  14. It’s in this sense that the MFA has contributed to a larger phenomenon: writing is no longer something you simply do; the life of a writer has become something you can buy.

    The life of a writer is something you can simply grab for free. Why pay?

    It’s not hard. I live the life of a rock ‘n’ roll legend. Didn’t pay a dime for it.

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