Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Sustainable Writer: What’s Your Return?

“It strikes me that in America we don’t much have a ‘sacred’ place or role for the isolate artist any longer. Everything has been sucked up into marketing and celebrity and the almighty commodity—so if you are a writer, you are meant to sell something. If it sells, it has worth. But in my heart of hearts I just want to sneak individual books into the pockets of sad people. Or stuff pews with them! Because writing gave me a place to go and be and grow when I wanted to give up. And I’d like to put my foot in the doorway so that others might find this place too.”

~ Lidia Yuknavitch, interviewed by editor Rhonda Hughes

Gig is Geoff Nunberg’s choice for Word of the Year for 2015. In his commentary on the word, he notes that our job-based economy is disintegrating into a series of gigs that represent not so much freedom as instability. Juggling gigs is a fact of life to those of us who make our living with the written word—those of us who, like Lidia Yuknavitch, long to sneak our work into the pockets of sad people. 

The gigs are relentless—demands made by an industry, by a culture, that can’t accommodate the sneak-to-pocket method of connecting writers and readers. They come courtesy of your agent, your publisher, your publicist, and your own oh-my-god-I’m-an-author-what-now research. Social media gigs. E-newsletter gigs. Website gigs. Book launch gigs. The demands of wish-and-star gigs that offer little of substance to sustain an author are among the reasons so many give up the pursuit of their craft.  

A radical alternative: Embrace the role of isolate artist, expectations be damned. This makes for short-term bliss, the kind you get from a stint at a retreat or a residency. Sadly, it’s not especially sustainable. If you want your work to be read, the gigs keep on coming. 

Another radical alternative: Take a cue from the business folks. You know, like your publisher, who annoys you to no end with concern about Return on Investment (ROI)—because your publisher is fearless about the fact without ROI, you can’t stay in business.

I know—we artists aren’t supposed to muck up our creative brains with business-y concepts like ROI. But if we don’t, gigs get way, way out of hand, and our writing life becomes unsustainable.
Evaluating ROI is quick, easy, and potentially life-changing for anyone who has (or wants) a career as a writer. Start by listing all of your gigs—those you’ve undertaken and those you’re contemplating. Social media, blogging, producing an e-newsletter, maintaining a website, engaging with other writers, that sort of thing. 

Then consider what each gig costs (or would cost) in terms of money, time, and (this one’s important) joy. Because if we don’t do this for joy, what’s left?

After estimating the costs of each gig—on paper, not just in your head—evaluate the return, in terms of the things that contribute to your own personal measures of success—money, joy, growth, prestige.
Your ROI analysis will yield surprises. We’re creatures of habit, so we keep at gigs even when the results aren’t that great—especially when we hear that you “have to _____” in order to succeed as a writer.

When you factor joy as well as time and money into your ROI analysis, you’ll make your own smart choices about each of your gigs. Activities that yield little return for the investment will be trimmed back, modified, or phased out. 

And don’t worry—you can evaluate ROI and still be an artist. A smart artist, whose gigs are more about freedom than instability. A sustainable artist.

For writers looking for a good Return on Investment, author Deb Vanasse is teaching Craft Intensive: Masterful Writing, an online workshop that begins January 25.