On Writing and Reward

There has to be a payoff or I wouldn’t be doing this writing gig …

According to a 2015 report, a writer in Australia earns approximately $12,900 a year from their writing. Four and a half years later, that figure is still shocking. What’s even more shocking is I’d be pleased to be earning that much. Heck, give me half of it, and I’ll cook you breakfast and tap dance while I do it.

This blog post is about rewards—the whys behind the writing. What is it, if not a proverbial pot of gold, that makes writers do what we do? With earnings like those mentioned above, it can’t be the money. $13K per annum is insulting, not motivating.

Take me and my publishing misadventures, which, for the record, I am enthralled with, so please don’t interpret this article as a whinge. I’m revisiting my motivations. It may appear I’m not getting anywhere with my writing despite working hard for ten years. More than one person in my life has wondered why I’m still writing despite the disappointments and setbacks and, well, an obvious lack of books. In my case, it’s clearly not the money, so what is the payoff ?

Good Question…

Recently at a pottery workshop, I introduced myself as a children’s writer to my classmates, all of whom were professional women in their late-twenties/early-thirties. They asked me the standard questions: What kind of books do I write? Do I illustrate them too? and Would they recognise the titles?

This is where it always gets awkward…

I said no, they wouldn’t find my books because they weren’t published yet.

“Oh.” The silence that followed was swollen with assumptions. Unfair assumptions.

I quickly added, “I’ve written five kids’ novels over ten years plus—”

“TEN YEARS!?” the registered nurse of the group splurted. The GP-in-training looked up wide-eyed from her cup. The entrepreneur raised her brows, and the young HR professional gave me a pitying smile.

“Yep, ten years of hard work and great expense with no books to show. Yet.” I wiggled my brows and grinned. Such bravado on the outside.

Meanwhile, on the inside, mutinous assertions surged up my throat like a colony of bats fleeing a smoking chimney. Trying to maintain my façade of composure, I ignored the shrieking insecurities in my head:

But I’m not a wannabe! I can write! | I deserve to be published. | I had an agent once—I just peaked a little early. | I’m a professional—a card-carrying ASA member …”

“Shut up!” I hissed at the voices. “You’ll wake you-know-who—”

“You rang …” a mournful voice bellowed in my soul. Next thing I know, I’m figuratively flat on my back in a scissors hold with the thighs of my nemesis, Doubt, compacting my chest.

“I’m not published because I suck. | If I had any talent, a good agent or publisher would have scooped me up long ago. | ‘Pre-published’ my arse. | Too thick to write, too dumb to quit—”

If I know anything after ten years of writing, I know how to extricate myself from crushing Doubt. (It’s a little reversal trick I picked up from years of fanatically watching pro-wrestling … ) << I may be making that up.

The Struggle is Real

How can I explain my decade of toiling towards a tenuous dream to someone who hasn’t struggled? That young nurse worked long and hard for her career, but nobody questions her ability or sanity. No one assumes she must be kidding herself. If someone did, she’d laugh all the way to the bank where her weekly salary is direct-deposited.

Would she and the others understand if I explained the risk-averse publishing industry and how it throws its shrinking budget at Big Name brands and celebrities who get ghostwriters to do the hard part?

Would it help if I bemoaned the gender inequality in publishing and the dodgy practices of some “traditional” publishers—like making authors pay in advance for their own books? Should I give them the dismal truth about Australia’s piddly advances?

Or tell them that writing isn’t hard—but rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until your brain bleeds ink is?

Should I explain how long the querying process takes? Because, let me tell you, collecting all those maybes and no-thankyous and nothings-but-crickets-chirping took a long bloody time!

Should I mention agents and conferences, manuscript appraisals, grant proposals and pitch contests and every other blooming timesuck that chews up your precious writing time only to break your heart?

No. Fine. Whatever. Let the unfair assumptions stand. Maybe I am kidding myself.

Silently shrugging off shame, I sat among the young professional women, vowing next time to say I’m unemployed or something honourable like that—something concrete and easily understood and not insane.

Is this madness?

Is my vocation some kind of addiction, like gambling—but worse because instead of mindlessly inserting coins into a slot, I consciously slice open my soul and spill my heart and my guts everywhere, hoping Luck will smile on me this time? Or this time. Or maybe this time …

Forty-six rejections (including no-responses) for one manuscript that I worked on re-rewrote for four flipping years does not feel good. Yet I do it again. And again … What’s the payoff? There has to be something because that’s how humans are hard-wired—to repeat the stuff that pays off.

