Becoming the Living Poet

Happy Writers Worth Day!

Posted on: May 15, 2009

Today (May 15th) is the second annual Writers Worth Day.

Writers Worth Day Banner

Writers Worth Day was started by Lori Widmer, a Pennsylvania-based professional writer who blogs at Words on the Page.

Here’s a quote from the Writers Worth Day press release:

Writers Worth Day was established in response to the increasing amount of job postings that offer little, if any, compensation for the amount of work expected. More beginning freelancers accept abominable rates. The message of Writers Worth Day is that every writer has marketable skills, and those skills should be compensated fairly and within industry-acceptable standards.

Reading this description makes me wonder why this holiday isn’t being supported by the National Writers Union since it seems like this would be something right up their ally.

From the National Writers Union about page:

Let’s face it: there’s more to being a professional writer than just writing well. Talent and experience won’t protect you from inept or unscrupulous employers, those who misuse your work, demand rights that are yours, underpay, pay late or won’t pay at all.

I am currently working as an search engine optimization analyst and online content writer (yes, I know this website isn’t SEO-optimized, that’s a conscious choice) and am not currently a member of any union. I thought about joining the union, but I think I was afraid that if I had to always demand industry standard pay for the work I do, it would be harder to find employment.

I felt this way, not just because I feared that other writers would be willing to do what I do for less, but rather because I wasn’t sure what the value of my work really was. I looked up the industry standard pay, recognized that I was being paid less, but the idea that I shouldn’t settle for less didn’t resonate with me. Looking back on a resume highlighted by positive performance reviews, I’m still questioning my worth as a professional writer; and reading over my MFA acceptance letter I’m still questioning my worth as a poet.

Thinking about my conversations with other writers, I don’t think this is merely a destuckification issue because every writer I know has the same stuck.

I think it’s more about how writers become writers and the assumptions that writers make about what being a writer means.

I have yet to meet a writer – professional, creative, freelance, or any other kind – who became a writer because one morning they realized that they needed to learn a trade so that they could have a lucrative career. I have yet to hear a newspaper columnist explain that they were really worried about how they were going to pay for retirement so they decided to go get a journalism degree.

It’s possible I know too many idealistic, artsy types for the people I know to make a good representative sample of the general population. It seems to me I may have heard some stories about people who write novels as a way to get rich quick. Those sorts of people may exist, but I think they’re the exception rather than the rule.

In my experience (however limited) most writers become writers because they genuinely enjoy writing or it becomes clear to them that they’re pretty good at this whole arranging words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs thing. Often they make both of these realizations at around the same time or one discovery feeds the other, i.e. a person who loves writing practices a lot and becomes really good at it or a person who is naturally skilled with language finds they like the high of using a skill that comes easily to them.

Usually one discovers that one is a writer long before one makes the perhaps even more startling discovery that being a writer might actually have some sort of economic value.

When you actually get paid for doing something you love to do, you feel like you’re getting away with something, like you’re somehow tricking your employer. Work is supposed to be unpleasant; that’s why it’s called work. In this state of affairs pay is compensation for the suffering your job causes you rather than any value you are giving to your employer for performing the task you are performing.

I’m now going to insert a short anecdote, unbidden and without warning:

A month ago I met a psychologist who worked at a facility where people were receiving treatment for things like pedophilia and spousal abuse in lieu of or in addition to prison time. I always thought that people who performed jobs like these must be saints with an acute sense of civic duty because it was a job that no one could possibly enjoy. I was wrong. This woman loved her job. She loved working with these people and minutely examining the workings of a pathological mind. It didn’t unnerve her in the slightest. She also got paid good money for doing the thing she was most suited to do.

The reason I mention the existence of this woman is because meeting her jolted me. It made me realize that I had been assuming that hating your job was the norm and that my headlong quest for job satisfaction was the last Never Never Land fantasy holdout I had left from my childhood. I had been assuming I would fail in my search for a job that truly fit me. I had been carrying a despairing, desperate certainty that the possibility of finding a job that simultaneously paid the bills and kept me from daydreaming about something better was a pipe dream. I had been quietly fearing that looking for this castle in the sky was just a fun game of make believe I liked to play with myself.

The reason writers take less pay than they are worth is that they themselves don’t believe that loving your job and being paid a living wage for doing it are simultaneously possible.

Well, I was wrong and so is every writer working for less than they’re worth.

Job satisfaction is not a myth.

People in other “more lucrative” fields are finding it all the time. Not everyone, the world still has a surfeit of suffering, and most of it is completely meaningless and preventable, but the happy people of the world are not a negligible anomaly. The happy people in other professions just aren’t writing novels about how much pleasure their work gives them. Why would they? They’re not writers.

Just because you would still be writing even if you weren’t being paid for it, doesn’t make writing any less of a job. You’re providing a valuable service, and writers deserve to eat and pay rent just like everyone else.

