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.

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21 thoughts on “Writer’s Dilemma: Your Art vs. Paying the Bills”

  • Great post, this is a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to recently so it was interesting to get your thoughts on it … I think you’re right about the transitioning which is what I’ve been doing over the past year or so and trying to take on new writing work only when it’s something I really want to do. Amazingly (or really, not surprisingly, if you stop to think about it), then I do better work which attracts other future employers and … well, it all works out better for everyone, and you don’t have to read the drivel I used to write just to pay the bills. Thanks for confirming for me that I’m doing the right thing!

    PS Love the new blog!!

  • Leo Babauta says:

    Thanks Amanda! It’s always a tough issue … glad to hear you weigh in.

  • miracle says:

    I love the new blog and particularly this piece.

    I have never been a professional writer, but have been involved in taking my interests and love for writing to various formats. I’ve written for magazines, websites and the past year, my blog. I would love to get to the point where I can make my art (writing on the intersection between faith and life) create a substantial income. I’m glad that you believe it is possible to get your art to pay the bills and I hope to see many more wonderful articles that discuss this issue.

  • Dan Clements says:

    I think there’s an interesting convergence of art and commerce somewhere in all of this.

    After many years of wishing the money was there so I could write more, it turns out that keeping the business side in mind from the beginning has made an enormous difference in the quantity and quality of my writing.

    Rather than thinking commerce at the expense of writing, I think there’s some additional value in also considering the opposite: pursuing the commercial side as another means of inspiring the work you do. Money is by no means the only yardstick for measuring your work, but there’s certain validation and motivation that comes from even the tiniest bit of financial success.

    I think all writers need to be involved in the business side of their craft these days – perhaps there’s something to be gained on the art side because of it.

  • My artistic nature has never fully trusted my practical money-making side. It’s a problem I have with my self-trust and self-acceptance. And it’s something that has to change.

    I am a painter, and I have done some freelance magazine writing on merging personal and business growth. I am also passionate about mind-body disciplines and metaphysical development. Despite the split I have felt between money and art, I have always felt that somehow everything, including the money, will come together.

    The internet provides an answer for many of us. We now have the opportunity to make money indirectly, while being truer to our passion than was possible prior to the popularity of blogs. We can more easily reach that unique group of people, spread around the globe, that will connect with our vision.

    It may be a late in the game for me — I’m 57 — but I see a whole new world emerging. I want to change up my painting, I want to begin teaching my mind- body practice again, and I am developing a blog that I hope will be a cohesive force in all of this.

    I’d say we live in the best of times to solve that “art vs. money” dilemma, wouldn’t you?

    Cheers,
    John

  • Nik says:

    . . . and what better example of the ultimate fusion of material and spiritual than the work of Mr. Shakespeare! As an independent producer he had to make sure his plays offered popular entertainment to the lower class sections of his audience and at the same time balance that with an undercurrent of deep sophistication that would be a magnet to his upper class spectators.

    The magic of his work evolved not despite but BECAUSE of this wonderful dichotomy and I bet he enjoyed the heck out of that challenge!

    Very best of success with your new blog, Leo and lots of love from Germany!

  • Oscar Valdes says:

    Great tips and very true, I follow the same philosophy and always enhancing it! Stay on your path through your passion, through what you love to do and success is at the end of that path, but keep going.

  • This has been my biggest problem. Since I became ‘full time’ (i.e. doing only this for money) with my freelance writing, I haven’t done any writing that I want to do. I seem to be completely stuck with fiction, which is usually something I love to do. If I get a chance, I sit there writing tiny pieces of crap before giving up.

    I want to be the kind of writer that just sits around writing novels and short stories all day.

    Now I just have to become independently wealthy.

  • Tenacious D calls it “paying the rent with our rock!”

    All kidding aside, there is point of unity in people lives that only comes when you have stayed the course and stayed true to yourself. Many claim that having passion for what you do is the key but I think it is really devotion to your cause allows you to build skills with your subconscious. Sometimes the lateral tasks that you perform on the periphery or treat as an annoyance because you can’t focus on the the dream turn out to be valuable lessons that fuel a success later on.

    My grandfather always told me “Take on the jobs that no one else will, work hard, and you will develop your talents in ways others never begin to fathom.”

  • -G- says:

    Wow.

