Tuesday, February 22, 2011

why is writing work?

It's been said that the reason you pay someone to do a job is that the job is something you either can't do, or you don't want to do. This isn't a bad thing: if it was, people wouldn't have jobs. In sometimes roundabout ways, my husband and I pay people to farm, to fix my home, to build computers, to police our streets, to staff our libraries . . . and so much more. So, profitability consists in getting paid for doing something someone else wants done.

Anyway, the last time I heard this pointed out, I started wondering, What is it that we are paying authors to do? What is the thing that we want done?

When it comes to non-fiction authors, I think the question is pretty easily answered: we're paying for information. We're also paying to follow their thinking, i.e., we're paying them to hold our hands as they walk through the long answer to the question How does an expert in this field think about this subject? whether that subject be philosophy, theology, education, health, or something else entirely. We want to pick their brains. We want to be educated.

Then, you come to fiction. You come to novelists. To be perfectly honest, the way I first framed this question was: what is it people will be paying me for if I get published? What am I doing that they want done?

And part of the answer, I think, is that when people pay authors, they are paying for more. Most people, after all, daydream. Or tell themselves stories. Or ask, what if? when they hear about an odd situation, setting, or character. So when we buy novels, we are paying someone to do more of something we can already do ourselves. Much like a master craftsman might pay a partner a share of the profits - not to do something different than he's doing himself, just to do more of it.

I think also, at least for me, I'm paying for a different worldview. I'm paying to be let inside the author's head. Sayers sees the world in a way I can't see it unless I read her words. Czerneda introduces me to settings I never would have dreamed up on my own. Bujold shows me ways to think about relationships that enlighten me. All three of those women have a better imagination than mine, and I'm paying for a glimpse into it.

All of this is pretty obvious. We want more of what we already like and we want better and different than we already have. More stories! Better stories!

But, as I've hit the 60,00 word point in my current work-in-progress (which means I am much nearer to the end than the beginning, but not yet done), I'm realizing that we pay authors for something else. Even if this particular novel never sees publication - and it might not be good enough; I won't know till it's done and sent out - and even though it's not my first, it's taught me something about work. It is work to write a novel all the way to the end.

It's showed me that when I buy I book, one of the things I am paying the author for is perseverance. Daydreams are easy (the ease is what makes them attractive) - and short. And even the long ones, the ones I dream time and time again, always making them more elaborate, do not have the disciplined structure that is needed in a novel. My daydreams are delightful to me, but they wouldn't be to anyone else, because no one else would know where I started from or how I'm sure it will end well or why it matters. I could answer all of those questions, of course, but that would be taking the daydream from the leisure category and moving it into the work category. To take that daydream and nail it to the wall, to examine it and see if it has the nucleus that's needed to grow a full-fledged body, to make it start at the beginning and force it to walk all the long road to the end, never letting tension or heart flag . . . that's work. That's writing.

That's what I'm willing to pay someone else to do.

That's what I want to get paid for myself.

So, what are you paying an author for when you buy his or her work? I'm genuinely curious. These are my answers, but I'm sure they're neither sufficient nor unassailable. Let me know what it looks like from your perspective - yes, more imagination-borrowing, and without pay. Oh dear! :)

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


Willa said...

I think you're right -- when I read a book, even a free Kindle one, I am paying with time and attention if not with $$$. In return, I am hoping to see from a different perspective than my own-- but close enough so that I feel recognition, too. I'm also looking to see character's circumstances and choices played out in a coherent, well-imagined way.

MomCO3 said...

Amen. I'll post a more thoughtful response to this later, but yes. Thank you.

Jen said...

I know that writing well requires a lot of skill, time, energy, discipline, effort, attention, etc., but I'm wondering if it fits better in the category of "leisure" rather than under "work," that is, along side other leisurely pursuits in disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and other fine arts.

(When I say "leisure," I'm thinking of it in a specific sense and not meaning an idle hobby or past-time. For example, see Josef Pieper's book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture.)

If writing is leisure, in buying such written creations, we are ascribing value to them (ostensibly b/c they ARE valuable to some degree in themselves) and, in reading them, we are discovering and enjoying the goodness, truth, and beauty they reflect.