Is there an aspect of your writing career that presents a hurdle for you?
So let’s get back to the conversation that we started with the post “Is there a haiku that has shaped your life somehow?”.
David Lloyd was a professor at my college who wanted me to sit in on one of his classes. The class was designed to give writers business tools. Many creative people who developed writing skills seemed to be missing the practical skills that would allow them to capitalize on their abilities, he said.
As a result many writers never got out of the gate when it came to writing careers. After going through my manuscript, Lloyd said he liked the poems and offered to help make sure that my skills didn’t go to waste. I could sit in on his class for free. It was a generous offer.
But, I was young and idealistic. The idea mixing business and poetry seemed wrong to me. I fell prey to the very syndrome he was trying to inoculate me against.
Is there an aspect of your writing career that presents a difficult hurdle for you? When it comes to the business side of writing, I often seem to shoot myself in the foot. Know what I mean?
Care to share what gets in your way?
This Post Has 13 Comments
Hi Yousei, Wonderful to read your comment here, as I enjoy following your good blog and our conversations.
Someone once said, and this is from memory, that “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Perhaps this kind of fear is at least in part humility and a great quality in an artist.
I still feel fragile and quite sensitive sometimes. For me, this is learning how to manage my gift–the sensitivity that results in gifts of poems, balanced with the resilience I need to handle the other aspects of being a writer. I need plenty of rest for resilience too.
All to many things (family, responsibilities, family, other interests, family…), but the worst one is fear. I’m afraid of failing, not writing well-enough. This is problematic enough that on some projects I haven’t even started them, the poor ideas are still banging around in my brain (I think a couple finally fell out my right ear). Blogging and trying to write daily has helped, but the fear hurdle looms large.
Lorin, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that “publishers of poetry do it at a financial loss.” Perhaps that’s true for a small number of trade publishers, but I would bet that most of them do *not* lose money on poetry, although they probably make more money on other books. Any book is a gamble, of course, so no doubt some poetry books published by trade publishers have not made money, but you can be sure they would not do it if they were really losing money with most poetry books.
Now, small presses are another matter, which, as you say, often rely on volunteer labour. My own haiku press, Press Here (when it was more active with publishing, but more recently as well), has always broken even on each book, with profits going to help finance the next book, and so on. Authors get copies (not payments), to keep things simple. However, I don’t pay myself for all the work it takes, so if I figured that into the equation, that would be a different story. I imagine many other small presses are in the same boat — not paying themselves, and thus making it harder to judge whether something makes a profit or not (if you were to factor in that volunteer work). My approach to publishing poetry books (based on my professional work as an editor for major trade book publishers over many years) is simply to figure out the break-even point (how many copies need to be sold) based on the costs and sale price of the book. If that break-even point is too high, then one could make the book shorter or simpler or cheaper to print. It’s quite a simple thing, it seems to me, along with not publishing books that you know won’t sell enough (although it’s fine to choose to publish something that you love even if you don’t know if it will sell well enough). Yes, of course, some books are published just because it’s important that they exist (for the sake of the author or the subject), regardless of how many happen to sell. And thank goodness for that.
Furthermore, I do think it’s possible to make money with poetry, not with merely writing it, of course, but with publishing and performing and teaching. Some well-known poets I know also earn money as professors, but do quite well aside from that too, all based on their poetry.
Yes (to Patrick), poetry is a calling, a spiritual practice. Once you’ve written each poem, and perhaps shared it with others who will appreciate it, there’s nothing wrong, though, with selling it to a magazine. That doesn’t make the practice unless less spiritual, at least not for me.
Correct,… my whaling is only a metaphor for the mad quest. I am one who rescues worms from puddles. I’m also a strict herbivore…my house is a no harpoon zone.
My point, which I poorly communicated, was that poetry is a calling…a spiritual practice.
The compensations are largely internal. To the non-poet, the labor and devotion must appear foolish…The only thing I have in common with Ahab is a tendency to megalomania. My hurdle.
Some of us, down here where our shores meet the Southern Ocean, where there are whale sanctuaries, might possibly understand that your quest is not to kill whales “for scientific purposes” or otherwise. Melville is interesting for metaphor. As is Job, where Leviathan comes up.
