Melbourne is currently enjoying the tenth Emerging Writers Festival. As a writer who has yet to emerge (is there such a thing as a pre-emergent writer?) I’m keen to gather the wisdom of those who are further along the writerly journey. So, I went along to a couple of sessions involving industry insiders and the elusive emerging writers themselves.
One of the questions that came up more than once was this: is it ever okay to write without being paid?
Opinions vary. I’ve read authors I respect who say that writing for free undervalues the effort and craft involved. Plumbers don’t work for free (the aphorism goes), and neither should writers. From the other camp I know authors who have self-published, or even paid to have a manuscript published. They may hope for some kind of monetary benefit at some point, but rather than being paid at the outset they are willing to shell out their hard-earned dollars to see themselves in print.
“Is it ever okay to write without being paid?”
Then there are writers who sell their work, either books or articles, who also maintain an online presence and write regular blog posts. Presumably they aren’t paid per-tweet, so they must do at least some of their writing for free.
It seems as though there is a larger question that profoundly influences the way a writer may view the whole question of payment.
It’s a serious question, and not necessarily an easy one. Why are writers compelled to scratch away at their notebooks or hammer at their keyboards? It is frequently a solitary pursuit. Why choose to write rather than spend time with friends or family?
I can only answer for myself. I write because I have something to say. It might be an argument on an online forum, or a reaction to a book I’ve read about story structure. These things are opinions, and you know what they say about opinions. (I’ll give you a hint — it ends with the phrase “everyone’s got one.”) If you’re lucky enough to have an audience willing to pay for your opinion, then by all means hold out for the paycheque. Many of us are happy to offer our opinions for free.
“Why write? Why are writers compelled to scratch away at their notebooks or hammer at their keyboards?”
Then there is the other kind of writing I do. The long, slow process of taking the first spark of a story and gently breathing life into it, sentence by sentence, page by page.
In this case, too, I have something to say. And I write in the hope that others might discover the story as I have discovered it. That they might grow to love or hate the characters as I have grown to love or hate them. That they might be transported for a while into the world that exists only in my imagination, that the words I have written might serve as a kind of telepathic portal from my mind to theirs.
I write stories because they move me, and I hope they might move others. I write because I have something to say. And I hope that I have an audience to say it to.