The Only Answer for a Writer’s Worry

The fantasy author Terry Brooks worked as a lawyer for many years before becoming a fulltime writer. Typically, writers don’t begin their careers earning as much money as lawyers, and this was certainly the case with Brooks. In fact, some professional writers never earn as much as a third-year associate. Nevertheless, Brooks’ ambition was to write fulltime, and so he set a goal: if he could publish three books, he’d allow himself to quit the law.

By now he’s published a lot more than three books, and I assume he’s earned as much as your average lawyer, but of course he didn’t know any of that when he set his goal. All he knew was that he wanted to write fantasy novels for a living, whatever that living might be. It’s a subject that often comes up in my conversations with writers of all stripes – that leap from teacher or lawyer or journalist to writer. The first career almost always includes a regular paycheck; the latter, almost never.

I too had to make this leap. At the time I was a waiter. My wife and I had come in to some money, enough that we could conceivably live off of it for a couple years. What I was writing wasn’t selling at that time, and I had no real prospects to replace what I was earning as a waiter. But I did know this: waiting tables occupied a lot of space in my mind and in my life. I knew that if I quit I would find something to replace it. I just didn’t know what that something would be. I needed the blank page, so to speak, of joblessness to find out.

However, my wife’s and my marriage is such that leaving my job is not a decision I would make without her. I had attempted this conversation with her before, but in past attempts I had looked to her as a child would to a parent to grant me permission to leave. She never did. The problem was that my wife was as dependent on my income as I was, but just as no one else could see the stories I’ve imagined but haven’t written, she could not perceive the opportunities I knew my free time would present.

I could not describe those opportunities to her, any more than I could tell her about all the really cool scenes in a story until I’ve written them. But I knew the opportunities would come just as I know cool scenes will come. So I spoke to her that day from what I did know, and that was enough. I realized then that I did not always speak to people from this place of knowing something I couldn’t yet prove. I had become reliant on evidence, which is a byproduct the past; opportunities always exist in the future and the present.

Whenever I worry I am peering over the horizon for evidence of my future wellbeing. A lot of writers worry about the future because no one knows how well the next book will sell. Keep your eyes on the page. That’s where all your opportunities wait, where all your happiness and interest and pleasure waits. Keep your eyes on the page and the future will grow from what you write today.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the creative writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How to Make Money as a Writer

When I was seventeen I had a job cutting a neighbor’s lawn. It wasn’t a bad way to spend thirty minutes: I got to be alone and I could daydream, which at that time was more or less a fulltime occupation. This job paid me ten dollars every other week. Even in the summer of 1982, that wasn’t a lot of money. Still, it was nice to have the cash, though I often didn’t know what to do with it. When I was done spending it on video games or McDonald’s, I felt as if I had just thrown it away.

That same year the band Pink Floyd released The Final Cut, their first album after The Wall. The Wall had turned me into a devoted Pink Floyd fan. I’d bought nearly everything they’d released, even the very early formative stuff. On the day The Final Cut hit the shelves, I raced to a record store, glad to have something useful to do with this money. Even though it wasn’t as good as The Wall, I did not feel as though I had thrown the money away. What I got from music and books lasted longer in me than food or the brief high of video games.

When I was forty-two, I began a new career. I had spent the last twenty years waiting tables and writing fiction that I had no luck selling. I had become very interested in what is commonly called spirituality, particularly how it related to creativity and writing. I was far more interested in this subject than I had been in any of those novels I tried to sell. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought about it when I ran, when I showered, and when I did the dishes. To me it was like a question whose answers always brought better and more interesting questions.

In short, I loved it. The problem, I had to admit, was that I had no idea how to make money sharing it. I had only ever made money by chopping wood, whether mowing lawns or serving steaks. I had never been paid for what I would happily do for free. At that time, being paid for what I loved seemed no more real than those daydreams through which I would float as a teenager. I knew how to write, and I knew how to speak to groups; now I would have to learn how to be paid for it.

Seven years later I found myself standing behind a podium in a conference hall delivering a thirty-minute keynote speech to eight hundred writers. How did I get there? I suppose it had something to do with blogs I had written, or interviews I had done, and classes I had taught, but in truth the most important thing I had done was to focus every day on how much I valued what I wanted to share. People pay for what they value. The more clearly I perceived the value of what I was writing about, the more clearly others could perceive it as well.

If you want to make money as a writer, put all your attention on how much you value the story you’re telling. If you want to research markets, fine; if you want to improve your craft, fine. But none of that will help if you do not perceive the value of your story or poem or essay while it grows in a garden no one else can see. Somewhere out there are readers who are just as eager as I had been with The Final Cut to trade their money for what they will find in your story. But first you must know the value of what you love, independent of anyone else’s opinion, know it as you know how much you love the stories you buy; and what might have once seemed like a dream will grow inevitably into reality.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Choosing Games

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but there’s the money, so tangible and measureable and necessary, that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than where safety does or does not exist.

Money also reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to others.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Body and Soul

It doesn’t matter whether I am interviewing an award-winning literary writer on Author2Author or talking to a group of beginning writers at a writer’s conference, by and by the subject of money will likely come up. The established writer might wonder if he will “sell through” on his latest advance, while the beginning writer will ask if it is really possible to make a living at this and at what point can one quit one’s day job.

