Over the past two years, since my entering into this crazy fiction-writing world, I’ve noticed that many of my compatriots are often discouraged, depressed, worn out, or feeling hopeless about their writing. Serious devotion to writing as a calling and career seems to take quite the emotional toll. And two years has been enough time for me to experience this emotional stress firsthand.
What is interesting to me is that I come from an arts background in music. I did musical theater, got a BA in music, played my own music publicly in London, etc. And my experience with music and being a pre-professional musician was in no way as brutal as my experience now of being a pre-professional writer.
Please note this is not because I think writing is inherently harder than playing music. If anything, I think I have slightly more of a natural knack for writing than I do for music. And I don’t think being a professional musician, especially one who makes her entire income through performance, is any easier than being a professional writer who makes his entire income through writing fiction. But on the whole and in my own experience, being a pre-professional musician was easier than being a pre-professional writer.1 Here’s why:
1. Higher barrier to entry: Most American adults can sit down and write a sentence without having to practice first. But have you ever heard someone pick up a violin for the first time and draw the bow across the strings? If you haven’t, count yourself lucky because the results can be painful to the ear. This basic difference means that being an aspiring musician generates more respect than being an aspiring writer. It also weeds out most of the wannabe and non-serious musicians right out the gate, because to achieve even a basic level of musical competence requires non-trivial amounts of practice time. This is not so with writing.
2. Simple mentorship system: As a musician, it’s common to have a private teacher who will mentor you, give you tons of individual attention, and keep you on the straight and narrow in terms of continuing practice and improvement. Or you might even have several teachers for different instruments (for instance, at various times I’ve had private piano teachers, voice teachers, and composition teachers). A good teacher will keep you encouraged and inspired most of the time, and kick you in the ass when you really need it. There are many resources available for finding a teacher, and you pay a set fee for the privilege of study. This contrasts to finding a writing mentor, which I don’t know how to do and which has no set way to achieve. Interest one of the teachers at your workshop or your writing class, perhaps? But once the class ends, then what? There’s not a clearly defined business model for this as there is in music.
3. A more respected educational system: It is also common wisdom that a writer should major in something besides creative writing, and the opponents of the usefulness of an MFA in creative writing seem to be as numerous as the proponents. While I’m not arguing these points one way or another, it stands in marked contrast to music’s mentorship system (discussed above) and higher educational system. While if you’re doing certain kinds of music, a degree might not be necessary, most music programs help develop skills that will obviously come in handy later on, and musicians don’t tend to argue about their usefulness. This means if you know that you need to build skills as a musician, you can have the institutional support of a university music program while not constantly worrying that you might be wasting your money. I’m not saying there aren’t MFA programs that are fabulous, just that general opinion is mixed. And thank goodness for workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, and Taos Toolbox and organizations like SCBWI that take up some of the slack here. But workshops and organizations don’t generally offer the same consistency as a four-year program.
4. More emphasis on collaboration: As a musician, I had many opportunities to perform with various groups. I was taught how to work with other musicians and had group performance opportunities in choirs, musicals, and operas. Instrumentalists have orchestras, bands, and chamber music ensembles. And then there are jazz bands and ensembles and rock or pop bands. Finding other musicians to make music with tends to be pretty easy. Writing, on the other hand, is a fairly solitary experience, and while one could argue that the critique group is the equivalent of a band, a lot of critique groups don’t meet as often and/or aren’t working together as closely. The result of this can be a lack of deep working relationships.
5. Possibilities to practice art in the real world: Speaking of performance, not only did I have many opportunities, both during college and afterwards, but it was highly encouraged, even expected. A young and inexperienced musician went out and gigged, auditioned, joined a band, whatever. And if you weren’t paid for your efforts for awhile, well, that was the norm while building up your chops. Contrast this to writing, in which well-respected writers advise new writers not to submit to markets that pay less than five cents a word (the current “pro” rate). Leaving aside the absurdity that a couple of cents per word one way or another isn’t going to make a difference in quitting your day job anytime soon, this attitude means that new writers are actively discouraged from showing their work in public unless it can hit the bar and taste of the few pro markets. This in turn lowers motivation and increases both pressure to improve at unattainable rates of speed and accompanying feelings of futility and isolation. For the pre-professional artist, any recognition, however small, is powerful incentive to continue, and in writing, there just don’t seem to be as many of these opportunities.
6. The stigma (or lack thereof) of indie artists: The indie music scene is vibrant, exciting, and most importantly, not overtly stigmatized. In fact, it’s hip to be an indie musician. Sure, you might have trouble paying your bills, but in return you get to make the music you want to make, thumb your nose at The Man, and live a musical life. Most other musicians will either be actively supportive or not care one way or another. Cutting your band’s own CD has gotten a lot easier with recent technology, and bands do it all the freaking time. Contrast this with the indie writer scene (otherwise known as self-publishing). You may have a hard time paying your bills this way too (or you may have an easier time if your name is J.A. Konrath), but regardless, other writers will sneer at you. I’m not kidding. The stigma against self publishing of any sort is incredibly strong. It’s so strong that a lot of established professional writers aren’t putting their backlists (the rights of which have reverted to them) up on all the electronic platforms. Now this might just be lack of business sense, lack of interest, or technophobia, but I find it very striking. To me, this doesn’t even count as real self publishing because the work has already been published with a publishing house and received the full traditional treatment. But I digress. Most writers I’ve met are firmly in the “traditional-publishing-deal-or-bust” camp, even though distribution channels and producing a final e-edition of a novel have gotten much easier with recent technology, just as producing CDs is now easier. The main effects of this attitude are less options for writers of all levels, not just the pre-professionals, and less emphasis on business innovation and experimentation with new business models. Meanwhile, there are already huge amounts of self-published material flooding the marketplace with no gatekeeper, and somehow readers seem to be surviving the onslaught just fine.
All this said, I’m incredibly grateful for the assistance I’ve received from the writing communities I belong to. My friendships and discussions with other writers have been some of the highest points of my writing life. If anything, this analysis shows how critical these communities and fellow writers truly are. But if nothing else, I hope this comparison between pre-professional musicians and writers will serve to illustrate the difficulty of the writing path, and encourage us to be supportive, patient, and kind to one another.
For those of us who are nonconformists, it can also act as a reminder that change may be coming, but change isn’t always such a terrible thing.
1 Note that I am most familiar with the speculative and YA communities in writing, and have at least passing familiarity with Classical, jazz, rock/pop, and musical theater in music. What I’m talking about may not hold true in other genres or styles.