On following your passion AND getting paid – Meg Little Reilly

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By Meg Little Reilly

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell♥

The psyche of the writer has been romanticized and mythologized for as long as books have been published. Writers are mad, passionate mediums of the muse – or so the story goes. E.L. Doctorow once claimed that “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” The lesson here is that writing is an affliction and an immutable compulsion. We do it because we must!

All of this may be true, but it isn’t enough. And it’s a fraught way to approach an occupation, which is what many of us are working towards: a paid living, if a modest one. (And sorry, dear reader, but it will almost certainly be modest.) There are few other jobs on this earth that we regard with such emotion.

That’s probably appropriate; it’s emotional work. But it is work. And with enough training and feedback, this work can become a tangible contribution to society. It can become something with a monetary value. Advocating for its monetary value – even as we summon the muse – can be a real challenge for emerging writers. Anecdotally, I think this is particularly difficult for women, myself included. Acknowledging the challenging economics of being a writer has always felt unseemly to me, ungrateful and hubristic.

So we say: “I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid.” We’ve all said this. It happens to be true! But it also undermines our ability to advocate for better book advances, compensation for freelance work, and more visibility. At it’s best, it’s a ladylike fib; at it’s worst, a harmful myth reserved only for the privileged.

It’s simply not a realistic option for women working long hours, raising children, or living in poverty to happily toil away at their computer at 2am forever. It wasn’t a long-term option for me. The reality is, if we’re serious about writing professionally, we need to make enough money to quit our day jobs (or knock a few hours off, at least). And the only way to make that happen is to demand what we’re worth when we have the chance.

This isn’t inconsistent with the irrepressible urge to write. It doesn’t diminish the ephemeral pain and pleasure of the trade. It’s the only way to free up a few real hours of time to write something worth reading. It’s the only way to get good. Sure, I’d do it anyway, but that’s not my opening line at the negotiating table. Not anymore.

The inimitable Virginia Wolf once said, “Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” These days, I do it for all three.

Meg Little Reilly is the author of the novels Everything That Follows and We Are Unprepared. She’s a public radio commentator, essayist, and outdoors enthusiast. Prior to writing novels, Meg worked in national politics and the White House. She holds a B.A. from the University of Vermont and an M.A. from the George Washington University. These days, she lives in rural Vermont with her husband and two daughters.


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