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Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity

2 September 2013

From Brain Pickings:

The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do — which also gave us invaluable wisdom from Susan Orlean,Mary Karr and Isabel Allende, and which was among the 10 best books on writing from my recent collaboration with the New York Public Library — Michael Lewis, one of today’s finest nonfiction masters, shares his singular lore.

Lewis begins at the bumpy beginning, echoing Ray Bradbury’s insistence on perseverance in the face of rejection: Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication. (One has to wonder whether the defiant remnants of this early brush with gobsmacking censorship spurred Lewis’s provocative look at the housing and credit bubble more than twenty years later.) Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:

I didn’t get the job — the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college — but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.

. . . .

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

. . . .

The reasons I write change over time. In the beginning, it was that sense of losing time. Now it’s changed, because I have a sense of an audience. I have the sense that I can biff the world a bit. I don’t know that I have control of the direction of the pinball, but I can exert a force.

That power is a mixed blessing. It’s good to have something to get you into the chair. I’m not sure it’s great for the writing to think of yourself as important while you’re doing it. I don’t quite think that way. But I can’t deny that I’m aware of the effects my writing will have.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

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14 Comments to “Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity”

  1. I think people should just use a stock answer to the question, “Why do you write?”


    • I think I’d go with “Why don’t you?”

    • I rather like Asimov’s explanation that (science fiction) writers write because they have something to say.
      Coupled with Heinlein’s observation that at core there are only four SF types of stories (What if, If only, If this goes on, and “the little tailor” aka Campbell’s Hero’s Journey), I’ve found it fairly easy to identify why specific stories succeed or fail without having to psychoanalyze the authors. 😉

  2. The thing is, I don’t really care why other writers write. I mean, sure, some of the stories are interesting, but they’re not relevant to me. [shrug] I suspect that if you really need (need, as opposed to being curious about) that kind of encouragement or comparison or whatever, you’re likely to have a hard time making it yourself.


  3. There’s a satisfaction that comes with typing The End and thinking maybe, just maybe you’ve accomplished something that will sit comfortably nestled in among all those great books you’ve read over the years. Albeit, a few shelves lower.

    And then some reader trashes your stuff and you’re forced to hire Ninja Assassins.


    • Well poop. Does this mean I need to include a line item for “retainer for Ninja assassins” in my anticipated production costs? Is that tax deductible?

      • Ninjas are a waste of money; ex-military snipers are way more cost effective. For one thing, you don’t need a dozen of them to take out one target because of their insistence on going in one-at-a-time until the target gets tired. The follow-up medical bills tend to pile up.

  4. “Here’s To The Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who do!”

    Steve Jobs

  5. Odd no one said simply “To communicate” or, a little less simply, “To tell a story.” I guess one hopes that would be inferred, but among the writers mentioned in the opening, I’m not sure it is.

  6. Ah!

  7. Why do I write?

    Might as well ask me why do I breathe.

    As Will Entrekin just mentioned, I write to communicate. It started when I was young. I was painfully shy, couldn’t cope with talking to other people – but when I wrote my first story and read it aloud to the class – all of a sudden I was popular.

    To be honest it was more of a freak show popular – but hey, it beat the wallflower status I had previously possessed.

    In short – I learned how to write before I learned how to speak effectively.

  8. I write because I want to.

  9. In the full article, Lewis relates how one year he got a $225k BONUS, PLUS a $40k book advance, and quit his job to write full time. People thought this was a foolish decision. If someone handed me that much money, you can bet your rear end I’d quit the day job. Holy crap, that’s enough to live on for 8 or 9 years with no other money coming in. Adding income for all the books I could write in that time… yeah, I don’t think I’d have to worry about finding another day job ever again.

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