Excerpted and Updated from a 1991 PB feature on Arts & Your World: by CJ Fosdick
"The late Fred Allen once said "I can't understand why a person would take a year to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars." Well, today, even a paperback cost more than a few dollars and it would be rare to track a book from conception to bookstore in only one year. Why then would anyone want to become a writer? It's difficult, often painful and always lonely at any stage in your career.
Writing is a practice in disciplined art. But other than practice, there are few absolutes. Hemingway stressed simplicity. Steinbeck and Michener often said in three pages what Hemingway could say in three paragraphs.
My writing career was launched when I became a celebrity in the fifth grade for winning a Western Union Birthday Telegram Contest. I blew the $5.00 prize on red liquorice and candy dots you could peel off a strip of paper. Years later, on a new $40 Olivetti turquoise blue portable typewriter, I was cranking out features for my high school newspaper and a teen column for a weekly paper in northwest Milwaukee.
But it was my journalism teacher, Miss Caroline Gardner, who gave me my first memorable "absolute." Tin Pan Alley in New York wanted to buy some song lyrics I had written and submitted after reading a magazine ad that promised money and publication. They wanted me to send THEM $25 to get the lyrics copyrighted. "I wouldn't send them anything," Miss Gardner told me. "They should pay for the copyright." Years later I remembered her advice when I was tempted again by overblown promises from vanity presses.
I also remember the way she would stop editing the copy I wrote and pull down her glasses to smirk at her star pupil. I had learned the art of writing snappy headlines and leads that contained the 5 w's and h (who, what, when, where, why and how,) but I ALWAYS wrote more than column space allowed.
I still overwrite. All those years ago, Miss Gardner would swivel in her chair and point with the tip of her pencil to the sign that hovered like a headline over the blackboard: "The art of writing is in knowing what to leave in the inkpot." Good advice for any writer, in any stage, in any age!
Willa Cather once said that "most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before age 15." Personally, I think you have to live a while before you can focus on the world around you. (James Michener and Minnesota's own Jon Hassler waited until they were well past age 40 to write their first novels.)
There are several phases and a lot of "foreplay" in a writer's life. Almost everyone thinks they have some incredible life experience that should be written about. Even voracious readers often think they could write a book as good or better than the one they just read. Some people even reach phase 1 in a writer's life--putting words on paper. In phase 2, you advance to being a published author. You become public.
Financial reward and recognition are two of the basic PERKS to a sustainable writing career. Writers, artists and actors--more than anyone else in the creative arts--have a noble need for immortality. A need, sometimes even obsessive, to create something that will live on. For many writers, this creative satisfaction is wonderful therapy. Good writing will always reveal something of the author, intentional or not.
PERILS can often outweigh writing perks, however. Writing is a very solitary profession that requires a working space free of distractions. It could be considered a peril or a perk if you find yourself able to write only between midnight and 4 a.m., or locked in a soundproof windowless basement room. You are the boss and timekeeper, however, in control of your distractions?
Rejection is a definite peril. Yet some consider it almost a badge of honor to pile up 100 rejections, and still keep writing. Harper Lee, who wrote only one extraordinary, classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird" advised anyone who aspired to a writing career to develop a thick hide even before you develop your talent. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" was rejected 38 times, and ultimately sold over 30 million copies, a best seller in several languages worldwide. Stephanie Meyers who wrote the popular "Twilight Sagas" sent out 15 queries, received 9 rejections and 5 no responses. One publisher wanted to see her and the rest is history. I can imagine her perfect response to the 14 who passed on her talent: "Bite me!"
I'd also suggest taking rejection like a vitamin. Don't take it personal, rewrite if necessary, and RE-SUBMIT. Who knows? Once you've had enough of those vitamin-rejections, you may even get to the point where your sales actually cover the cost of postage, paper, a laptop and your secret stash of snicker bars.
In other words, release that dream of making a steady income from writing. There are only a couple hundred writers who actually make a living at this art. On the other hand, writing is probably the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn NO money.
I have a quote on my bulletin board that helps to ground me: "Novel writing is not so much a profession as a yoga or 'way,' an alternative to ordinary life in the world. It's benefits are quasi-religious...its rigors bring no profits except to the spirit. For those authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits just MIGHT BE ENOUGH!"