As I’m trying to do my work today, I’m finding myself overcome by the feeling that my past and present are colliding. I’m at a co-working space that’s actually a restaurant that’s closed during the day, and I’m looking out the window at the same block I used to look at from my first East Village apartment, which was located above that restaurant.
When I first moved to this neighborhood, I was working an office job, writing novels in my free time, and generally wondering what my next move was going to be. Now I’m back after a career change and a few years in San Francisco. From the outside looking in, I’m in a much better place now than the first time I was looking at this view.
I’ve found my way into the world of content, for example, and am finally getting paid to write. I’ve traded the laborious process of writing novels for a much more fun (to me) hobby of writing poetry. I now have a husband and a puppy, and my parents have moved to New York. What more could I want, besides maybe for winter to go away forever?
Nothing. Except … thinking back to that time before when I was single and made little money and had four roommates and no idea if my writing would go anywhere, there is one thing I did have in spades: creativity.
I often say that our best trait usually lives on the same coin as our worst trait, and the same can be said of the best and worst things about getting paid to write. Here are what I consider to be some of the best things about writing as a profession:
You get paid to do the only thing you ever wanted to do
You get the validation of someone handing you money for your words
You get the mastery that comes with working on the same thing day in, day out
Now, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Here are some of the worst things (in my opinion) about writing as a profession:
Sometimes people tell you how to write in a way that makes it worse, and you wonder if you should throw in the towel on the whole profession (but you also don’t have a clue what else you could or would do, because you love it even when you hate it)
To get paid enough money means you have to write constantly, to the point where you almost feel like a machine
The mastery you build might not necessarily be your best writing, but the kind of writing people are willing to pay for
So, we get paid to write, but then learning how to write as a professional sometimes means adopting a formulaic pattern that feels anything but creative. Then, to please our clients or boss and be able to earn a decent living, we pump out as many articles as we can.
After being in this industry for seven years, I’ve noticed a trend emerge. Some of my friends find that the pattern is killing their love for writing, and that the sheer amount of articles due each week makes it impossible to have any semblance of a life. So, they decide to freelance so they can make their own rules. Then, they realize freelance is better but not always all that different from full-time, so they decide to create their own blog and monetize it.
And why not? As content marketers, we know how to turn a website into a business. We know SEO, how to build traffic, and how to monetize. It only makes sense that a desire to get out of the rat race would lead to monetizing our own work.
This works out beautifully for some. But for others, it becomes an extension of the same problem they’ve already been having. They might feel they still have to write according to that formula they’ve been paid to follow, and that they still need to churn thousands of words of copy each week to garner any sort of growth. So, they begin to hate their own work as much as they hated the work that was assigned them.
Might I suggest something different?
If you’re caught in a hamster wheel as a professional writer, think hard about the personal projects you take on. If you desperately want to have your own blog, do it! But if you think you’d really like to write a book or play or movie, consider doing that instead.
After all, if you’re already getting paid to write, do you really need another practical idea? Maybe what you need is a creative idea.
The point is, writing for money might just always feel like writing for money — whether you’re doing it for yourself or someone else. So, if you choose the practical path of creating your own blog, do it because you really want to. Do it because you have a vision, you know your reader, and there’s a problem you want to solve or a dialogue you want to start.
But if there’s a book inside of you (or some other highly impractical form of writing), go there. Write the book. Do it because you love it. Do it because you want the little bit of free time you have to be filled with creativity. Do it because you’re already getting paid so dammit why not have this one thing just for you. And don’t worry about publishing deals or book proposals or anything else.
Write the book because there’s a book inside of you.
We all know the hero's journey. Maybe you’re in the middle of your own, and your call to action is to create some form of writing that is highly impractical but also something you want in your bones. Answer the call. It’s okay if you don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s okay if you have no idea how it’ll make money. You’re already making money so forget about more money — what about more you?
Adult life is full of tradeoffs. Are you going to spend the little bit of time you have in between work and family and responsibilities to do yet another practical thing that you will eventually grow to hate because you did it for the wrong reasons? Or will you follow your heart and make something simply because you feel called to do it? The choice is yours.
I know how lucky I am as I look out this window at the block I stared at years ago. I would never for one second want to go back to that time before. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the girl I was. She was bold, she was ballsy, and she had creativity coming out of her pores. Just because I’ve created a practical living out of my creativity doesn’t mean I can’t cherish who that girl was and invite a little more of her into my life now.
If practical work has sapped your creative energy, you don’t have to flush everything down the toilet. Just look out your window — the window of life before you were “making it” — and think about who you were then. There’s a lot to learn from that person, as they’ve got you to where you are now. Invite them in. Ask them what kind of writing you should do for your personal work. Then get to it.