The Grasshopper Issue #83: Adult Supervision
Writing is about getting out of your comfort zone
If you need stability and a predictable life, including income, being a professional writer is not your best choice of career. If you write because you have to, because there is something it provides that you need on a primal level, and if you can shift gears fast, then this crazy avocation might be good for you.
Writers are notorious for being poor. We’re the idiots who need to do this thing and don’t care if we are living from week to week. At least that is how a lot of the world views it.
A few years ago, when asked what kind of work I do, instead of the answer I used for years, which was that I did business to business marketing (true), I started just saying I was a writer.
And it’s been interesting. I always say that and then wait to see how they respond. And the most common response is what do you write and the obvious underlying fact that no one has ever said this to them before.
It’s typically a squirmy kind of moment for me because I know that 95% of the time their interest starts fading as soon as I say what I actually do. And I think this is because very few people consider that someone had to write all those words they say and hear all day.
And that these people generally get paid something for doing it. When I was a guy with the title Marketing Director or VP, Marketing, I was a much more relatable guy because those sound like real jobs making real money in real businesses. Which they were.
And I used to care about being that guy, the executive. It sort of weirds me out to think about having those titles because I never really had a resume that supported them, until I did.
So I never told anyone that being a marketing honcho is really about writing, either doing it or managing it or both. So if I spent my day writing but collecting real paychecks, I sometimes felt like I’d stumbled into something and was not about to kill the goose.
And then I had an existential crisis where I got fed up. I’d ended up working for a younger guy who I eventually learned did not trust the people who worked for him, though he had a great facade of being a cool guy. So I quit and took a train across the country in November, a few months before Covid hit.
After that I stopped caring about my title or those paychecks because they no longer seemed important in the face of a truly unknown and unforeseen change in everyone’s lives.
And I shifted gears like a lot of people. My theory is that the lockdown created the online creation economy as lots of people like me tried to figure out how to avoid going back to work. That eventually got me here, doing a mishmash of writing, all by my choice.
At first, like a lot of the creator economy I tried to optimize my subject matter to what drew readers and made money. Then something happened. I found niche I really could get passionate about and found there were readers out there.
If you need stability and a steady predictable income, don’t do this. If you need direction, don’t do this. If you can’t generate ideas, don’t do this. You get the drift.
Because of places like Medium and Substack we now know we are not alone and that is a big deal. But the cold hard fact remains that it takes time and persistence to make this work on any level. That and a level of faith and passion that can only come from within.
To me this is all good, bordering on miraculous, and I know I’m not alone in this. But if you need the stability I mentioned before, don’t quit your day job, really, don’t.
There is a difference between editorial feedback and criticism. A lot of writers today don’t benefit from working with a real editor, the kind that helps you tighten things up, points out inconsistencies, or calls you out when you’re indulging yourself without improving the story.
Today we have a lot of places to publish whatever we want without any adult supervision whatsoever and, in my view, it is not improving the writing or the growth of writers. But this is a reality. Finding a good editor, the kind that does the things listed above, is not easy and many platforms have no budget for it or cannot expect humans to handle the volume.
We have agnostic, unedited places like Medium, Substack newsletters, self-publishing on Amazon, and other online platforms to write for. And a whole generation of writers who have never experienced working with an editor.
The downsides of this are some really stupid or arrogant errors, writers who don’t get better, and a generation who takes it personally when any critique is made of their work, prima donnas. And a lot of schlock derivative writing done to make money.
There’s the AI stuff too.
If you truly want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest you find a reasonably literate set of eyes and have them read some of your stuff. And then listen to their feedback without interrupting or explaining.
Everyone who attains a degree of professionalism in their field has a coach, a trainer, a teacher, or a mentor. At the basic level it might be a friend who is a reader, as suggested in Stephen King’s classic, On Writing. Asking someone to do this is scary and you’re putting a big responsibility on another person.
So respect what they come back with because it will not be what you expect, if they are serious. Btw, ‘it is really great’ is not useful feedback. ‘It is really great, but…’ is better. And if you get lucky you’ll have an intense learning experience.
Just don’t take it personally (don’t take anything personally).
And no, I do not offer critical feedback.
Editors serve two chiefs, the writer and the publication. For the latter they represent quality control and curation to ensure a consistent editorial voice. You should expect this to be prioritized over any feedback you get. Great editors, the legendary ones, determine the direction of a publishing house or media property like The New Yorker where editors are tasked with maintaining the reputation of a highly respected institution.
I strongly suggest you make the investment and subscribe to The New Yorker and read it, all of it. Any writer will find endless things to learn from the work there. And a lot of it is editing, the best in the world (in my opinion).
A little more nuts and bolts advice about writing in this issue. It’s just where my head is at this week. Professional development is a common topic in business and academia but for the solo writer doing their own thing, it is often put on the back burner.
But I think there is a point where you have to decide whether you are a hobbyist, a journeyman writer, or a pro. All are respectable but my focus in writing The Grasshopper is those aspiring to take our creative work to a higher level and integrate it into who we are as humans.
You can do what you want, but if you want more from your work, you have to work harder and find outside help where you can. And then you have to listen before reacting. Actually, when you get feedback, don’t react. Just take it away and let it distill.
Did you write today?
~ I write The Grasshopper, a letter for creatives, The Witness Chronicles, a weekly digest of three of my articles on politics and climate, and The Remarkable, a recovery letter, about my addiction and reentry experience. All are weekly and free with a paid option to share support. Please check them out.
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