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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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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

kelly March 30, 2012 at 11:56 am

Love this post, Jana! After going to blogging conferences and seeing my foodie friends land amazing opportunities because of their blog, it’s hard to face a blank screen and blinking cursor without feeling like what I write should be something that the masses love! I think we often forget when we see the huge successes of bloggers like the Pioneer Woman and others, that people read their blogs because they were true to themselves and people felt like they knew and connected with the person they were reading about. So, for me, that might mean making memes about baking and rap lyrics, even if no one comments, because a) I think it’s hilarious and it makes me happy and b) it’s who I am! If a million people read it, great. If it’s just me chronicling my baking adventures or trying to learn to find my writing voice, I’m getting a lot out of my blog, even if it’s not a book deal or a cupcake truck :) Thanks for the reminder that beauty is beautiful, even if only to one pair of eyes who see it!


Chrissy @ The Outlaw Mom Blog March 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Love this post on so many levels. Love hearing about your experience, love that it expresses many of my similar sentiments, and love that it has reminded me why I blog or write in the first place. Great post :-)


Jana April 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Thanks, Outlaw Mom!


coeliquore March 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm

When creating, we shouldn´t think of making money. If it comes afterwards, it is ok. But if it doesn´t, no problem. The important thing is, as you say in your final lines, the emotion beauty creates in the spirit.


scott March 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Great post Jana. It’s so very true. Creating, whether it be art, music, or the written word, should be done first and foremost for the creator’s enjoyment. And if, along the way, others come to enjoy it as well then that is simply an added bonus. And the quantity of people that do enjoy it should not be as important as the quality of enjoyment those that do gain from it. This sits at the core of my blogging problem as well. I started out with the intent of doing it because I enjoy writing but quickly got sucked up in watching the stats of how many people were reading it. And when the masses failed to come, it somehow lost its appeal. Hopefully I can learn to set that aside and start posting again for my own gratification and learn to ignore who is stopping by to read it.


Jana April 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

It’s so easy to forget that you have to do it for your own enjoyment. Yet when I try to have fun with my writing, I am the most happy doing it. You should start your blog again, but only if you have fun.


frogmama April 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I could gush all day about this post, and your blog too, for that matter. Yep, mark me down as a gusher. I hope you keep writing here because I will keep coming. Famous or not.


Jana April 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Thanks, frogmama. That means a lot to me, because I am kind of in love with you.


Randi Wall April 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I have been touched.


Jessica April 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm

This is such a wonderful post. You’ve written taken the words from my head. It’s interesting being a blogger who wants to also write professionally. That’s my dream, but I’m learning that I may never get where I want to be by planning. I must just continue on, do my best, and work at what I’m passionate about with the expectation of nothing in return. And if I do get something in return for my blogging and writing and hours spent networking that would be sweet! But if not, the journey has been even sweeter.


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