Why Write and All That – I: Bargains Struck

Two recent articles about writing, writers, and writing as a job–Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books blog and Seth Godin’s interview at Digital Book World–prompt me to take on the insufferably self-indulgent business of being self-referential. The issues covered in the pieces linked above should be familiar: Why write? Is writing a career? Should you get paid for it? Do you have a right to get paid for the work you make available to your readers? And of course, the modern favorite: In today’s ‘digital economy’ where readers supposedly ‘expect content for free’ how is a writer to be paid?

This set of issues, despite its familiarity, is extraordinarily rich, and I can only make some preliminary remarks here. (I expect to write follow-up posts.) In so doing, I hope I can offer some insight into why it is people write, and why, I think, writing will persist as an ‘occupation’ understood broadly, even if no one is getting ‘paid’ for it.

I write from a curious position in this discussion. I’m an academic and I don’t expect to make money from my writing. Or rather, I do not write for the direct income of royalties, but–initially at least–for the financial security of tenure and promotion, and now, to secure my academic reputation and to circulate my ideas. My two academic books thus far have secured for me a quasi-permanent job in the academy and I am now free to write for the rest of my career on those topics that interest me. As I do so, perhaps I will learn a bit myself and engage in the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ in a way that is of use to others.

My first book was non-academic, and while it neither secured my reputation in the academy nor helped me circulate any particularly significant intellectual ‘ideas,’ it did do a great deal for me. First, I performed an act of personal archaeology by writing about a war in which my father had fought; in so doing, I learned a great deal about him, the times he lived in, and the men who worked with him. Second, I did justice to an older self of mine, one that was obsessed about aircraft and the men who flew them. Third, I learned a bit of history. Thus, I was edified in the emotional, intellectual, and personal dimensions. Fourth, I also made several friends; many of the veterans I interviewed for one, and my co-author. (We did not meet in the flesh until after the book had been published!) Lastly, my writing improved: I learned how to organize chapters, construct a narrative, edit, revise, ruthlessly delete redundancy and irrelevance, all skills that would help me later in writing my academic books.

I made very little money from the sales of the book, but it seemed not to matter, for I hadn’t set out to. When I started work on the book, I was a post-doctoral fellow; when I completed it, I was in a tenure-track position. The two checks I have received thus far have paid for an airfare–for one person–to India, and some books.

So I wrote a book, and got in exchange: Learning, the making of friendships, the honing of a useful skill, the engagement with self-discovery, an airfare, some books. All this seems to add up to a very good bargain.

Surfaces scratched. More later.

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