Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Is Money Necessary?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 16, 2013

I’m stealing the title of today’s post from Maureen Dowd’s terrific book, Are Men Necessary? What got me thinking about this subject (money, I mean) is a note I received from a writer named Charles Rosasco. Thanks, Charles, for letting me use your real name:

Brain

No problem: it’s just brain surgery

Could you comment on money and writing?

I’m really sick of hearing famous actors/writers/musicians talk about how unimportant money and success are (that it is “just the work” that fulfills them). I know what they are saying but I hardly think famously successful people are in the position to know how unimportant success and money are. The world is full of artists who cut their ear off—or give up , some such fate—who are never recognized.

How do we keep expecting to get paid/make a living? I published one novel, got some fair reviews and some rave reviews but sold few books.

Wow. This is gonna get deep. But it’s a great subject. Let me recuse myself from seeking any universal truths. I’ll just tell you how I feel, myself, about money and writing.

First, any writer (or musician or artist or filmmaker) has to face reality. Practically nobody makes a living doing what they love. Even prize-winning authors often have to support their families by teaching, editing, working as copywriters, whatever. I started writing in 1966; I didn’t get my first check till 1984.

If we’re writers and we dream of making money, we have to bite the bullet mentally and acknowledge to ourselves what long odds we’re facing. If we don’t, we’ll drive ourselves crazy.

Now I’m gonna channel a little tough love via my old friend Paul Rink, who was my first real mentor in the business of publishing. Here’s what he would say to Charles (and what he did say to me):

So you’ve published one novel, Charles. I congratulate you. I salute you. You have done what hundreds of thousands have tried to do and failed. How many points do you think the publishing of one novel has earned you? I’m sure you know the answer.

Zero.

Write the next novel. Write the one after that. Write ten novels.

Is your novel in a commercial genre? Is there a market for it? Have novels like it succeeded? If your novel is in the “pure art” category, do you know how many such books have made money? How important is money to you? How flexible is your ambition? Are you willing to write genre fiction? Thrillers? Horror? Will you write a cookbook? How about porn?

Do you have a great agent? Why not? A top publisher? Why not? Did you promote your book tirelessly and relentlessly? Why not? Are you committed 24/7/365, not just to your craft but to the marketing of your craft? Will you get out there and pimp yourself and your work? Will you sell your firstborn to succeed in this racket?

These are tough questions, but they must be faced. They represent the hardball reality of the intersection of art and commerce.

I was on the Paramount lot one time, going to a meeting that was in an upstairs office. The staircase ran outside the building; beneath it was a truck-sized roll-off dumpster, one with an open top. As I mounted the stairs I chanced to look down into the dumpster.

It was filled to the brim with movie scripts.

The music business, I’m sure, is even worse. Quality fiction? Fuhgeddaboutit.

A young actor once had the chance to speak privately with Walter Matthau. “I’m just waiting for that one big break,” he said. “Kid,” said Matthau, “it ain’t the one big break, it’s the fifty big breaks.”

But back to what you’re saying, Charles. I agree with you. I too am sick of hearing that it’s not about the money, it’s about art. I too know what people mean when they say that (and part of me means it too), but let’s be real. It’s about the money too.

Money means you can keep doing your work. Money means you don’t have to give up. Money is validation. You can show the check to your spouse. It pays the rent till you can get better at your craft and learn more and network more and give more.

Remember the 10,000-hour rule. The rule says that to master any difficult skill, whether it’s brain surgery or video-game design, you need to put in roughly ten years of work. That’s full-time, fully-committed labor, at the same level of intensity as that put in by a medical student or a fighter pilot-in-training.

That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. (And this is purely anecdotal, from my own observation; I have no scientific proof of this.) Those aspirants who do put in those 10,000 hours? They do succeed.

I’m thinking of others “in my class” who arrived in Hollywood around the same time I did. (I take Tinseltown as a stand-in for other such art-and-commerce businesses). The ones who stuck it out found work. Yeah, they had to do a lot of stuff they didn’t tell their parents about. And yeah, that dues-paying went on for years (and for many is still going on today). And yes, maybe they didn’t find work in exactly their dream field. But those who paid the price eventually found a way.

