Writer's Dilemma: Your Art vs. Paying the Bills


Photo courtesy of Darko Drincic

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” – Neil Gaiman

It’s something every writer faces: the eternal dilemma of wanting to stay true to your art and true to yourself … and needing to pay rent and buy food.

I’ve certainly grappled with this for much of my life, as my entire adult life has been spent as a writer in some form or another.

And I have to admit: paying the bills usually wins, especially if you have a family to feed.

As a journalist, I’ve put off stories that I think should be told, just because my editor thought that readers wanted to read other stories. It was my job, so I did what it took to get paid.

As a freelancer, I’ve taken on really bad assignments, basically writing flak pieces for businesses, just to pay my bills. I’m not proud of it, but it happens.

As a fiction writer, I’ve put off on writing my novel and short stories in order to do the writing that needs to be done to bring home the bacon — the freelance writing and all that.

As a blogger, I’ve done posts that I thought would be popular at times, instead of posts that came from the heart. And while those popular posts were still written to the best of my ability, I have to say that the ones that came from the heart remain very dear to me … and on top of that, my readers seemed to love the posts that came from my heart just as much as the “popular” posts I wrote.

So how do you solve this dilemma? How do you choose between your art and paying the bills?

Put simply: do both. The thing is, it’s what they call a “false dichotomy” — it’s not necessarily one or the other. You can pursue your art, your passion, your heart — and still make money. I’ve done it. It can actually happen.

Now, I will admit that there is writing that’s done just for money, and as I mentioned above, I’ve done my share of it. And I will admit that there is a lot of art that won’t make you any money, and it’s hard to find time to do it if you’re not going to earn money off it.

But if you pursue your passion and your art, and learn to be smart about it, you can make a living off it. Let’s look at how.

Why It’s a False Dichotomy
This is something that took me a long time to learn — in fact, I only learned it in the last couple of years.

It started with some of my freelance writing. I’d get an assignment I didn’t particularly like. Normally, I’d just take the assignment and do what was asked, because that’s what I needed to do to get paid.

But I tried something different: I wrote it how I wanted to write it. I’d still do the assignment, but I would add my own perspective, take it from a fresh angle, experiment with style and push the boundaries of journalism.

It went over very well, with editors and readers alike. I was shocked. I would do that as often as I could, adding my own style to each assignment. I had a lot of fun, and improved myself as a writer.

And guess what? It put me in more demand, because I wrote a notch above many of my peers (at least, in the market I was writing in).

Then came blogging. With blogging, I could write whatever I want. I could choose the topic, and pick my own “assignments”. And I found out that I could write about things that I’m passionate about, that are from my heart, instead of worrying so much about the pocketbook.

Sure, I tried writing posts that would be popular, and they did well. But I also tried writing posts not so much for their appeal but for how strongly I felt about them. I wrote about truth and beauty, about art and life, instead of writing just for business.

It’s worked extremely well for me. My writing has been very well received, and financially, I’ve never been better off.

Writing for art and from the heart does not preclude paying the bills, I’ve discovered.

How to Write Honestly and Still Pay the Bills
This is a true art: you have to walk a fine line, and do a balancing act, in order to be able to do both.

Here’s the key: follow your heart and your passion, and be honest with yourself and your readers. And as you do so, take a look at your options and see which ones are likely to appeal to your readers.

Does that betray your art? Does that mean debasing yourself, and appealing to the lowest common denominator? No. Do not debase yourself — keep your standards high and again, be true to yourself. Do not write things you don’t believe in — but if you can choose between two things that you believe in, that are honest, and one will have more appeal, try that one.

Here’s the second key: experiment, and find what works. Sometimes you’ll find that what you thought will have no appeal, but is more true to your art, actually has a lot of appeal. Sometimes it won’t. Try and fail and learn.

And here’s the third key: you might have to do both for awhile. That means you might have to take the assignments that pay the bills but aren’t true to your art, while experimenting with your art on the side. And gradually transition to the writing that is true to yourself as you find what works, and as it begins to attract readership and make money for you. Take your time — the transition doesn’t have to happen overnight. Aim for a transition of a year or two — it may seem like a long time, but the wait is worth it.

About the author

Ghulam

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