I am (almost) finished reading Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. I say "almost" because if writing is not my job, then reading certainly isn't either. I read the book on my commute to and from work. I read it while I'm cooking and when I'm waiting in line. If I didn't, I wouldn't have time carved out for writing. Meanwhile, I have two other books I'm reading--one for a book club and one that I borrowed from a friend and should really give back, and a graphic novel that I'm afraid to take out of the house because its pages are too pretty to spill coffee on or shove into my work bag, which has so many crumbs it is basically a geological record of every granola bar I've ever eaten.
Anyway, back to Scratch. This book has been both terrifying and comforting. It reassures me that the financial instability that I suspect awaits me as a published author is pretty much a certainty. There is some freedom in realizing that I can never coast along and drink expensive pourovers while writing as slowly as I please.
I don't like to talk about writing much with people who don't know me. Then I feel obligated to downplay it with statements like "just on the side" or "in my spare time" or "when I'm not doing my real job." If I treat my writing like a hobby, then people won't have to know how seriously I actually take it. Then they won't ask why I treat it like a job if I currently don't make a single cent from it.
How do we talk about passions that are more than hobbies but less than lucrative jobs in way that doesn't sound overly romanticized? I try to convey to my friends that it's akin to an actor seeking an agent, and that my chances of making it big are about as unlikely. For all the people who want to act, I suspect there are twice as many who aspire to be published authors. Not everyone can be beautiful and brave enough for the big screen, but behind a computer screen or while holding a pen, we can all be whatever we want to be. I'd like to hope that a lot more of us know the difference between "your" and "you're" than have less than 20% body fat, but I suspect I'm probably wrong about that.
The things that make writing so appealing also devalue it. Literacy and education access issues aside, it is a pleasure accessible at every level, from those wishing to write gratitude journals to those publishing secret blogs for audiences of one, to those of us who are querying agents and polishing manuscripts and repeating the process, wishing all the while that finding an agent worked a little bit like Tinder, and we could all just know with a quick swipe of the finger if the feeling is mutual, and yes, this agent gets off on mermaid fiction! (Disclaimer: I do not write mermaid fiction, but I strongly appreciate the mermaid hair trend).
In an era where having a blog is about as uninteresting as saying you had a MySpace page in the nineties, few of us can agree on what constitutes writing on a higher plane of existence. At its simplest level, there are those writers being paid to write, and those striving to be paid to write, and then there's everyone else. As much as many of us don't like to admit it, money and the quest for it is what turns some writers from hobbyists into hustlers.
A lot of writers like to avoid the "job vs. hobby" dichotomy altogether, and instead treat writing like exercise. It's something we all should do, but that very few of us have the patience and dedication to practice every single day. But as anyone who's ever been addicted to, well, anything, can attest to, it's the mixture of pleasure and pain that is crack to most of us. We laud the runner's high; we all think Crossfit is a cult (firsthand experience: it kind of is, but in the best, protein-pancake-eating sort of way). We stretch our writing muscles to their furthest points, hoping that we'll magically be able to do 100 pull-ups or push out 1,000 words while barely losing our breath.
This analogy is not too far off. But where does the "pleasure" part of writing come in, many of us wonder? Many non-writers think it is similar to exercise in that you feel the benefits after the fact, an electricity in the limbs or aching of the muscles that signals a job well done and then you can chug your smoothie and watch Netflix.
But it doesn't happen then. It happens while the writing is happening. The pleasure and the pain are happily conjoined twins. And this is one thing that Scratch has pointed out to me, that the pain does not cleave from the pleasure once you make it big and get published. There are ads to worry about and Facebook pages to build and advances that don't come through and agents who might not share your vision, and then it's back to writing "on the side" or "in my spare time" or "freelancing," which can mean literally anything, and I am not using "literally" in a hyperbolic way here. If people can write for "exposure" and "lifetime discounts," as Scratch has pointed out, then why can't I trade my writing for free tacos and wine?
Unfortunately, writers who want to get paid all have to start doing the math at some point, and the world frowns upon paying people in pineapple carnitas and guacamole, especially since the demand for avocados is probably going to create a global avocado shortage very, very soon that is going to lead to a lot of riots outside of Whole Foods (I make fun of Whole Foods a lot on my blog, but make no mistake. I happily pay $2 for an avocado). I need to remember the last time I took math--algebra II, if we're going to be exact--and determine how much of a book advance I'd need to even consider working part-time, let alone quitting a day job. I need a backup plan, and maybe a recession-proof skill, like cutting hair or embalming.
I spend a lot of time playing the "what would I have to give up?" game whenever I consider what it would be like to write full-time. I would say goodbye to my annual massage, something I look forward to when the pain in my muscles is more than a foam roller can handle. Although, I always dread the question my massage therapist inevitably asks at the end: you were reallllly tense. What do you do to unwind? I assure her that I really was relaxed. I explain that those two knots in my shoulders are basically permanent, and they're from hunching over the keyboard for so many hours a day (both in the office and at home) that my body doesn't know how to relax even when it's slathered in therapeutic oils and birds are chirping on a loop in the background. I told her that I write to unwind, and she always looks at me like I misunderstood the question. I'm not sure if something as frenetic, anxiety-ridden, and exhilarating as writing can be classified as unwinding.
My massage therapist doesn't ask me when I want to book my next appointment. She knows better. I'm a once-a-year kind of girl. Getting a massage, I calculated, is the equivalent of buying seventy avocados.
I think that might be the problem that Scratch is getting at. We are trying to fit writing into an economic system that doesn't match, shoving values into language that doesn't quite make sense, like comparing apples to avocados. For now, though, calling writing a "job" seems to be the best title I can pin down.