I recognize that there’s a self-selecting component to this observation. The people who went home to Kansas selected themselves out, while their friends who stayed selected themselves in. So maybe this doesn’t prove anything.

But anecdotally I think it’s true; those who hang in, eventually find a way.

In my experience, it comes down to two principles:

One, you have to be willing to kill and to die.

Two, if you are willing to kill and to die, you’ve got a chance.

And the third (unspoken) axiom: if you’re not willing to kill and to die, you better be awfully lucky or have a father named Spielberg/Jobs/RandomHousePenguin.

More on this subject next week.

[P.S. Charles' book is The Big Throw.]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

40 Responses to “Is Money Necessary?”

  1. Mary
    October 16, 2013 at 4:44 am

    Thanks to Charles Rosasco for the thought-provoking question, and to Steve for distilling it down to the nuts and bolts of hanging in there and kicking ass. No shortcuts. I certainly empathize with writers who have put in years and years of productivity and rightfully want their reward in the marketplace. I am writing my first novel late in the game – I will be closing in on seventy when I get my 10,000 hours in, God willing and the creek don’t rise. For now, I have learned to smack myself when thoughts of making money from this venture start churning in my head. At this stage I recognize them for what they are: Resistance. In the meantime, I keep a small frame with “10,000 hours” on my writing table to remind me that my focus needs to be on putting in the time. Thanks so much for “Writing Wednesdays” – it’s a high point of the week for me!

    • October 16, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Good for you, Mary! I’ve got a couple of years on you and am still struggling, working, promoting, doing side jobs to survive, but it’s all worth it when we really believe in our gifts.

  2. beth
    October 16, 2013 at 5:52 am

    I agree with Mary, Writing Wednesdays is a high point of my week also! Thanks.

  3. Kent Faver
    October 16, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I applaud Charles for asking the question on everyone’s mind. Is there money in this venture?

    I read a stat recently of something to the effect that a significant percentage (sorry I don’t remember the number, but it was more than 10%) of all novels published since the beginning of time have been written in the past 3 years.

    Back to the question. So many of us want to know absolutely for sure there is a reward at the end of our really hard work that we have started, or are thinking about starting, or are dreaming about. I’m guessing it does not work that way.

  4. Karen P
    October 16, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Steve,

    I’m more in the camp of willingness to die, but not to kill.

    So in context of your statement, “if you are willing to kill and to die, you’ve got a chance,” would you please elaborate on what you mean by kill, what you mean by die, and the larger picture of both immediate and long-term consequences?

    Thank you.

    • Kelly
      October 16, 2013 at 6:55 am

      @Karen- have you read Steve’s books? They will tell you more about what ‘to kill’ means.

      • Karen P
        October 16, 2013 at 7:10 am

        Hi Kelly,

        Yes, I’ve read and am familiar with all of Steve’s nonfiction books, including the latest, The Authentic Swing.

        Regarding the “kill/die” metaphor, I am interested in Steve’s elaboration, because this particular metaphor seems to me to evoke both and outwardly-facing effort and aggression toward people other than oneself (“kill”) and an inwardly-facing one (“die”). Whereas, my perception of Steve’s messages is that they focus on inner work. In other words, to me, the use of this metaphor feels discordant with Steve’s previous work.

        • Randy
          October 16, 2013 at 8:18 am

          My interpretation of “kill or die” is:

          What are you willing to do?

          How far are you willing to go, to push it?

          What are you prepared to give up, sacrifice, or set aside?

          What false beliefs or previous life are you willing to put behind you?

          Who are you willing to become?

          Remember, it is called the WAR of art for a reason. Good luck in your creative pursuits!

          • October 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm

            Randy, I could not have said it better. Obviously I don’t mean “kill” or “die.” I mean commit full-time, heart-and-soul, and leave everything you’ve got on the playing field.

          • ByHIsGrace
            October 16, 2013 at 6:40 pm

            AMEN!