The hard facts of poetry is that no-one gets paid much, if at all (business side, as Gene has brought up) for writing it. We may get paid a little for performing poetry or for teaching it or promoting it, but these are other ballgames altogether. Let’s not get things confused.
These days, publishers of poetry do it at a financial loss. Much of poetry publishing relies on voluntary work, as well. In poetry itself, there is no material profit. But poetry continues. Thank goodness.
There are hurdles aplenty in my writing life. The older I get the more pathetically unworldly I must seem to believe that I have been and continue to be practicing a sacred vocation.
Be that as it may. In Melvillean terms, does anyone honestly believe that the men of the Pequod went huzzah huzzah over a doubloon nailed to the mainmast?
Theirs was the quenchless quest of the White Whale–and this is perhaps my biggest hurdle, my irrational, mad quest for the White Whale of the perfect haiku. In Ahab’s words:”he tasks me…heaps me…” I realize of course, that there is a sickness here, a spiritual hurdle, and that it shows a lack of cosmic piety…hence, to the extent I can transform myself into a kind of haiku writing Ishmael, all will be lost.
Thanks Alan, and all who feel writers as well as any artist deserves to be paid in some way or another for what they contribute to the world. It would be a sad day indeed without them! Thanks also to Ellen, for I know she surely understands how vital poetry is for the human spirit…
I also want to emphasize just how valuable commercial writing, office work, etc. can be for any writer. You really understand the power of a comma when you are typing a contract. You surely understand the power words can have when you are writing a letter to a client. You learn to think in ways that connect with other people and have effects on other people in concrete ways.
Gene, Thank you for your good questions, which inspire so many comments.
I certainly feel that haiku is a universal and generous form, with plenty of room for all, and for various approaches. My career was in special education. I began with haiku later, still beginning.
Right now, I simply want to take a moment and thank Merrill for all she shared so eloquently. I will carefully read all the comments, as I can.
David Lloyd is a new author for me, and I look forward to learning more.
My biggest hurdle is words. I don’t think in words. I have to translate everything to words. Forms, relationships, line flows and movements… all have to be translated into words. Working in an office helped me deal with that to some extent… Working in an office made it possible for me to translate concepts, perceptions, intuitions etc. into these symbols that others seem to come to naturally.
In addition to that, I was in a body cast as a child for quite a long time and had to have a private teacher. She was very strong on parsing sentences, and English as a whole. When I got back to school I found that I had a good two years of English in that time and was ahead of my class.
Yet I still have to translate everything…because I know each word has a deeper underlying sense to it… a whole world to explore… But I have to do this with caution or I find that the word that fits what I’m trying to say means absolutely nothing to anyone else.
Is it any wonder I’d rather draw my poems than write them out?
Many of our respected writers, in all genres, are paid, and so they should be, if only to cover their travel and accomodation expenses, if they have income derived from elsewhere, although personally, I have no problem if they are paid a fee as well. For some reason there is a view with some people that poets shouldn’t get paid, athough it’s almost always okay for novelists.
Whether you are a poet or a novelist, there are long hours involved, often with a family life, and if you hold down another job then it requires long days with little sleep, doing everything.
I made the decision, after winding up the family business, to become a freelance writer specialising in haiku and renga. So I’m one of the haiku poets who has made a living through residencies, projects, workshops, and other readings. Frankly if I didn’t pursue remuneration for my full-time occupation as a haiku/renga poet I would go into debt, and why should I let that occur?
Being British I’ve seen the impact on boys when J.K. Rowling brought out each Harry Potter novel: boys rushing round both independent booksellers, and chain stores, in order to immediately get a book before they sold out.
I’ll say that again, boys rushing from shop to shop to get a book!
As I’m a poet who regularly goes into schools to engage boys, in particular, with reading and writing, via haiku and renga, to increase their literacy rates, it’s hats off to Rowling for helping raise interest in creative writing from boys. More readers means some of them might read our haiku for instance.
Also Rowling may make two hundred million British pounds sterling (at least in one year) but she has also almost single-handedly help save the British film industry, which again employs vast teams of special effects people. She’s been deeply involved with all the films at a level unprecedented for a writer, and appeared at Oscar award ceremonies where the films have been nominated twelve times.
