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Why write?

The news is not good for writers. One of Australia’s great authors, Frank Moorhouse, is apparently going broke. He is unlikely to be the only one, with Australian writers earning an average of $12,900 a year from their craft. At least they are doing better than poets, who get by on a measly $4900.

What is worse is that these are the successful ones. Many writers struggle for years without ever even getting published. I have seen the passion and heartache of the writing life close up;  brave, talented friends have taken considerable chunks of time off paid work to write a novel, none of which have been published.

I wonder what these writers think when they see the bestseller lists week in, week out, featuring the same, familiar names. There’s Scott Pape, The Barefoot Investor, advising those wealthier than they are on how to invest. It must seem like some kind of cruel joke, that he is the writer raking in the big bucks. Then there are the health gurus, mining a rich vein of insecurity and narcissism and amassing a fortune to spend on obscure, but ‘clean’ foods and yoga retreats. Comedians, celebrities, politicians, all winning at a craft that is not their own.

Even when an author triumphs and is published, misery is not far off. Those who dream of the glory and adulation of becoming a published author are likely to be sadly disappointed. In fact, what they’re more likely to experience is scathing reviews (if they’re lucky enough to get anyone talking about their book at all) and an embarrassingly low number of book sales. Eventually, your heartfelt masterpiece is likely to find its way onto tables marked ‘3 for $10’, where in all likelihood, it will remain.

The poverty and despair of the writer is nothing new. Gustave Flaubert, the author of the exquisite Madame Bovary, famously said,

‘Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.”

For him, as for many, writing was both the holy prize and the shackles.

The Conversation recently published details of the jobs that some of history’s great authors had held to supplement their pitiful writing income. While William Faulkner and Anthony Trollope worked in post offices, Harper Lee was a ticketing clerk for an airline and Vladimir Nabokov spent time as a butterfly curator. With authors today earning far less on average than the minimum wage, they continue to work in diverse fields to supplement their income.

So, is it that the act of writing, itself, that drives writers? Not if you want to be happy, research would suggest.

According to Seek Learning, employees in senior management were the happiest workers, with 67% at this level reporting high levels of satisfaction. This is not a place where you’ll find many writers, who are notorious for being a gloomy lot. And who can blame them?

Philip Roth’s advice to a debut novelist offers some insight into the lifestyle his chosen profession offers.

“I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

If it’s not money or happiness that motivates writers, what is it?

Roald Dahl believed that he had the answer, while also recognising the difficulties of the writing life, when he said,

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only consolation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”

George Orwell gave his reasons for writing:

  1. The egoism of being considered to be clever, talked about and remembered after death
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm, or the beauty of the world and word
  3. The historical impulse, or the desire to record facts and moments accurately
  4. Political purpose, or to direct the world in the way he saw fit.

Orwell achieved these ends through his writing, but not all novelists change the workings of the world. And it is few hew are remembered after death, if they are even noticed in life. In modern times, some writers experience the benefits Orwell mentioned. JK Rowling stands out as the great exception, captivating a generation and reaching more than 10 million Twitter followers when she comments on Donald Trump. However, this is a level of power and influence that few other writers will ever experience.

One thing that all writers can experience is the joy of translating the beauty of the world into prose, the sense of having recorded history, even if it is just what they see happening in their own backyard, and the freedom of expressing themselves. It is some consolation in a pursuit that is so often unrecognised and unappreciated, but nothing like a decent senior management salary.

All things considered, it is some kind of miracle that anyone writes. Driven by impulses beyond the merely rational, they provide the world with knowledge and understanding beyond that of many of the most lucrative endeavours. We, as readers, can only hope this madness continues.

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