I think all the questions around writing and money really come down to this: Can I make a living doing something I would happily do for free? By the time a writer sits down to write, and then to try to publish that first book, he has likely been earning a living in some job or another. He probably – though certainly not always – wouldn’t do that job unless he were paid to do so. This was certainly true of me. I made a living as a waiter for twenty years. It was good work, it fit my writing schedule nicely, but I wouldn’t have done it for one minute without the promise of payment.

I had to train myself to live like this, a training that began in school. I liked school well enough, the teachers were nice, I had friends, the work wasn’t hard – but if a foot of snow dropped and school was cancelled, I was overjoyed. Now I was free to do what I wanted, not what I had to. But this is life. You do what you have to do. You chop wood and carry the wood because you need a fire and if you don’t, it won’t get done. It’s called being an adult.

To write for a living, we must forget this training. Writing for a living contradicts the story most adults learn to accept. To write for a living, I must be willing to admit that the story I told to keep me safe and fed in the world, the story whose acceptance defined my manhood and maturity, was never more than that – a story. To write for a living means to create no separation between love and money, between joy and survival. Every time I am paid for what I would gladly do for free, I close that unfriendly gap between body and soul, and can forget that the world ever wanted anything from me other than exactly what I am.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

My Only Job

I wrote yesterday about how we already have everything we want. However, as a friend pointed out to me, feeling good by itself, which is all I believe anyone really wants, won’t buy you groceries. This is quite true. And it is also true that it is hard to feel good when you’re starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of a war. So maybe feeling good is actually what comes after we’ve secured groceries, and put a roof over our heads, and the cannons have ceased their thunder. Maybe feeling good is only the payoff once we have dealt with the necessary business, not of living, but simply surviving, of not-dying.

Maybe. Except that while it is hard to feel good while starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of the war, it is not impossible, and that makes all the difference. Somewhere someone has found peace in a warzone, has found safety while homeless, has found strength while starving, the same as somewhere someone can find their balance while standing on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers. Conditions cannot control how we feel, though they can challenge us. When we surrender what we feel to our conditions, when we make our wellbeing conditional rather than unconditional, we surrender the very life we are supposedly trying to maintain in our struggle for survival.

Which is why I love the arts. What if, I asked myself many years ago, I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head simply by doing what felt good? What if my job was to feel good? What if telling stories and inspiring writers and creative people would be all I needed to do to survive? What if this story – that feeling good is only what comes after the dirty business of survival has been dealt with – is a myth we’ve been feeding ourselves since the days in the caves?

I have to answer and answer and answer this question every moment of every day, the same as I must find my balance whenever I stand. Mostly, I live on level ground, but high ledges and balances beams and even tightropes present themselves from time to time. I’m going to fall; I have accepted this. No matter. My balance remains within me, there for me to find whatever the conditions.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Future Leaders

When I was fifteen I was selected to represent my high school at a weekend retreat for the Future Leaders of America. This was in 1980, and I had grown up through the seventies believing that leaders were people who sought their position for power and personal gain and were generally not to be trusted. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of other people telling me what to do, which seemed to be in a leader’s job description.

Nonetheless, there I was at the orientation meeting one afternoon at the Providence Marriott. I sat around a table with four other bright over-achievers. While we waited to be oriented, someone asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Around the table we went: doctor, businessman, lawyer, lawyer – and then me.

“I want to be a writer.”

My four new companions stared back at me in confusion. “Why?” asked the girl next to me.

“Because I like to write,” I answered.

More confusion. Finally, another boy asked, “But what about money?”

For a moment, I hated them all. I hated them for their conservatism, for their agreement, and for asking that stupid question for which I had no ready answer. How could they not see, I wondered, that it was more important to do something you loved than select something that will make you a lot of money? I looked around the conference room at the other future leaders, at my new enemies, and felt alone.

I attended the retreat, though more as a conscientious objector than a full participant. I was still haunted by the question I had asked at the orientation. How could they not see how important it was to do what you loved? It turned out not be such a simple question to answer. I would ask it and ask it until one day I looked up saw that I loved virtually nothing that I was doing. Now I had my answer, and now there was nothing to do but lead myself back to what I had once known.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Strange Business

I have a writer friend who usually has one piece of advice for every new writer: Remember, it’s a business.

As with all of our favorite pieces of advice, this was a lesson I believe he was forced to learn experientially, a lesson he probably learned again and again, and may, for all I know, still be learning. If books do not sell, they are pulled from the shelves. If an author cannot earn back a sufficient portion of her advance, her advances will go down. Publishers buy books they believe they can sell, and they sell those books to make money. It’s a business. That’s what businesses do.

There is a reason writers need to be reminded that publishing is in fact a business. Publishing may be an engine that, like all businesses – from banking to grocery stores – exists to earn its participants their living wage, but it is an engine whose primary fuel source is imagination. Without imagination, there would be no publishing business.

The problem with the imagination is that it does not care about money. The imagination does not care that publishing is a business. The imagination does not care what is hot or trendy, or about Facebook or Twitter or blog tours. The imagination is loyal and tireless, but it does not care what kind of car you drive or which house you live in or what wine you drink. All the imagination wants to do is make stuff. What you do with that stuff is your business.

I am sure there are publishing CEOs who lay awake some nights wishing they could simply drill into writers’ heads and extract imagination like crude oil. There are probably desperate writers who share this wish. Unfortunately, you could drill a thousand holes in my head but you would never find a single scrap of my imagination. My brains, yes, but not my imagination.

What a strange business this is. All those books we hold in our hands, all those office towers built on publishing profits exist because of something we will never see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Viewed from a certain angle, it is a business built on nothing. Viewed from another, it is a business built on everything.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter