Das Kapital For Writers: Part Four
This is the last of a four-part series on writing and money. To begin with Part One, go here.
In this final post, we’re going to be exploring the culture of publishing, the negativity that is often prevalent among writers, and ways you can engage in self-care. This may seem to be tangential to this series’ topic, as it strays from a focus on financials, but I thought it was necessary because your relationship to money as an artist is affected by the culture in which you work. And that affects you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, which is why I wanted to get into a few tips of the trade on self-care. So here we go…
Here’s the deal: publishing is a business. In all likelihood, your publisher is a major corporation, possibly owned by Rupert Murdoch. Enough said, right? Their ultimate goal is to stay in business and make money. Their product is books. And sometimes you yourself become a bit of a product, if you hit the big-time. Publishers sell dreams and information and fantasies and sex and love and hope and advice and encouragement and God. They also sell your books. Your book is a product. A product that is geared for a particular audience and sold in a way so as to get people to spend their cash on it.
No matter how wonderful your editor is, no matter how cool the creative team, and how dedicated the various people in the house, you cannot ever forget that there is a bottom line. They might not like that fact any more than you do. Editors are book nerds. They love words and story just as much as you do. But they have sales and marketing people breathing down their necks. They have to do a profit and loss report when they take your book to acquisitions. They have to convince their team that your story is worth the thousands of dollars it will take to make and distribute and promote.
This all seems so very far away from the work you’re doing at your desk, doesn’t it? It seems kind of yucky, and it is. I think a great deal of the stress and anxiety writers feel in their line of work is in the juxtaposition of who they are and what they do as an artist and what happens to their baby once it’s out of their hands. And a lot of this becomes about money. Because you suddenly start seeing all the ways your publisher is promoting other books. Why does that book get awesome book swag and advanced copy packages that are sent out to bloggers and reviewers, while yours gets sent with a box of all the other less-cool, less-hyped books? Why does that author get sent to fancy conferences and put on book tours, all paid for by the publisher, while you have to slave away at home, doing dinky events that no one comes to, events you had to seek out on your own? Why did the publisher make her a gorgeous book website or do a book trailer for his book and not yours? I could go on. This is where Twitter is downright fucking dangerous.
My dear friends, be very careful on social media, especially your debut year. It can get so crazy-making. You find yourself becoming obsessive over all these things, feeling more and more like shit, more and more convinced that your book isn’t going to sell. This topic of policing yourself on social media is a whole other bag of worms, but just quickly: if you find yourself falling into the black hole of jealousy and comparison and despair—turn that shit off. Your tweeting may sell some books, but not enough that are worth your sanity. Twitter is great for getting tweets from your readers or being tagged in blog posts or finding out you made some cool list. It’s a great way to make writer friends and keep up friendships with writers you’ve been on panels with. Try to be intentional about your time on Twitter. Don’t just run through the feed. Make meaningful connections and then sign off. Don’t be on there all day. Protect your heart and mind. For reals. (Also, with Facebook, you can choose to have people’s feeds be invisible to you without defriending them. So if there’s that writer who’s always going on and on about her books and how great they’re selling and how they win all the things: make her disappear from your feed if she’s fucking with your serenity).
Here’s the hard truth: if your publisher doesn’t put the above kind of energy and resources into your book, there’s a very good chance your numbers will be shit. This has nothing to do with you or your book. Your book might be fucking fantastic. It might be ten times better than the other books being promoted. You might be media savvy as hell and attractive and driven and smart as fuck, but none of that matters if the publisher has decided your book isn’t a lead title. There are always exceptions—books that bloom into critical darlings and have grassroots love or randomly get the attention of movie producers. It totally happens, so don’t give up all hope. But in all likelihood, the only time your publisher will ever really tell the world about your book will be during you pub week and after that, your honey’s on her own and you just gotta hope the publisher paid Barnes and Noble a few bucks to have your book facing out on the shelves for a few weeks.
This business feels impossible. There are literally thousands of YA books being published each year. And the day your book comes out, so will some super famous author’s and you can forget about it. If you’re really lucky, you might accidentally land on the NY Times list. I have a few friends who have, but they’ve mostly been people who had at least a little support for their book and they either already had built-in audiences and fans or their numbers somehow just really worked in their favor on a week when there weren’t big books taking up all the spots. Sweetheart, you cannot get yourself on the list. It’s an almost mystical, magic process. I suspect a cabal is involved. You can’t force people to buy your book. I know people who have pushed so hard to get on that list, ran themselves ragged, and were even trending on Twitter and they still didn’t get it.