          • November 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

            The greatest sacrifice is willingness to fail. My Achilles heel, not because I am afraid to fail but that I assume it! I’m a wanna be screenwriter with traumatic brain injury – try that one. It’s like walking a tight rope for the first time without arms to balance. But I do it everyday! And of course I fall then again I get up. I have a book out, its done well for me no Oprah show block buster. No one knows my name by it but I say “author.” I have a completed screenplay and an industry person said I have great talent and a great script. Like others I need a day job to support the habit of trying to be my “intended self.” I listen to the War of Art, thank you Steven. Working the day job I’m too tired to run to pitch fest plus I’m a writer not a self bolstering type in ten seconds. I’d start crying under that pressure! To tired, to sharpen that perfect query or money to pay for numerous professionals online who say they can help me get in the door. “That” door! We give up everything for our shot! But when we finally walk that tight rope from one side to the other let’s remember to bring another writer along. A wiser word: “To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given the chance to create is the meat and potatoes of life.”
            —-Bette Davis (1962)

        • ByHIsGrae
          October 16, 2013 at 5:53 pm

          Kill and die threw me…up to that point I got it…Not a writer but all of Steve’s writing applies to ‘life’. For me it’s sales…came in and read Mary’s ‘hang in there and kick ass’…and the light went on.

          Steve writes: I recognize that there’s a self-selecting component to this observation. The people who went home to Kansas selected themselves out, while their friends who stayed selected themselves in. So maybe this doesn’t prove anything.

          Yep.

          We, take ourselves out of the game…and then of all the thousands who try, 33-35 are at the tippy-top, flown in by the company to talk shop, to learn what’s on the drawing board, to give their input…it’s there for anyone to grab…we take ourselves out of the game, and those who stay, ‘find a way’.

        • October 23, 2013 at 8:39 am

          Oh please, give me a break.

          • October 23, 2013 at 8:52 am

            My curt response was to Karen P, not Steve’s great post. I have been a graphic designer for over twenty five years, I have killed, I have died and done things I would not tell my parents, and I have killed and died again. I am 60, I had seven years of art school to train the total commitment that began when I was fourteen. This week I am trying not to get evicted, so it’s kill and die time again.
            So, yes, the metaphor fits.

  5. October 16, 2013 at 6:49 am

    SO love this one, Steve. You nailed it again, thanks

  6. October 16, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Completely off topic, but Charles, if you’re the Charlie Rosasco who once lived in Hyde Park, I babysat for your eldest a long time ago. Martha was an assistant coach for the women’s track team, where I was (usually) the slowest 2-miler in our Div III conference.

    Hellooo! I will now put my hands on your book. I wish you the best of good fortune.

  7. October 16, 2013 at 7:09 am

    Steven, that was awesome and thanks as always for speaking the truth! I just finished my first book, it was a brutal up and down experience with some tough times in my life….

    The graphics designer is doing his part and I am excited to push this bad boy out, but then again, can’t pat myself on my back too much, time for the next book and the next obstacle to be conquered!

    • October 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      Congrats to you, Zach. As “Paul” said to Charles, you have just joined a very select group. Best to you and you forge forward …

  8. October 16, 2013 at 7:10 am

    The order we put things in makes a big difference.

    Writing in order to make money is a tough gig. Writing, and being open to making money, less so. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool artiste when it comes to money, and yet, the idea of selling a few books or songs is on my radar. Just not at the center of it.

    The ones who’ll stick it out are the ones who are writing because they have to, not because there’s a paycheck.

    We live in a brief period where books are a commodity. Writing to make money in 2013 is a fool’s errand.

    As the opportunists and less dedicated opt out of writing as a career, good books will be easier to find by impassioned fans.

    Writing to make a living by starting in 2013 or whenever and sticking it out for 5 to 10 years, that’s a more viable goal.

  9. monika hardy
    October 16, 2013 at 7:11 am

    wondering if that 10,000 ish hours might happen during the time period we currently call public/higher ed.
    wondering if we might diminish the living in two worlds (my art and my earning) for 10 years.. by redefining/upcycling/reallocating public ed funding. [as well as the trillions of moneys that follow/perpetuate 12+ yrs of compulsory ed.. ie: health/defense/political campaigns...]

    wondering deeply.
    too doable.
    too urgent.

    shalom.