    I am new to this group and a developing non-fiction writer. I have been throwing articles out there on free feeds and volunteered to write weekly for a women’s site to discipline myself to write on queue. But I have declared this a year where I find my writer’s voice and look for writing assignments that pay. I am also going to work on my book.

    At least you guys are writing to pay the bills. I’d like to at least do that.

    After reading these comments and the blog entries, I feel a welling-up, a knowing that I have arrived in the right place at the right time.

    Wow.

  • dandellion says:

    Thanks for all the great posts I have read tonight.

    My problem in this is, when I write “for money” i.e. as a journalist’s task I experience all the “bad sides” of being a journalist: I start writing at the last possible moment. I do my research as I write and, too many times, I bang my head against writer’s block. Simply put, if I have to write it, I cannot write. It doesn’t matter if I would write the same thing for free and easily just one month earlier, the moment it became “for money” it is not easy-going and inspired one.

  • Ben Goldman says:

    Hi all,

    Thank you Leo for this heartfelt, very inspiring article which surely will help those, like myself, struggling to figure out how to survive without compromising our true selves and artistic values. I am just starting out in the blog world and have yet to build a decent readership as my topic is a bit esoteric but I feel that with seriously devoted effort I will be able to do what I want to do, which is blog fulltime. Your writings on this site and zenhabits.net are so enlightening and encouraging. I am eternally grateful. Keep up the good work!

    Ben Goldman
    http://www.discountenlightenment.com

  • Tony says:

    Excellent article, and something I am currently struggling through. Sometimes it feels like having choices can be a burden rather than a blessing. Still, it beats the alternative of having nothing.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, and great Gaiman quote. I loved “Neverwhere”

  • Todd says:

    Art and commerce can go hand in hand. Think of Dickens, who wrote his novels serially for magazines. Renaissance artists were commissioned by their patrons to create their art, whether the patron was a king or pope, and what, if anything, are some of the great religious pieces of art other than PR flak pieces for the church?

    I think it’s a false notion that art can’t be “pure” or authentic simply because it’s allied to commerce. It’s a notion born of Romanticism, and I doubt the Romantics fully believed in it, except as an ideal.

  • Some of the false dichotomy is caused by the mass belief that artists must [insert verb of pain here] for their art, or it is not any good. I write a blog for the continuing ed department of my school, and to the extent that I write what I care about, what I think people need to know, and not just listing the classes that start next week, the more people read what I write. I’m not doing any traffic-building stuff because it’s not my voice, but in six months I’ve gone from 68 readers a month to 2200.

    It’s because I think what my college does is valuable to the community,and the community needs to know about it. That’s authentic, even if it is commercial–and for someone else’s product.

  • Leo, this is my favorite post so far on write to done. I have read all your posts. I would suggest writing more articles in regards to this topic because I feel that many writers struggle with this and you can provide solid posts based on your knowledge. All of us writers need inspiration. By the way, congratulations on your book with Hyper. I knew it was only a matter of time for you buddy. I’ll be checking out this new site. Thanks!

    Joseph

  • As a fellow blogger/writer, I like your new site and it looks like it is going to be a hit. You have some very insightful tips. Thank you for clarifying this whole false dichotomy and how we can all make money and use our own creative self-expression to do it. Looking forward to enjoying this blog as much as Zen Habits. Good luck.

  • J. Wallace says:

    Just discovering your site…nice work! Would love to see more entries in the Freelance section, but then again, I am baised :-)

    Keep up the great work!

    J.

  • Tedel says:

    I’ll give you my words in this one. Althoug I have been dreaming to become a writer since I was a teen, it was finally now in which I could find a job in which I’m being paid for writing (and designing) websites… and I feel happy.

    The point is that I can continue writing my dreamt things on my own magazine and keep my voice “free from pollution”. I never imagined that in less than a year without promotion, that e-zine could get more than a thousand visitors a day!

    My voice was nice to hear!

    Yes, I know you know the feeling. You have a lot of people (more) listening to you… I’ll be there too. Just wait. =)

  • Naomi says:

    I’m just discovering the idea of reading other blogs about writing for help with my own crippled process (as pathetically prideful as it is, I’ve always believed searching for help from outside media might taint my creativity) and I would just like to say thank you. You have no idea how inspiring this was for me to read.

    I’ll be looking for more.

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