Do You Have to Make Money from Your Writing to be a “Real Writer”?

“So, what do you do?” is a common question in society that makes most creative people cringe. Whether you’re socializing at a dinner party with friends or you’re meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time, the “what do you do?” question is one that we’ve all come to know and expect, and that fills us with dread every time.

For most people, answering this question is easy. They give the person their job title and maybe the company they work at and then the conversation moves on. But for creative people, it’s very likely that their official job title does not match what they are most passionate about in life, and their job title is not the work they truly identify with on a deeper level. So, the job title they have at the moment feels irrelevant, and mostly impersonal. It doesn’t say anything about who they really are.

But then that leads to another dilemma. If they do choose to share the creative pursuit that does actually contribute to how they define their identity—writer, poet, artist, musician—then they’ll usually be met with a question they dread even more than the “what do you do?” question. Because once they say that they identify as a writer or an artist, the person will either ask a) if they’re published and/or b) if they make any money from it.

And then the writer who is trapped in this conversation feels like total crap.

This question, and the whole conversation that follows, is also not the end of the negative effect on the writer. Because the question “what do you do?” is not an innocent question in our society. It functions as a way to initiate conversation, but below the surface, it also displays the clear message we are all programmed with from the time we are very young children. That toxic message is: Your status in the group (society) depends on your job. Your worth as a person depends on what you get paid for.

This is why so many writers carry the self-defeating belief that they must be paid for their writing before they can call themselves a writer. Some writers even take it so far as to say they must be earning a full-time income from their writing before they can identify as a writer. While it may appear that the writers who buy into these statements are just “setting goals” for themselves, in reality, they’re reinforcing the toxic message from society that says their creative efforts and work are only worth something if someone else decides those creative efforts and work are worth money.

There is another side to this idea of money being inextricably linked to your work that is equally damaging to writers, and that’s the fact that most people leave their jobs at the workplace. Whether the person identifies as a mechanic, a corporate executive, or a Starbucks barista, once they are “off the clock” they can mostly resume normal life. Their role as a mechanic, corporate executive, or Starbucks barista doesn’t mean that it’s almost guaranteed that they were born with a certain temperament that affects their whole life, from relationships to self-esteem to the way they responded to school and how they fit in with their families.

For writers, there is no “off the clock.” We have never been off the clock since the moment we were born. For most of us, we always knew we were different. We see the world in a different way. We make connections that other people don’t make and we ask questions (sometimes awkward questions) that other people don’t ask. Our minds work in a fundamentally different way than most other people’s minds do, and because of this we usually struggle a lot with life, and sometimes with concrete reality.

Being a writer is, for us, not a job. It’s an existence.

So, when we get muddled up with society’s notions of what constitutes work, or a career, or a “real job,” we tend to go right back to that place of feeling different and weird and less than. The only solution is to reprogram ourselves and drop all the messaging we’ve absorbed from society that might work for some people but is completely non-applicable to us and our lives and our reality as creative people.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you’re earning money from your creative work, if you’re doing creative work then you are still a writer, you are still an artist. If you are making any kind of attempt to observe the world, find a deeper meaning, and then convey that meaning to others in words or some other creative way, then you are a writer and an artist. It doesn’t matter if you’re not inspired right now, or if sometimes you can’t write for months, or if you’ve been blocked for years. If you are in love with stories and you know deep in your soul that it is your calling to tell stories to others, in one form or another, in order to be of service to the world, then you are a writer.

Money has nothing to do with it.

Your worth is not linked to how much money you make or what you produce. Your worth, instead, is found in your presence, and in your choice to continue to stay here on planet earth, to continue to do the work of looking around, being curious, and searching for that deeper meaning.

Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer and The INFJ Revolution. You can get a free copy of her book on creative marketing for writers by signing up for her newsletter HERE.

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