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How Not to Make Money

March 30, 2012

I spent almost two hours yesterday procrastinating on a short story I’ve been writing and, instead, tried to figure out how I could write for money.

I have a talent—the old saying goes—and they have a need. I’m good at this thing, so I should make money at it.

It’s the thing we all buy into in America, the reason so many kids sign up for college right after high school, even when they have no interest in learning anything: “The American Dream: make money doing what you love.”

What we forget to mention to those same kids, often to ourselves, is that making a lot of money at something could possibly kill it for you, if you’re not really careful. After all, someone’s singing voice can still be beautiful without a record deal. A painting by your brother that hangs on the living room wall might still be a masterpiece, even if it’s never left the house.

And writing for a small audience is no less special than writing for a large one. I often forget this. This morning, I had this great idea for a post. I worked it around in my head and thought, No, wait. Why don’t you try something bigger, better? Don’t write it on your blog, which has such a small number of page views. Send it somewhere big! You’ll get so much credit and recognition!

What always happens when these thoughts come along is that I no longer want to write the thing at all. I grow tired of it. It becomes work. The original post is now some sort of ego-demon, haunting the murkiest parts of my brain.

The thing is, you can’t plan fame or popularity. (Or even appreciation.) It just happens or it doesn’t. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be famous, and most of the time, I don’t want to be. But every once in a while, I wonder.

Many people feel compelled to write, but the more they do it, the more they realize it’s not going to bring in a lot of money. Even when writers are published, they go largely unknown, and most of them have to take teaching positions to help pay the bills. Still, it’s hard not get sucked in to the stories of lottery winners, like Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games. Who knew a young adult novel about a society that watches its children kill each other would become so huge? No one. I have no doubt that as Suzanne Collins was typing it on her laptop, she thought,  “My editor is going to hate this.” Meanwhile, her editor was thinking, “Dear God. No one is going to read this.”

The blogosphere has its own stars. Julie Powell’s food blog was one of the first to become so popular that a book, then a movie  was made. (Meryl Streep!) Mom bloggers follow The Pioneer Woman and Dooce, who have been said to make millions a year. (I have no frigging idea how that happens.) And then there is The Bloggess and Scary Mommy (my personal favorite), who have recently gotten book contracts. Female bloggers all across the country toss their sippy cups and spit-up stained t-shirts to go to the BlogHer Conference each summer, hoping to be discovered.

I have thought through all of this and come out on the other side. I now blog purely for fun and exercise. But summer nears, and my adjunct teaching takes a long hiatus, and I start looking on career search engines for “freelance writer.” I start imagining all the comments and money I could make in an article I send off to the New York Times.

What I have to remind myself—when I’m away from that dangerous computer—is that a brilliant work of art is no less brilliant when only a few people see it. I recently saw a popular Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I was so  annoyed by all the people there that I couldn’t enjoy the paintings. I just breezed through each room instead and spent most of my time in the gift shop. I much preferred a small and largely unknown photography exhibit, because I didn’t have to fight my way in.

The reverse is true as well. Just because something has been seen by millions of eyes does not necessarily make it the most beautiful. The Mona Lisa is worthy of study, sure. But it has become more a historical phenomenon than a work of art, and when that happens, the magic is gone.

Picture the most beautiful flower petal falling in the forest. If only one person sees it, is it any less beautiful?

Absolutely not.

It doesn’t matter how many lives beauty touches. It just matters that as individuals, we are open to being touched.


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