Monday, March 25, 2013

Writers Gone Wilde

What is (or rather was) Oscar Wilde's take on writing as a career? Don't. Or at least don't unless you've got some other way to pay the bills.

From this story in the (UK) Telegraph

Oscar Wilde believed his success as a writer was due to him never relying on the craft as a source of income, a previously unseen letter by the author has revealed. The document, along with the poet and playwright's first draft of his famous sonnet The New Remorse, was found in a dusty box in the back of a wardrobe.The 13-page letter is undated but is assumed to have been written around 1890, just as Wilde was becoming one of London's most popular playwrights. It is a deep and insightful letter of reply to a would-be writer seeking tips on how to be successful. Wilde told him not to rely on earning a living from writing, adding: "The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer. "Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you." 

Interesting. When your job consists mostly of creativity on demand for others (which, it can be argued, isn't really creativity at all but merely cynical and calculating cleverness) then your personal creativity, creativity for creativity's sake, often suffers as a result. The muse is a high-maintenance bitch, and she does not appreciate being pressured by the mundane necessities of, you know, bills and life and stuff. Ask for too many favors, and she'll just shut right the hell down.

I've had this exact conversation with other struggling and semi-unhappy full-time writers. The conundrum is this: If you find that what you must write for pay is consuming all your energies, and causing (by dint of its almost universal low pay) near-constant financial stress and worry, which in turn negatively affects your personal creative desires and goals, is it better to grimly stick with it and hope inspiration (and/or luck and opportunity) hits? Or should you just swallow your pride, give up freelancing and go find a day job; one that may not have the cachet of "writer" attached to it, but one that A. pays bills and B. will once again allow you sit in front of a blank piece of paper (or a keyboard) with a sense of joy rather than dread?

Wilde obviously thinks the latter, and that writing for money rather than art will ultimately deaden and corrupt one's soul. Whether Wilde meant that from a purely artistic or purely practical and financial standpoint, I don't know, but I do know that I sometimes feel like that picture of Dorian Gray looks, especially when bills are due...
That's why I've always said that I'm just one winning lottery ticket away from finally writing stuff I can be proud of. Until then, I suppose I'll, per this earlier blog post, continue writing stuff I can cash. Hopefully, one of these days, those two points will intersect and I can prove old Oscar wrong...   


  1. For what it's worth: before my happy days of Independent poverty, I found that working in jos like construction and cuttting firewood might get my body tired but kept my mind fee for writing; "white collar" jobs were much more depleting.

    And outdoor writers? Go to un- chic places with game, not.. oh, BOZEMAN. Magdalena has been good to me. Easier to live on the crap they pay writers when houses cost half what they do-- or a quarter-- in chic places.

  2. I've found the unfortunate combination of a day job that pays the bills handily and involves writing... albeit writing technical training rather than the fulfilling prose of field and font. At the end of the day I've nothing left. It's a challenge to blog, much less write anything of substance.

    It sort of makes me long for the days driving truck loads of sand back and forth for hours on end. Load the truck. Drive to the site. Dump the truck. Push the sand in the hole. Drive back. Repeat. It barely paid the bills, but it kept my mind free for all sorts of creative explorations. I wrote a lot back then, and it was very satisfying, even if I barely made a penny from my art.

    A hell of a trade-off.

    Point being, you only want what you don't have.

  3. Two thoughts:
    I once heard that Wilde was already doing very well for himself with his wallpaper designs when he started writing (or perhaps submitting work)

    Magnus Mills (whose 'Restraint of Beasts' I warmly recommend) had his first hit, won some awards and thought he'd live his dream of quitting the day job driving a london bus, and sitting in the pub all day drinking Guinness and writing. Then he found he couldn't write a thing and after the advance had been spent with no sign of the next book being completed, returned to bus driving. Several books later he's still driving the bus, and delivering finished work.


  4. Steve, unfortunately we're already living in about as un-chic a place as you could find...

    Phillip, yep, it's a trade-off, but I tell you, the honest trades have an absolutely real appeal to me.

    SBW, you just described exactly what would happen to me...