Are there Non-Starving Writers?

Are there non-starving writers? Yes, there are. The old cliché of the “starving writer” needs to be dusted off. There are all kinds of writers these days, and only a few of them are starving. Who are these “other types” and what shapes and sizes do they come in? Okay, let me have a go. First, let’s eliminate the well-heeled ones, those who hit the jackpot with one book and caught the eyes of good promoters; they became brands, feeding themselves and their supporters handsomely, and they will make money even if their next book is a telephone directory. Let’s instead look at the rest of the field and try to categorize them (and this is by no means a comprehensive list):

1) Those who published a book to critical acclaim that subsequently earned them a job as a creative writing professor in an institution of tertiary learning, from which they will never depart lest they become the stereotype of the starving writer.
2) Those who had books published, none of which made any significant money, but who then leveraged the title of “published writer” and cobbled together several adjacent jobs to earn a living: i.e. publisher, editor, bookshop owner, ghost writer, commercial writer, advertizing copy writer etc.
3) The celebrity from another field of endeavour (musician, politician, businessperson, athlete) who decides to write her memoir and is suddenly a bestselling author (e.g. Hillary Clinton).
4) The expert consultant who decides to write a “how to book” to increase his profile and sells his book in conjunction with his consulting and speaking gigs.
5) The retired person, who having had a full career in a non-publishing field has decided to turn his or her experiences into fiction or non-fiction. This person is usually armed with a pension earned elsewhere and is writing for the joy of the experience, fettered only by years of political correctness that runs counter to the incisive words of the writer.
6) The wannabe (notice I don’t even call this person a starving writer) who is enamoured by the lives of famous writers, and believes that he (or she) can be the same. These types tend to exit this hobby after some time if they do not hit the jackpot, or they hang onto the prestigious title of “writer” but retire their sparse output. This wannabe probably goes on to be gainfully employed elsewhere, finally making money, enough to forget about that crazy detour he (or she) once took into writing for a brief and idealistic while.

None of the above are starving.

However, one thing is certain: quality of output is ever-more in demand today while quantity of output is inexhaustible, and finding good nuggets is becoming a harder job. Hence publishers have agents, and agents have sub-agents, and sub-agents have student interns, and the gate-keeping chain is lengthening with the risk that good work may get rejected too early in the pipeline by the inexperienced or the unenthusiastic. Amidst this avalanche of content the serious writer needs to dig deep, develop her networks and place her work calculatingly and judiciously. Often, as is the case, the lottery may still not be won, and the writer’s best work may wither on the vine, or shine only briefly because the constantly shifting celebrity lights would have moved onto a newer brand.

But hope is a good notion to cling to and is needed by all of the above categories of writer; it’s the fuel that keeps the writer’s engine chugging in the belief that one day he will “arrive,” in the land of the “well-heeled.” Yes, there may not be a lot of starving authors these days, but there are a lot of optimistic and hopeful ones.

After the Flood – a dystopian novel of hope

John Steinbeck had a habit of writing in his journal before attempting to write his daily quota of fiction; a sort of flexing of the literary muscles before tackling the arduous task of creation. He wrote so many journal entries—one per day almost—that these notes and letters were compiled into books that are still in print. Thus, we have Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath, and perhaps others that we know not of.

So, as I sit down to get my third book ready for publication— the novel that I have slaved over for seven years, written at least six drafts of, had critiqued by various readers from academics to personal friends and my wife, had edited by three different editors, and had copious debates about with my publisher and his team—I am wondering whether all the effort is really going to pay off. Why the heck do we put ourselves through so much agony to communicate an idea? And it is an idea, after all. Are we writers that egotistical that we will die for our ideas, and also die if they are not communicated?

I have decided to write short notes in my blog of the daily challenges in getting this “dystopian novel of hope,” as my publisher calls it, ready for publication; a book that is set in the not•too•distant future where pretty awful things happen to our planet. My concern is not so much with the uncontrollable events in this cataclysm but in the way mankind responds to these disasters foretold as long ago as in the Book of Revelation. Will we built a new Camelot, or will we screw it up again? Given the recent stock market messes, we seem to be heavily invested in the latter camp. When do we get it? And what do we need in order to get it?

I have tried to provide some answers, some hope, because I am generally an optimist. But then, as Chekov said, the writer does not need to interpret or figure out answers—that is the reader’s job. The writer needs only to show. But that seems to be a bit of a cop•out, just like those guys asking for bail•out money because they could not run credible businesses. Well, I have taken a stab at trying to figure a way forward. I hope my readers will be kind to me, even if they do not agree.