This just messes you the hell up. And then it begins fucking with your creativity, which is SO NOT COOL. And, suddenly, it no longer becomes about the writing, about the story, about the act of creation. It becomes about what list you’re on, how much your house is doing for your book, and all kinds of other crap that you can’t control AT ALL. The Internet makes us believe that we actually have some control over this stuff because we can get online and shout about our book in all-caps and talk about ourselves until we’re hoarse and write for blogs and do any number of things that give us the illusion that we are actually able to sell our books. You’ve got to get off the crazy train before it runs you right over a cliff.
Okay. I am now going to be quoting a shit-ton of Elizabeth Gilbert from her book on creativity and fear, Big Magic, which I mentioned in a couple other posts of hers because she deals with all this stuff, so, so well. And she doesn’t curse as much as I do. I also HIGHLY recommend the book Art and Fear, as well, which, other than The Artist’s Way, is my Bible. It has seen me through some dark days. Now, for Ms. Gilbert, on dealing with creative mindfuckery:
…Learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of the creative person. If you want to be an artist of any sort…handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work—perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; it is the process.
Hell, she’s got another good thing to say about this:
How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted your are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
PREACH SISTER! Can I get an AMEN?
It’s hard enough to call forth your stories. Hopefully, it’s mostly an act of joy for you, but for many of us, it can be a hard, long, lonely trek in, like, a malaria-infested jungle, especially once you’ve got the pressure of deadlines and finances. You need to find that glowing place within yourself that loves to curl up with a good book on a stormy night. The part of yourself that gets flutters as your hands fly across the keys, as dialogue and description flow onto the page, suddenly real and part of the world. Find the place that tears up at a symphony, the place that makes you spread your arms wide before the sea, the part that laughs until you cry. Find the part that says yes, yes, yes in the dark of night, between sweat-soaked sheets, and the part that races your dog around the house and looks at paintings with held breath. This is you. This is what matters. Go forth from that place each and every day, each and every time you sit down to weave magic with your words.
It’s all that matters.
…About how hard it is to write your book, about your house, your agent, your editor, your publicist, your revisions, your Twitter following, the lack of time you have to write, your shittiness as a writer…
More words of wisdom from Elizabeth Gilbert:
So, yeah—here’s a trick: Stop complaining…First of all, it’s annoying. Every artist complains, so it’s a dead boring topic…Second, of course it’s difficult to create things; if it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be special or interesting…I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So say it. Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.
For the past three years I have bitched and moaned every chance I got. Put me with even one other writer and within seconds, I’ll start complaining. Sometimes it’s because they are complaining and I fall into it, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t. Other times I’m just dying to let my frustration out. Sometimes, it’s out of embarrassment: I’ll find myself complaining so as not to seem like I love my life, because that somehow seems wrong. Like, if I have a writer friend who’s never sold a book, I don’t want to be all Dude, my life fucking ROCKS. I just sold two books, holla! So instead I do what’s probably worse, which is to complain about this blessing she would give her left pinkie for. Sometimes I complain because I’m terrified that if God hears I’m actually pretty okay with my existence, a lightning bolt will come down and it will be all taken away, just to even the score for the rest of humanity. (No, but seriously).
We complain for a lot of reasons, but when we complain about our writing or our writing career it’s because we’re scared. Maybe we’re a little ungrateful too, and have totally lost perspective on things, but these are secondary issues. It’s about fear. It almost always is. We are a scared shitless species, and as an artist, you are likely more sensitive and more emotional, than the average bloke. So fear can fuck you up bad. Fear will rule you so easily—it’s like an evil Daenerys Targaryen that rules like Cersei Lannister. And if you don’t get those GOT references, try this one: fear is like the U.S. Marines coming into a war zone to own that shit. You don’t have a chance if you let them cross the border.
Oftentimes, this fear is also deeply rooted in the belief that you will not have abundance, either financially or creatively (or both). It’s that oil-slick, dark feeling that you will never sell another book and thus have to go back to working that shitty day job you hated, eking out a measly existence, living only for those rare pockets of time you get to write. It can get existential, real quick.
After three years of drink nights and launch parties and BEA mixers and panels and online back-and-forths and writer’s retreats I have come to the conclusion that we writers bitch way too much. And I know it feels good to let out that frustration and that sometimes we just need to complain. Every now and then, I totally give you permission to pour a huge glass of wine, call your bestie, and go at it.
But after that, you need to find some Zen. You need to make every conceivable effort not to bitch. It brings you down. It brings down your writer friends. It helps no one. It makes you all feel like shit. You all know how cruddy the pro writer’s life can be. You know the mindfucks it entails. So do your writer friends. Instead, gush about your favorite books or talk about your process, a cool insight, a new book idea. Lift each other up.
I wrote the above Post-It and stuck it above my desk after I had the worst nightmare ever, in which I was being hunted by African warlords. It was horribly, agonizingly real. So real that I woke up, terrified. I can think of few things worse than those guys with their sunglasses and bandannas and machetes and guns in Jeeps, blasting American music. Cutting everyone down.
