Writing and the Immeasurable Payout

Recently, I subscribed to Holly Lisle’s e-newsletter on a recommendation from Publishing E-books for Dummies, which I’m reading as part of my Rumpled ebook project. Although my inbox is full with newsletters and updates that I often don’t have time to read, I’m glad I took a look at Holly’s post about whether writing is worth the price. I recommend that not just writers, but anyone who wonders about the “price” of their dreams, take a look.

As a freelancer who juggles work for a variety of clients, as well as a part-time job with fluctuating hours, I often find myself weighing costs and benefits in my head before I accept any project, knowing that to do so means I may have to give up others. Questions include …

  1. How long will the work take me, and how much does the project pay? In other words, what will be my approximate “per hour” rate?
  2. How enjoyable is the work? Or, conversely, how boring, difficult, or frustrating is it?
  3. How reliable is this client at paying on time, or how long will I have to wait to get paid?
  4. If the pay-rate is low, are there other benefits — such as building up my portfolio, reaching a certain audience, or bringing me closer to something I want?

The best projects, of course, are the ones that are enjoyable and that pay well. But I will sometimes sacrifice higher pay for work that I find more enjoyable. Ultimately, though, my goal as a freelance writer is to get higher pay for fewer hours of work … so that more of my time is freed up for my own writing. In fact, being able to make my own writing a priority was largely the impetus that pushed me to transition from work as a full-time staff person to a freelancer. The reality of making money as a freelancer means that I don’t have significantly more time to write than I did when I worked for a company full time; what I do have is greater flexibility, which means I can work my other commitments around my writing. And that is worth a lot.

Still, I learned long ago that I cannot apply this cost/benefit model to my writing. Doing so would utterly depress me. Ultimately, I want to publish a novel with a major publishing house — that’s my most desired tangible outcome of the investment I make in writing. But even if that happened, there’s no way that the advance would ever compensate for the years that I put into getting me to that point. If it takes approximately 10,000 hours to attain true mastery, and you secure a $10,000 advance (a fairly generous sum, and unlikely from small presses), that translates into $1 per hour for your work. As a freelancer, I won’t work for those rates, and neither should anyone else.

But I’m not writing this post as a freelancer. I’m not writing my novels or my journal entries as a freelancer, either. I’m writing them for something else, something that is not easily quantified, and that has meaning even if they never bring any money in. I don’t write with hopes of payment and recognition; but I think these things would be mighty nice perks, since I’m going to be writing anyway.

And I am going to be writing anyway. I appreciate a “break” from writing between big projects, but after a month or so I start to feel “off” without a writing project threading through my life. I still get excited for new ideas and for old ones; I still feel as though there may never be enough time in the world for me to do all the writing I want to do, to tell all the stories I want to tell. This both daunts me and inspires me. I expect that my writing will take different forms throughout my life, but I know that to stop writing would be to lose a part of myself — perhaps even a crucial one, without which the other parts of myself might crumble apart. And who could put a price on that?