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Amber Paulen

Writers, Too, Must Eat

Way back when I decided I would write, my idea of writing didn’t go much further than that. There was the putting words down and the communion with like-minded souls and the great sail-filling of creative expression. And writing still is these things on very good days when what’s inexpressible can float and sink and fly and dive. For better or worse, the writing ideal will never die in me, and I hope to continue to nurture it my whole life long.

Writing has always been what I do, but only recently has it become what I’m paid to do. Now, unlike a year ago, not all my writing is personal, but much of it is work. That’s not true: Writing has always been work, but that kind of labor of love that idealists like flaunt for being higher than lowly work as it’s without monetary compensation. The kind of work that pays back more than one hundred fold and is its own best reward. In a happy world I could live forever like that, thriving on invisible bread, drinking hypothetical wine, and living in imaginary cities. Okay, so that might not be true either: Sooner or later the writer is bound to wonder, what is this writing worth?

My idea about writing a piece on the value of writing came months ago when I was still sweating. Months later I’m finally getting to it because what I have been working towards (work) happened all of a sudden. I had joined Elance and was sifting through the many ads for freelance writers. At first I was excited, and rightly so.

I still think it’s an exciting time to be a writer as there are more and more places online for writing work. Many people and companies need writing. But most of these people and companies don’t know what makes good writing different from bad writing and they don’t care.

It’s a real challenge to find places online that both value writing and prove it by paying for it. Then there’s the added challenge that getting paid, inevitably, involves giving away writing for free or almost free to build up a portfolio to get jobs. Many novel contracts also operate on that work-for-free-in-the-beginning concept. A novel is expected to be close to complete when it reaches the agent’s door.

Why is it that writers who sweat and bleed into our work and who arguably make life worth living, at least more than a lawyer, are expected to work for free? When our world is filled with so many words, shouldn’t it be expected that they sing sweetly and are correct? Is our society so shallow as to value easy commercial commodities more than the visceral pleasures of reading?

The answer is sadly, simply yes: the artist wears rags, the politician gold. It’s a frustrating state of affairs that hasn’t changed much and may be exacerbated by writers’ instinctual idealist condition. When there’s so much competition and more writers than places to publish, it’s almost impossible to feel the value of your own work. It’s easier to get discouraged. But look around and see all that bad writing and keep writing and looking forward to when 700 well composed words are worth gold. After all, even writers must eat.


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