    • October 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Hulloo, monika! Been a while.

      I just read Josh Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours” and his experience and research says that the hours that count are spent in intentional focused practice, not just using a skill.

      • monika hardy
        October 18, 2013 at 7:11 am

        hey Joel.

        yeah.
        not so much about the 10,000 as a number/checklist – then it becomes like money can. and certainly not about a compulsory curriculum/skill list. just wondering – what if we did those first 12+ years differently. might we have more intentionally bold artists and more self-sustaining communities.

        deep practice.. getting at the importance of fittingness.. finding/being the thing you can’t not do. calling that a public good/ed – facilitating curiosity – reducing the time between intention and action

        in the city. as the day.

  10. October 16, 2013 at 7:21 am

    Agree, Steve. I had a long converstion by phone with a friend and author who did all the things necessary. He puplished book after book. He had a top agent, top publisher. He worked hard. But he had a family to support. Even with his success, he’s broke at 65.

    My pal called me last night to say he’s giving up the literary life and has taken a job in construction. Not an easy job at 65. He wakes up at 4:30 every morning and gets home around 6:00 at night. Reading Rumi, he told me, has helped him come to terms with his situation.

    His is one reality of the writing life: Don’t quit your day job. And if you do make some money with writing, spend it wisely.

    • October 16, 2013 at 9:22 am

      I’m a musician/composer and writer, and over the years I have always worked jobs outside of my “dream work” to support myself (and my kids, when I was younger). Sometimes it’s been tough, but I’m finding as time glides by that the jobs I take to make money and pay the bills are getting better and better and actually are closer to my “real work.” I’m careful, though, not to turn them into “shadow careers,” as Steve described in “The War of Art.” I made that mistake years ago, and won’t do it again.

  11. October 16, 2013 at 8:19 am

    This reminds me so much of an interview I read with James Lee Burke in Writer’s Digest — he talks about how much rejection he had, and how long he had to persevere, and how he’d written multiple novels before he actually got to do it for a living. It was an inspiring read for me down in the trenches.

    http://www.lindseyoconnor.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Writers_Digest_-_James_Lee_Burke1.pdf

    • October 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Thank you for sharing this, I appreciate it.

  12. Jasmine
    October 16, 2013 at 8:53 am

    !!! Amazing !!! Thank you!!!

  13. October 16, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Wow, this is so awesome! I love this article. Thanks so much. I work as a legal administrative assistant. I have been working in the field for over 18 years. I just turned 47 and I’m back in college at night to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in English. I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon, but I will continue to read, write on my blog and hopefully, write novels for the sheer love of it. Thanks again. :)

  14. October 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I’m in a different creative field, but hear the same thing. Mostly the people who ask that question? Frankly, their work isn’t that good. Few people will tell them their work isn’t up to par, but the message is there in the unpurchased designs. You really have to do good work and the 10,000 hours is definitely part of that.

  15. October 16, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Amazing article, Steven! So true…love the words of wisdom you got from your friend.

    I think the part about ‘opting in’ and ‘opting out’ deserves it’s own analysis…how important do you think that single decision is?

    I think it could be the most important an artist ever makes…

    Thanks for the writing – keep it up!

    - Tom

  16. October 16, 2013 at 11:57 am

    This is an excellent question. Most of us spend loads of time asking this question to ourselves unconsciously. Truth be told – we do not dare to really accept the reality. I spent many years previously – by using the answer “It’s all about the Art/Passion/Love whatever” as an excuse for not pushing my limits and for not “able to kill and die for something”.
    Thanks to Charles Rosasco for asking this question.

    And as always – thanks to Steve for helping people understand the real truth (a part of it).

  17. October 16, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    I’m reminded of – well, a lot of things, actually.
    Samuel Johnson said, “No man except a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Isaac Asimov said, ““I write for the same reason I breathe … because if I didn’t, I would die.”
    Michael Connelly said (on an episode of Castle): ““You know what I did after I wrote my first novel? I shut up and wrote twenty-three more.”