Payoffs Aplenty

I stumbled upon and bought a book called Payoff by Dan Ariely. This slim 100-page volume backs up the notion that the most powerful motivation isn’t money. It’s meaning. The three-point summary of the book says this:

  1. As long as your work is meaningful, it’s easy to put up with some misery.
  2. The more effort you put in, the more meaningful the work becomes.
  3. External motivators (AKA $$) aren’t helpful for long.

I can speak to this with authority. Money is overrated. (It’s not. I jest.) However, some payoffs come without dollar signs, and they are valuable nonetheless. Here’s the precious payoff collection that keeps me writing even after ten years:

Creation

I’m at my happiest when I’m creating. When it works and I’m writing in flow, it’s wondrous—like psychedelically wondrous. If magic exists, this is it. The euphoria that follows the act of creation is a reward in itself.

Meaning

What I constantly strive to create is a story that makes a child fall in love with books and reading. I remember the moment I fell—when I finished The Secret Garden at age 11 or so. That giddy, delighted book-love is what I want to recreate for today’s children. It’s a meaningful goal that energises my drive to write. And I have spent a decade practising and building the skills to make it happen. Meaning and effort—there’s my payoff.

Creative Community

I love talking about writing almost as much as writing itself. It’s a huge buzz to share tips, resources, and contacts to support friends on their path to publication. Helping others enhances the meaningfulness of my own journey.

Belonging

One of the biggest blessings of the writing life for me has been finding my tribe. Writing children’s literature has led me ‘home’ to a group of kidlit women I love and who love me. It’s an incredible blessing to have such dear friends and to see them realise their dreams of writing, illustrating, and editing.

Acknowledgement

Even though I haven’t fulfilled my publishing dreams yet, I have experienced growth and success on the way. Here are some recent breakthroughs.

Promotion

At the end of this year, I’ll be taking on the state-wide leadership of the Queensland branch of SCBWI. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is a worldwide body that supports the creators of children’s literature. I am so proud to be taking my creative community building skills to the next level. I’m grateful to SCBWI and its advisors for acknowledging my abilities as a writer, facilitator, and leader—even though I don’t yet have the all-important goods (published books).

Creative Residency Award

Two other bonuses came from my local government late this year. The Sunshine Coast Council promotes an initiative called Creative Spaces, which matches creators of all kinds to spaces where they can do their thang. In August this year, the Council awarded my writer-buddy Kellie Byrnes and me a four-month creative residency at the Crows Nest, a studio on a tiny island. What a blessing to be recognised for my art form with the gift of space. I’m using this precious time as artist-in-residence to write and also to explore illustration, a dream I abandoned when I had kids.

A Grant Award

Actually, this payoff comes with dollar signs: a generous grant from the Sunshine Coast Council, Arts Queensland, and the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). Their acknowledgement that I’m a creator worth backing is incredibly affirming. I’ll say more about this in an upcoming blog post. Watch this space!

Pay Would Still Be Nice

Creation, meaning, mates, belonging, acknowledgement are all payoffs that keep me pressing towards my goal of traditional publishing. Unfortunately, I need cash to buy more books and fund my wicked writing habit.

I love what I do, with or without the pot of gold. But, after ten years of solid effort, consistent growth, and generous support for my peers, I am ready for—and deserving of—a breakthrough. Here’s hoping it comes with dollar signs this time.

Image Credits

Gold Dust Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Wrestling Photo by Joe Hernandez on Unsplash

Bookish Magic Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Crows Nest aerial shot used with permission

8 Thoughts

  1. Dear Ali,
    Congratulations on all your successes … especially in 2019.
    2020 will be a ripper of a year for you…. I just know it.
    Sending you much luck and happiness, Karen & Steve xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen and Steve! I always think of you guys when I think of kidlit success. Keep doing all the wonderful work you do, making meaning AND money–AND helping kids! You guys rock. (PS, I replied earlier. Not sure what happed there…)

      Like

  2. Oh my gosh Ali you have no idea how much I needed to read this today. Thank you for writing this piece and a huge congratulations on the Leadership role and the recognition from local council, artist in residence! Oh my goodness, how wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

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