October 16, 2012

You can make a living writing

Neil Gaiman's inspirational university commencement address popped up on my YouTube page after I watched a Sally Hogshead video. I'm not sure why YouTube's algorithm classified these two speakers as comparable, but I'm glad it did, because Gaiman's talk fortified me like few others.

One of the first things he says is that he never expected to give such a speech, because he never graduated from college. Never even started.

This is one of the most reassuring things I've ever heard. Suddenly made me feel less ashamed of having dropped out of college. I mean, hey, at least I started. I have more college education than Neil Gaiman. Which adds rather a lot of weight to the argument that a college education may not be necessary.

Gaiman says he saw being an author as a mountain he had to hike to, and then climb. And he made decisions based on whether they would get him closer to the mountain. He started in journalism.

Why didn't I think of that?

More to the point, why didn't my English teachers or guidance counselors think of that? When I was in school and said "I want to be a writer,' people said "That's a nice hobby, but you can't make a living at it."

People working in an office
Monkey Business Images * iStockphoto
It wasn't until 20 years later, when I was sitting in a newsroom full of people making their living by writing, that I got irritated. Had I been told "try journalism," and ignored that advice because I thought journalism would be boring? I don't think so. I could be remembering wrong, but I just don't remember being offered options like copywriting or technical writing when I was in school.

Lacking both a clear goal and single-minded focus, I sort of blundered my way along, until I fell into journalism almost by accident.

It is difficult to make a living as a novelist. But, as Rachel Hauck once told me, "You can make money at it." It requires a lot of hard work, persistence, and Gaiman-like single-minded focus on the goal. And it is possible to earn a living from other kinds of writing in the meantime. Or at the same time.

When I compare life stories with other writers at conferences, I find that many of them heard the same thing when they were in school. "You can't make a living as a writer."

Yes, you can. You just have to broaden your definition of what "writer" means. And you have to keep moving toward the goal.

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