Anybody who’s ever taken pen to paper has probably asked themselves: why on earth am I doing this? The endlessly reproducible medium of digital has decimated the old media model – forcing book, newspaper and magazine publishers to pivot to new business models. Writers no longer get big advances, lavish launch parties, or, frankly, the acclaim they once did. Writers are advised to create their own personal “brand” in order to generate sales. This means hours of content creation across social media, each day, cultivating an audience and developing an idealized persona that will sell. This means – more often than not – writing for free, for the promise of exposure.
The heart of the issue is that it is nearly impossible to make a living as an author without submitting one’s self to the cult of the “branded self.” Unless you’re trolling people on social and making incendiary Fox or CNN worthy soundbites, you probably won’t reach the critical mass of publicity which will allow you to become a bestseller, or to get more than nominal checks from newspapers and magazines. We writers, for the most part, have side hustles in the form of fulltime jobs in order to sustain our true vocation of writing.
I don’t necessarily lament the state of things. Hell, I’m publishing this piece on my own site, where I can instantly reach a global audience (and it only costs me about $12 a month in hosting fees). I can self-publish a book with utmost ease on Amazon. I can market myself on Instagram and Twitter. There are many advantages to this kind of freedom, which, if it doesn’t go the way of censorious China, is here to stay. We all have a soapbox we can climb onto, with the potential to speak to everybody.
As a veteran of the advertising world, one phrase I’ve heardad nauseum in boardrooms is “cutting through the clutter.” But how does this tactic, ahem, “cut through the clutter?” Advertisers always look for the spark in a campaign which will set them apart, which is why controversial messaging is so often co-opted. Even anti-capitalist messaging is co-opted for profit-driven brands (case in point: Pepsi’s ad with Kendall Jenner using #woke protest imagery).
A writer in this environment asks themselves the same question as the shark-eyed brand strategists in an advertising agency’s boardroom. It’s a Faustian bargain: Do you sell your soul and surf the #trending topic of the day? Or do you risk oblivion in a tsunami of content on the internet while remaining true to yourself?
You, dear writer, ask yourself again, “Why am I doing this?” If your answer is for fame and money, you probably belong in an ad agency writing copy. If you have the chops, and you’re mercenary enough, you can make six figures a year writing slogans and value propositions for brands you have no personal affinity with. It can be lucrative, but potentially soul-sucking. If your answer is, “I write because I have to,” be prepared for years of toiling in obscurity. Yes, there are always literary breakouts, the chosen few who can eschew self-immolation on social media. Those are few and very far in between.
As a writer – and not simply a wordsmith – you defy all logic. It simply doesn’t make economic sense. Your parents are baffled, disappointed and concerned. Your friends tolerate your requests for beta reads, but are mildly annoyed. Your colleagues and associates pity you. To top it off, you take on the burden of multiple fulltime jobs just by deciding to go on the journey. You never know where the journey will take you, or, if anybody will even notice your feats along the way. Self-doubt is your most constant passenger. Writing because you have to is an act of defiance against sensible people. It’s a hard road to travel, but potentially rewarding. Like stepping off the beaten path on a mountain trail, you might get lost if you follow your instinct, but maybe – just maybe – you might discover an untapped oasis.