How Do You Remain Optimistic About a Writing Career...
...in the bleakest publishing environment ever?
I’m going through copyedits on my book, an experience both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because copyeditors do god’s work, making everything sharper and clearer. Terrible because their work brings to light our lack of sharpness and clarity, and also our hackneyed ticks. (I’ve lost count of the times she’s caught me hedging declarative statements by adding “in ways.” 🤦🏻♀️ )
The copyeditor has pointed out that at the end of a chapter bearing the same name as this newsletter, I come to a pretty discouraging conclusion: that after 35 years of non-stop hustling in this profession, yielding diminishing returns, maybe it’s time to try a different field and to recommend the same to aspiring writers.
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I read her note about this on the same day a filthy-rich, mercurial jerk bought Twitter, the social media platform I’ve consistently recommended to students as a way to network and promote the pieces they publish. That advice probably seemed dated even before yesterday, but it bore the truth of my own experience behind it. Almost every gig I’ve had in the past decade or so has come to me either directly or indirectly from Twitter.
Not only gigs, but other kinds of opportunities. For example, I’ve invited writers to expand into full essays the thoughts they’ve merely hinted at in tweets, almost always to great results. In one case, an essay I commissioned from a tweet and then edited went on to be selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays.
Twitter changing hands won’t lead me to quit the site now, as some are threatening. Yeah, what’s-his-name will probably be a bad overlord. Three-and-a-half decades into this racket, I have yet to meet a good one. And besides, social media has been a salve for my pandemic loneliness, and before that, an (often fun) antidote for my homesickness for New York City.
Still, I’m not sure I can continue to recommend Twitter as a career-building tool. I’ve been interacting on that site for fourteen years (yesterday was my anniversary, wheeeee!) and during some of that time—before the atmosphere became hyper-toxic—it was easy to find camaraderie on literary- and media-twitter. You could genuinely connect with colleagues and other likeminded people, and often collaborate fruitfully.
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The bigger question is whether at this time in the world—when publishing and journalism are increasingly diminished—I can recommend pursuing writing as any kind of career. I think, in all honesty, I can’t.
That’s not the same thing as discouraging people from writing, and even pursuing publication, though. That I’m all for. Write to your heart’s content. Develop your craft, take courses, whether in an MFA program or elsewhere. Join a writers’ group and/or become part of a larger community. Send your writing out—and once it’s published, post it on Twitter or don’t.
But unless you’re independently wealthy—or have a partner, parent, or patron who is—I can’t encourage that you try to make a living the way I (barely) have for too long. I am seriously struggling right now, more than ever before (and this has never been an easy road for me), and I’m someone who’s fairly established.
At 56 it’s probably too late for me to switch fields. My only real option right now is to take this “platform” I’ve been building since I first learned about writers’ platform and its importance, and make being Me™ as profitable as I can for as long as I can—through my books, my newsletters, whatever articles and essays I can place. (Anyone out there want to adapt a bestselling anthology into a limited streaming series…?)
Nothing anyone said to me during college or after could have dissuaded me from this difficult path. In hindsight, instead of trying to talk me out of my dreams, I wish someone had told me this: you can do something else for a living, and still become a writer. This is true at any point in your life, and career.
If I were to find a new line of work to pay the bills right now, I’d still be a writer. (Would I also still be an editor and teacher? Maybe, on the side. That’s fodder a whole other installment…) But my chances at gaining new marketable skills are likely behind me. If it’s not too late for you, do it. Then make time to follow your writing dreams after hours.
I know what you mean, Sari. This is exactly the reason I ended up as director of a college writing program, which is 75 % administrative. (And why finishing my book has taken as long as it has!) And now, academia, which used to be a reliable way for writers to make a consistent living, is no longer quite so hospitable to anyone in the arts and humanities. But writing still matters. Your book matters. And I can’t wait until it comes out.
That's what I did -- got a day job, wrote essays and worked on this book on the side. On the one hand, I love that my work is free from market forces, on the other hand, it's hard on many days not to beat myself up for the 2 decades between books.