Earlier today, I went on the following rant on Twitter (read it from bottom to top, because Twitter):
The full quote was "Don't aspire to be a bestseller or to make a living from writing. Aspire to write." It was attributed to self-publishing phenomenon Hugh Howey. Let's get this out of the way first: I think I get what he's saying. I think he's saying that writing is the most important part of being an artist and that you need to be true to yourself first and foremost. And if that's what he's saying, then great. It's not a bad way to look at things.
It's the "don't aspire" part of the quote that gets me. Why the hell shouldn't I aspire to be a bestseller? Or to make a living writing? Back when I first decided I wanted to be a full time writer, I said I wanted to be the next Robert Jordan. Yes, that's worth a good chuckle. Set the bar a little high, McClellan? Of course I did. Successful people in any industry tend to be the ones who look at the top of the totem pole and say "I want that guy's job."
That didn't happen, obviously. Brandon Sanderson was the next Robert Jordan. In more ways than one. And I'm not the next Brandon Sanderson. But I can certainly try to be. There's a horrible way of thinking that goes something like this: you can't want to be an artist and want to make a good living at it. And god help you if you want to get rich doing it. I think this comes from a duel attitude among artist types. 1) "Be cavalier about your art. Take risks. Follow your heart." 2) "Be smart. Don't quit your day job. Have a backup plan."
I think the problem comes from the fact that we tend to follow one of those pieces of advice and not the other, when success comes from walking the tightrope between the two. I've pulled a series of tweets from Delilah S. Dawson when we were talking about this on Twitter:
"For me, teachers told me I was a good writer, but I never thought I had it in me to write a book. I had no blueprint for "being a writer". The first time I decided to write a book, it was after a move. I didn't have a job, friends, anything. I blanked. Finished one chapter. The key for me was making writing my calm, my escape from the crippling pressure of new motherhood. It was MINE when nothing else was. I'm on the "keep your day job" side. Not because I don't believe in you. Because insurance. And food. Writing doesn't pay immediately. I married at 24. Worked FT to support my husband while he got his PhD. Once it started paying, I quit my job and had babies. Now I write. Every writer's road is different. There is no one way. The movie Funny Farm is a great object lesson on starting a writing career. If you want to write, be flexible with who's working and who's pursuing a dream. Screw gender roles. Figure out how to make writing work."
That's how you balance. That's how you walk the line between smart and cavalier.
It's true that very few people are going to sell books. Fewer are going to make a living at it. Far, far fewer will become rich doing so. Don't automatically assume you're going to make Rowling amounts of cash as a writer. That's just as foolish as assuming you'll never make any money at all as a writer. But dude. Aspire. That's how you get places in life.
I've edited Mr. Howey's quote:
"Don't assume you'll be a bestseller or make a living from writing. But don't be afraid to aspire to it."