The enjoyment factor isn’t the only reason that writers aren’t paid well for their trade; it’s also a matter of public perception. There’s also the fact that deep down employers think that everyone can write well. They feel that the only reason they need to hire you is because they don’t have the time to do what you do, not because they couldn’t do it themselves.

But any professional writer who has worked with even a handful of clients knows the secret: not everyone can write well.

So I hope that someday some hapless English major, fresh out of college, trying to figure out how to make a living doing ‘this writing thing,’ happens upon this blog entry or one of the posts on other blogs that are devoting posts to this holiday. I hope that person, who I do not envy in the slightest, is inspired to reflect upon how rare the ability to write coherently and compellingly really is and how much value it brings to the business of the employer who is paying a writer to ply their trade.

Long live Writers Worth Day! I hope there’s a third, 25th, and centennial celebration of the holiday!

I heard about Writers Worth Day from a link posted on a blog I follow called Practicing Writing.

I think I’m going to go ahead and add Practicing Writing to my blogroll.

(I may end up adding Words on the Page, but I like to follow a blog for at least a few weeks before I put it in the blogroll. If I get popular enough to start getting link exchange requests I may post this policy on the about page.)

Practicing Writing is written by Erika Dreifus, a New York writer who has a list of publishing credentials a mile wide published many short stories, essays, book reviews, and is now trying her hand at poetry.

In her blog she posts links to contests and writing jobs, as well as her insights on the writing industry, and updates on her recent projects.

I didn’t add her to the blogroll previously because reading her blog often makes me feel like I “should” be farther along in my career, and I want this blog to be a safe space for me to grow as a writer in a veritable “should” vacuum.

As a total non-sequitur this reminds me of something very quotable that was said by a neat person recently:

I don’t recommend it [writing in a vacuum] anyway. They’re very small and dark, and often terribly dusty.

One aspect of my comfort zone that I really want to grow is to be able to learn from people who impress me rather than cower in the face of their superior awesomeness.

A friend I was talking to about this the other night pointed out that I am awesome too. (I have very kind and wonderful friends because I am marvelously lucky.) I want to be able to believe this, and I’m working on improving my self esteem, but even if I someday grow to think I’m the cat’s meow, I would never want to become so deluded as to think I’m the best there ever was at anything. There will always be someone better and it’s important to me that I learn to view these people as sources of inspiration and not as adversaries.

This can be especially difficult with fellow writers because some part of me feels like we are in competition, not necessarily for material rewards, more like for the right to exist. I feel like I need to have a certain minimum skill level as a writer for writing to make sense as a career choice, and that every person I meet who is a more skilled or more successful writer than I am calls into question whether or not I meet the minimal requirements.

But there really is room for all of us in this world…. or so I keep telling myself.


7 Responses to "Happy Writers Worth Day!"

I really identify with what you’ve written here, Keely. The fact that I read through the whole post – as lengthy as it is – testifies to your ability to do that “arranging” thing.

And – looking at the titles of the “Possibly related posts” – I will enjoy following your blog. Thanks for your honesty.

By the way, I also found the link to Lori Widmer’s Writer’s Worth Day project through Erika Dreifus’s “Practicing Writing,” so we have that in common, too.


Yeah, I’m verbose to a fault, but I’m glad it kept your attention.

Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to comment.

Hello to you as well, Cheryl! I’m glad we have “met” here.

Thank you from a closet writer! I force myself to admit I’m a writer, but I don’t say that too loud. My assumption is that if I declare myself, I’ll be compared to “real” writers and my self-esteem couldn’t handle that!

I’m beginning to notice these assumptions, and I notice that as I pay attention, without judging either me or the assumption, they start to lose some of their power.

This article performs a great service and I’m grateful. (Thanks, too, for visiting my blog!)

I used to think that being able to say you were a writer aloud was the hardest part of being a writer. My new challenge is reminding myself that the word still fits me even on days when I misspell a word and don’t catch it or have crippling writer’s block. I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t quiver a little at the power of the label. If you love to write and don’t give up on it you are definitely a “real” writer.

Your blog is wonderful. It’s really honest and healing to read. I hope you keep at it.

Just wanted to say hello and thank you for linking to Practicing Writing. Please know that I, too, hate, hate, hate (did I say I hate?) the word “should.” I, too, can find myself “cowering” in the face of others’ (apparent) accomplishments. I know how awful that can be. I hope you’ll always feel welcome at Practicing Writing.

It’s more all the contests I “should” be entering and jobs I “should” be applying for, than your writing style. The tone of your posts is always very warm and thoughtful. I like your blog a lot. I’ve been a subscriber for almost a year.

I was submitting a ton a couple of years back and this last year I hit a wall for some reason. All the time it took to apply to graduate school kind of threw me off my game. So that’s something I’ll be dealing with in future posts. How to start a submission practice after a long respite from submitting – a non-“should”-based submission practice specifically.

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