The Harry Potter film series did receive a Bafta for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the Orange British Academy Film Awards in 2011. J.K. Rowling and David Heyman received the award on behalf of the franchise during the ceremony at London’s Royal Opera House on Sunday 13 February 2011: http://www.bafta.org/film/awards/outstanding-british-contribution-to-cinema-the-harry-potter-films,1631,BA.html
For those of you not familiar with writing in television, either non-fiction/documentary or script-writing for television and film, the writer isn’t always regarded as the most important component. J.K. Rowling changed that, and although no Harry Potter film has won an Oscar, she’s been at many an Oscar ceremony.
J K Rowling has also made an impact with charity work:
Re her impact environmentally in the publishing world:
Why go on so much about her? We are all writers, and I know if I was in her shoes I would be as much if not more for literacy and charity. As a writer I am proud that someone like J.K. Rowling (who was a struggling single mother) has shown the worth of a vocation often looked down pre Harry Potter, in some quarters, as a children’s fiction writer.
My tiny With Words organisation, which is myself, my wife when not working on pitches for TV documentaries, and a one day a week, for four hours, part-time office administration officer, often struggles to make ends meet, and often that hard-earned money goes to pay the household bills nowadays, so I can carry on being a haiku poet.
I would love not to have to find money to pay for office costs and an administration officer for us, if I won the lottery. But it hasn’t happened yet, and I do seriously need to start buying lottery tickets too, when I have the time and finances to do so.
I do think that some areas of the poetry reading and writing need to recognise that poetry is a vocation where poets deserve to be paid for their labour and material just like in any other area of life.
When I travelled to Aberdeen, Scotland, which was by train, as it was slightly cheaper, the organisers did not blink when I asked for a fee and travel expenses. My Notes from the Gean editor-in-chief put me up in his flat, which was a great experience, and so my accomodation costs were minimal other than buying a couple of drinks, and some hot food at the main eventa area, as a gesture of thanks for all his hard organising.
When an event, and it was a multi-event day for us, looks easy, it means there was back-breaking organisation behind the scenes. Enjoy the photographs, the poetry and the report, but please consider this was a lot of time and effort too:
I actually made short my overseas trip to see my blood mother for the first time, who lives in Perth, Western Australia, to be at this first live Notes from the Gean event. It was certainly worth it, as it was a lot of fun, but mid-way without enough food, I was getting burnt out which is why I got the group time out and treated our official photograph Lesley, and Colin, well deserved fresh hot food, none of that rubbish fast food nonsense, proper Scottish food from an event stall.
It cost me over £200 in travel and food, to be there for the event, money I could not afford to find otherwise, especially after visiting my mother several thousand miles away. Travelling times to and fro my home in England, to Aberdeen, Scotland, partly because of rail network repairs and upgrades, meant around 10-12 hours on trains and in stations. What is forgotten by many is that time costs money, as I can’t earn while on the move, unless you are independently financed (there are many wealthy poets) but I’m not one of them. Preparation time means not earning money elsewhere to pay the household bills of rent or mortage, electricity and food, as well as tax etc…
Preparation costs also involve printing or photocopying copious amounts of handouts, and sometimes fliers. I’ve worked through the night, leaving only 3-4 hours sleep, so I can improve a workshop info sheet, and then get enough printing, so it’s all done when I set out very early in the morning to a school, college etc…
My Haiku Journal notebooks are often complimentary, as they were for Samurai Day, although they cost me a fortune to have printed in the first place, and it all has to be factored into costings.
As being a haiku and renga poet is my sole income, and I work up to 12 hours or more a day being immersed in reading, writing, studying, developing and pitching ideas to catch the imagination of organisations etc… it has to be coupled with charging a realistic industry rate for my time and expertise, as well as for the actual activity on the day itself, and the travelling to get there, and back home etc…
In the past my passion would drive me to work long hours on unpaid activities, and fall behind on my paid work, to my own personal detriment. Quite a few times the home, it took years to be able to own, as security for my wife and myself, has been under threat, as I dived into projects that were free to others, but really cost me both in the mid-term and in the long term.
I have had to grow an extra skin, that is me, as a professional in my field: A poet should be respectfully remunerated just like any other expert in their field. Often my wife, or my admin officer, acts as my gatekeeper if someone (paid themselves) wants to use my time and expertise for free which results in becoming an activity that takes money from me, which would otherwise be used for domestic costs like food and heating. Any tiny profit also if possible needs to be invested back into With Words for purchase of books, printing paper, and all the equipment needed for With Words events and projects, and to buy time for me to pitch further proposal for haiku or renga events.