So I put that above my desk because I needed to remind myself that no matter what’s frustrating me nothing NOTHING in my life compares to that horror. It helped. We forget to be grateful. We forget we only have one life. We forget how goddamn lucky we are, that there are people suffering horribly everywhere right now, right this second.
Ganesha, god of scribes, in Bali
If you’re the obsessive type like me, it’s really easy to lose track of taking care of yourself, to buy into the idea that your writing always has to come first. I spent years running myself ragged, seeing any time not spent writing as a misuse of the day. I’ve come to know that your writing will actually be better and you, of course, will be a much happier artist if you jump out of the rat race of promotion and publication every now and then to take care of your mind, body, and soul.
The easiest way to do this is to not get caught up in publishing frenzy and social media psychosis. Limit the amount of time you spend per day online. I have a new rule, which is that I’m not allowing myself to do any social media until after the sun goes down (or, in the summer, until after 5:00pm). The easiest way to emotionally derail yourself is to be on social media all day long. It’s mind-numbing, jealousy-stirring, and confidence-killing. You post something you care about and no one “likes” it and suddenly your good day has this slight tinge of unhappiness. You see that so and so sold a book while you’re languishing on your own, terrified it will never have the chance to be on bookshelves. Somebody posts a diatribe about something political and you let yourself engage, suddenly in a shouting match with people you barely know. Make rules for yourself about social media that keep you sane and follow them.
Meditation is changing my life. I’m still new at it, so I don’t have any words of wisdom except that I always thought it would be impossible for me and any time I tried, I hated it. But something clicked this summer and it’s proven to be an enormous help in every area of my life. Doing meditation—or perhaps something like yoga or running—is pretty essential for writers. It clears your head and keeps you from obsessing about silly things. It puts your book deals—or lack thereof—in perspective. It allows inspiration to come to you, unexpectedly. I highly encourage you to find some daily form of thoughtful, quiet, focused relaxation. Meditation will do right by you even if you only do it ten minutes a day. You’ve got a spare ten somewhere, right?
Soul work: Give your soul some TLC. Even though it’s insanely expensive, I travel abroad at least once every two years, if not every year. It’s a huge part of my identity and how I fill my creative well. It’s expensive, but I do it as cheaply as I can. Last year I went to Bali by myself. This Christmas I’m going to Prague. I also finally started allowing myself to go to cool spiritual events, such as a Zen meditation/yoga retreat at a local yoga studio. I read spiritual and self-help books. I write in my journal every morning (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise). I go to cirque nouveau performances and the symphony and anything else that will set my soul on fire. Take care of your soul, in whatever way you feel like, but take the time to do it. It’s the engine our words run on.
Therapy and meds: Don’t be ashamed to need them. Most of the writers I know are on some form of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds. It’s a better bottle to reach for than the one that Hemingway did. Get the help you need, if you need it. This can really help curb some of the freak-outs that come with the instability of the creative person’s life.
Fill your creative well. Creativity is like any resource. It can be depleted and needs the occasional recharge. You can do this in a myriad of ways. I like Julia Cameron’s idea of the Artist Date, where you take yourself out (alone) once a week and do something for your artist soul. It could be going to a museum, browsing in a fabric store, taking a painting class—anything that gets those creative juices flowing and your inspiration into groove-mode. This isn’t a luxury or something to do every now and then, when you have time. It’s necessary to do every week. Even if only for an hour.
Make a creative space for yourself, where you write every day. Post inspiring quotes, light a candle, put fresh flowers in a nearby vase. Nurture your creativity and make an inviting home for your muse. Honor your creativity. As the church folk say, don’t hide your light under a bushel.
I hope this series has been helpful in terms of looking at the intersection between writing and money, the publishing industry, and how we can stay sane and happy in the maelstrom. I hope you can learn from my mistakes.
I wish you abundance in every way and satisfaction regardless of how big or small your book deal is (or whether you have one at all). The real riches are found in the work, in the process, in embracing your identity as an artist. The jackpot is living your life creatively and with intention, not buying into the materialism of our society, or the idea that your value is commensurate with your pay. I hope that the fame game won’t interest you, that you’ll see how ephemeral it is, how chasing that bright burning star can land you right in a black hole.
The most important thing I’ve learned about money (and the success attached to it) over the past few years is that, for most of us, we’ll never feel like we have enough. You can be crazy blessed and still feel lacking. I love the old adage you can’t take it with you. Friends, we are not guaranteed anything. Not stability, not an endless flow of ideas, not time or attention or appreciation. Not the next breath we take.
Us writers, we’re a tribe. Fierce and imaginative and passionate, with the capacity to be gloriously unfettered by the bars that imprison so many others. We build castles and weave heartstrings together. We fight epic battles, shoot across the sky, stare, unflinching, into the face of darkness.
Money can’t buy that.
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