Lesson from history: only a madman would write for a living

It started as a story on the Hokusai Manga, for the 1812 timeline, and it turned to the study of an inconvenient truth.

A horned demon holding a severed head and pointing to it with long nails, laughing
Want to be a writer? Hokusai’s demon is laughing at you!

Okay, some writers are billionaires. I’m ready for your list of best selling authors and other freaks. A lot of Hollywood’s top producers started as writers, or at least a few of the top CEOs have degrees in subjects like literature and English.

But history tells us that these successes are freak. And that’s where 1812 comes into all this.

You know Manga? No, not the fruit from India, the art from Japan. Yeah, out East somewhere. Well, apparently the “Mangas”, or Hokusai Manga, a series of historic cartoons, were started in 1812. They weren’t published until two years later, but hey.

The artist needed money, and so he taught. This involved travel, and seeing a lot of interesting things (which had more inspiration). He also published some books of his work. And this is where we get to writers.

The artist kept his job, but the writer he worked with was sacked because he was too expensive and writers were a dime a dozen. That doesn’t mean that writing is less important than drawing, just that the market preferred a pretty picture to a great set of words. Still does.

I met a poet once. Or twice. I’ll probably meet him again. He’s but one of the many “professional” poets I met, but this guy makes “a quarter of a living” through his writing, so I think he’s an example of above average success for poetry. He doesn’t even teach. (I met an award winning screenwriter once in a pizza delivery uniform. He didn’t quit his day job, because producers and critics don’t tend to give you tips.)

Anyway, he told a story about Homer going and begging through many villages, none of which gave him a dime, but then when Homer was dead and famous, they all claimed to be Homer’s hometown. He said this in a limerick. Historical accuracy? Hardly. More like a metaphor for his own experience.

Here’s a list of day jobs of some of history’s top writers:

  • Alan Ginsberg: University lecturer.
  • Charles Dickens (b 1812, grew up in a poorhouse): Editor, Travel Writer, entrepreneur.
  • Maya Angelou: Speaker, lecturer.
  • Mark Twain: Copywriter, editor, publisher, entrepreneur.
  • Beaumarchais: Watchmaker, inventor.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ecclesiastical and military work, editing, tax dodging.
  • Jimmy Wales: charges an arm and a leg to hear him speak.
  • Your friend who writes screenplays:  works part time in a supermarket, cleaning toilets, if lucky.

So many others are journalists (a kind of writer? Well, not creative writers), teachers, politicians, investors, inventors, or have other jobs.

A lot of my heroes died poor. Shakespeare was always in financial trouble apparently. There are conspiracy theorists, including many in academia, who think Shakespeare’s really a noble using a pen name, because no middle class person could afford to spend that much time on writing craft. Anyway, Shakespeare didn’t sell a lot of writing in his lifetime, his handwriting was awful, and he seemed to have trouble spelling his own name. Like most playwrights of the time and the century after that, he produced, directed and acted too.

Then there’s that guy who everyone loved in high school. Well, my favorite was Shakespeare, but for monologues in more modern writing, Edgar Allen Poe was a favorite. He didn’t have a lot of day jobs. But, he died in a gutter.

A few veterans wrote stories about their experiences to supplement their incomes. Diaries and letters of famous people don’t really count though.

There are exceptions. Freaks like Steven King or Oscar Wilde who actually make a living by stringing made up stories together. Statistically, however, you’re more likely to make a living as an athlete. (If you can prove or disprove that point, stop reading this. Become an actuary or work in the stock market or as a career adviser.)

If you still want to be a writer, read on.

If you can live on two meals a day, don’t need a mattress, and are fine wearing whatever second hand clothes you can get a hold of (even if it sports a political message you disagree with), then that’s not enough.

As a writer, you only need enough money for pencil and paper, but won’t even have that some times. You can type your work up in the library for free, or rent a shared computer for 25 quid every six months. It doesn’t matter if you have health problems that affect your looks and your voice, as long as your hands and eyes work you’ll be fine. Some colleges will give you free or cheap access to the internet and to computers that have software (such as Internet Explorer and Notepad. Final Draft is a luxury.)

If you can afford it, please shower. I know writers who sleep on park benches, but the smell can get unpleasant in the library. Some librarians have advised me to complain about “the smell.” “If you don’t complain, I can’t kick him out.” they tell me.

Books are free in libraries. You don’t need an internet connection to get inspiration. Read when you can’t afford to write.

I wrote my first three screenplays before I ever owned a computer. I used to take notes on those free postcards they give away at movie theaters and restaurants, and write them with the free pens that companies and government agencies give out. You can also take notes on the back of napkins, but those cost money and rip easily, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

One great writer used to ask of others a simple question, to see if they had what it takes. He didn’t want to know about talent, experience, enthusiasm, although all this information was offered to him. No, when someone would tell him about a “great new voice” his usual reply was monotonous but to the point. “But has he starved?”