    When driving and looking for a location, we ask for directions. But telling us to drive down Main Street is only half-helpful. We need to know signposts. We need to know an intersection. Main Street’s pretty long. Main and Where?

    I think it’s that intersection you’re addressing here, Steven, as you’ve done before. The intersection of Art and Commerce, the potholes of Resistance (and distractions along the way).

    Maybe it’s also the question: who are we competing against? Other authors and ourselves – like any athlete. (As a chessplayer, I’ve been at the “this is your level, as good as you’ll get – enjoy it, and learn from and admire those who do it better” frustration and acceptance stage.)

    But the who only works if it leads to the next question, which is what you said about the Muse: What are we competing for? If it’s the Nobel Prize, then let’s go back to bricks and barbecues.

    Thanks, as always.

  18. Ahsoka23
    October 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Wow, The Universe is really telling me something. I want to be a successful actress, and writer. I know it’s not going to happen over night. However I am willing to kill and die for it. I love it that much. I love everything about it. I have contemplated giving up. But I could not do it. And now I want to do it full-time. What is life if you are not pursuing your dreams? This was a great read and a very much needed wake up call.

  19. October 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks Steve! Right on point. The work is the work and money is what we get if we hang in there long enough.

    But the bottom line is, ya gotta do the work. And you can’t do it EXPECTING the money. Somehow the money has to be secondary. You have to sneak up on the money thing. Sort of like sneaking up on the Muse when she’s napping to get that really good, juicy creative hit.

    And so it goes.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  20. October 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I do agree. My publisher just put out my first novel and I’ve already accepted I’m making no money and keeping my day. I’m also getting my next novel ready. And the one after that.

    And I have a teeny-tiny favor to ask. Just consider, maybe, please, if you couldn’t switch the word ‘wife’ in this to, you know, ’spouse.’ If my husband were the writer in the family, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be hassling him about a check. And then there are wives who would love to show their husbands checks too. Not mad about it or anything. But I thought since that was the only gender word here, maybe it could be changed.

    Thank you for bringing up an important topic.

  21. October 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Before I took the leap to start my own business, I spent many years in a factory job (shadow career, really) listening to the lectures of Joseph Campbell. This post reminds me of a moment in one of those lectures I’ll never forget. A student of his asked Campbell if he thought he could be a writer. Campbell told him, ‘Do you think you can handle not making it for 10 years?’

    What I have come to believe is that each milestone along the way of a creative adventure is the beginning of a new 10 year journey, and perhaps we have many of those 10 year programs running at once. The trick seems to be identifying what that new role is asking of you, and yielding to it, saying yes, when your nervous system says no. To me this is the dying and the killing aspect of growth. Thanks to voices like yours, it’s easier to frame the experience as much less of a personal struggle, and more of a natural process.

    Thank you!

  22. October 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I’m just getting my first novel published. Am I expecting to make back the large amount of money I invested in the professional editor I hired? No. But I have the satisfaction that years of work have been accepted by a traditional publisher (thank god I didn’t have to fork out more cash to self-publish). As for my travel writing, I will not write for free. At first I used to allow freebies just to get in print but not any more. Unfortunately travel journalism doesn’t pay like it used to but $50 is better than nothing (for a story I used to get $200 for!) But that’s the way it goes and nothing will stop me from writing because it’s my life.

  23. Walter
    October 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    I think writing is the most painful of the creative arts. With music we can at least entertain others even if we are not making money at it.
    Writing is also solitary. Hour after hour of writing in solitude, lost in thought, turned on by our own ideas, without ever knowing if it is all worth it. I remember playing the violin, it only took a few short seconds to know if the audience liked it or not. With writing, well, only money tells me people liked it.
    Other arts, I think, can be rewarding without the need for economic success. Playing an instrument is intrinsically fun, even if we are the last survivor on Earth. Writing, I don’t know, would I still write if I were the only human left alive?

  24. October 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I’m an overnight success after twelve years of trying. For me, it was self-publishing my sweet historical Western romances that New York publishers had rejected for years because they didn’t fit the market. Sometimes success is about timing and taking risks and trying something new. And it’s DEFINITELY about persistence!