My main hurdle?
It was being either too shy, or enthusiastically gullible, in not asking for at least expenses when I held down a day job, or a fee when I derived only income as a poet.
The other party, whether an individual in an organisation, or in some other capacity is always paid or suitably financially stable, so this misguided concept that the poet should refrain from being paid is a deeply misguided one.
My highest fee?
Last year it was £400 for six hours work, though it was a one off. That fee included travel expenses, but fortunately it was a next door city, and I did get to have a lot of handouts photocopied at no cost to me.
Well, I’ve foolishly not asked for any money in the past while people expected me to come along unpaid while they were on a wage themselves. Those days, unless there is a specific exception, are long gone now.
I need to be more active and focused in searching for regular paid work as a poet. The cost of living in Britain is not cheap, and neither are the books of poets I wish to purchase and support their endeavors.
A single grant application took the three of us three months to complete and it didn’t succeed. But I still, despite working on that huge project, had to pay bills, and so that was an expensive time for me. The money I wanted was given to a project that basically failed, but I still did the project, but on a lower scale, but it cost me a fortune in time and money, and again the home was close to being lost.
Fortunately a failed project submission for a similar project at a festival was picked up by someone else, and I say fortunately because I would have lost money doing the project proposal I put forward as they weren’t offering enough money to cover several hundred miles of travel, accomodation at my own cost etc… The new party, who had been privy to the project proposal, put ten thousand pounds up over a cup of coffee, and the budget was doubled a month later, for a six month residency. I was also put up in a luxury hotel every other week, although I was just as fond of bed and breakfast estabishment when not staying in the luxury hotel. I did a professional job, way beyond the remit and expectations of the project, and was greatly valued as a fellow professional, and as a poet.
My biggest hurdle?
In not recognising myself as a professional in my area (it’s a poet thing for some of us, this weird combo of depreciation and self-doubt); and respecting myself enough to expect a fee each time I’m approached for work as a poet.
Even poets need to eat and have a roof over their head.
Basho was well looked after by his patrons, and I have the highest respect for the 20th century multi-million selling tanka poet Machi Tawara, who changed lifestyles, in Japan, as much as the Bridget Jones books did in the USA and UK. She was able to leave her teaching job and go into television as a presenter, and continues to create contempory tanka combined with a traditional template.
I am not ashamed to be a haiku writer, or a renga writer, and as someone that does professional events, and so I should be paid like any other person who does something fulltime on a professional level.
It may be a labour of love, but labour should be paid for, unless you are on the sinister side of capitialism best left in Charle Dicken’s novels.
I concur with MDW. There is nothing wrong with writing haiku and being compensated for doing so. Saying “I do not write haiku to make money” followed by “I do it to share Japanese culture for free . . . It is all online and open” sounds like an ad and could be interpreted as one-upmanship. Good haiku is not determined by who makes money or not, it is determined by skill.
It is always wonderful to write for the love of it, especially haiku. However, one *can* write various kinds of poetry for money, too, and also write *about* poetry for money. There’s nothing wrong with being a professional poet — even a professional haiku poet (if there were enough money in it in English). Basho, Issa, and Shiki and others were professional poets, of a sort, and many other poets (Japanese and otherwise) have been paid for their work. I hope no one is looking down on those who get paid for their poetry, or writing about poetry, including haiku.
Moreover, I think Gene’s question is not about whether one writes for love — that seems to be off the topic. What he’s asking, I believe, is this: *regardless* of whether one writes for love or for money (or both), what obstacles make it difficult to further one’s career as an artist? I think David Lloyd’s class to give writers business tools is a very important sort of class. It’s all part of being a professional writer, and the next step in taking one’s art seriously — if you don’t think it’s worth being paid for your art, no one will pay you (and that’s fine if you’re okay with that). If anyone thinks that famous novelists just sit at home and write, they would be misunderstanding all the contracting, negotiating, networking, record-keeping, and numerous other good business practices that go on in their lives. It would be good, indeed, to have a thorough article directed at haiku poets to help them develop good business skills.
I do not write haiku to make money.
I also do not write about haiku and kigo to make money.
I do it to share Japanese culture for free … it is all online and open.
And – I enjoy what I am doing !
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