Friday, January 4, 2008

How To Make It As a Writer...From Someone Who Hasn't Made It Yet!

When I was a college student, studying English Literature at UT Tyler, I took a remarkable class on the literature of the Romantic Period. I went into the class with a head full of flowers, thinking of nothing but Jane Austin. I left with the realization that the problems writers struggle with today are the same old problems of yesteryear.

Case in point: Wordsworth vs Keats

The beginning of the Romantic period was one of war and turmoil. The famous poet, Keats, lived and wrote during this wartorn time. As a young man, he contracted consumption. At the time, he was in love with a young woman. Then he coughed up blood until he died. Imagine that as your lot in life. Your country is at war, you're in love but cannot act on it because you have a contagious disease, and you know you will never live to see your one true passion emerge upon the world - writing. He was a courageous man because, in spite of his lot in life, he kept on writing. He knew he would never get published, never pay his bills with his pen, never be known in his lifetime for his works...but he kept on writing. In fact, he is known for these words, "arts for art's sake."

How many of you can say that? I know that I often let the details (agent, contract, paycheck) get in the way of my passion. But I keep going. And so do you. Those who do are true writers.

The end of the Romantic period welcomed the end of the war in England. As peace and order settled over the land, Wordsworth emerged on the scene. If there was a NYT bestseller list in that day, Wordsworth would have been on it. It was a time when writers were actually making money and getting "famous" while still alive....and Wordsworth wanted it all - fame, fortune, friends in high places. Wordsworth was a family man from a medium-sized township. To pay the bills, he had a day job, much like writer of today. He was the county tax assessor and collector. The Taxman Cometh! But he had a passion for poetry that burned inside him. His head for numbers and order played a roll in his writing. Instead of the free-form, write-what-you-feel ambling of Keats, Wordsworth's poetry rhymed and made perfect use of meter. He strived for just the right words, all the right measures, and snappy stanzas. In short, he wrote about what was popular. Though, he never "made it big" during lifetime, his career symbolizes what most writers goes through these days.

Day in and day out, we write and hope to make it as a bestseller. We're torn between what is popular and what feels right in our hearts. Passion or purpose? The publishers hold an ace up their sleeve in that they are the ones that obtain shelf space in bookstores worldwide. If you want to make money, you have to sign with a publisher. If you sign with a publisher, you have to play the game by their rules. If you play by their rules, you have to give up some creative control. If you give up creative control, you wind up like Wordsworth when you're a Keats in your heart.

So who is right? Wordsworth, the businessman writer? Keats, the starving artist? The answer depends on how you define success at writing.

I think every writer should have Keats in their heart and Wordsworth on their shoulder. Because the truth is, you can't make it unless you play the game like Wordsworth. And you can't stop writing because it feeds your soul. Soul food. It's nutrition that feeds your soul. Give your writing a little soul food. And do me a favor - keep writing no matter what.

Here's some food for thought:

On Keats' tombstone, he requested the following words be engraved:

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Followed by a a picture of a lyre with broken strings. He requested his name not appear on the tombstone.

Would this suffice for you? Would you be content to be laid to rest nameless? broken? your life nothing more than ripples in water?


In memory of William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 - April 23, 1850)
In memory of John Keats (October 31, 1795 - February 23, 1821)

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