Art is a higher power. Art which literature is a part of, is linked to the initial forces that created the world. The creative production of reality through words and images is understood by some cultures to be the elementary first cause, the force that brought our universe into being. In that regard, the artist becomes a God, a ruler of sorts, though I do not consider myself to be the former.
Think about Ezeulu, the headstrong priest who clutches onto a fallen god in the disenchanted world of Chinua Achebe’s novel, Arrow of God. He is an artist-type. In one of his prayers to the God, Ulu, Ezeulu asks to be turned into an arrow in the bow of a higher power. When he is released at the perfect moment, he would then hit the target perfectly. Just that would be enough!
This is in keeping with Achebe’s well known view that every artist is a committed man or woman. Achebe says all that the artist has to ask is: On whose side do I want to be committed? Achebe is sweet, he goes on, after the tenor of Igbo cosmology: “Wherever something stands, something else will stand besides it.” In a world here is the oppressor and the oppressed. The artist’s work is laid.
But there is the other daunting question on the lips of many, the somewhat Philistine byword: ‘‘Why write when you can’t make a living out of it?’’ is one an artist gets to rehearse for more than his own readings. I have run into it many times in my daily labor of love for letters. As if the consuming passion for literature spares you a place in your heart for the famous thirty pieces of silver. I am not faulting colleagues who have been able to count numbers from our mutual trade, but I want to think of money made out of writing as a welcome bonus.
Writing pays. There is no question about it. Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s pioneering novel is widely estimated to have sold millions of copies.
The late Nobel Prize winning Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April 2014, was considered by many as the greatest author ever in the Spanish language. Marquez’s most successful work as a writer is the long and expansive novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude which became a huge success in the years after its publication in 1967, selling more than 10 million copies in more than 30 languages! It made García Márquez a leader of the Latin American literary “boom” and an international phenomenon.
Writing begins as a passion, then it becomes an investment, and for some, it may eventually result in huge returns
And yet these people and many others; Sydney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Barbara Cartland, Steven King, did not set out on day one to write to make money! It is said that 95% of the money in writing is made by 5% of the writers. It means that writing begins as a passion, then it becomes an investment, and for some, it may eventually result in huge returns.
Vicissitudes of life as a writer
‘‘Do you enjoy writing?’’ Now that should be the starting point. For me, the mere enjoyment of my writerly craft is all the initial justification I need to write. Charles Mungoshi once said, “The landscape, the physical life of the book became much more alive, much more there because I was living it as I was writing it and I have never felt as blessed as I felt writing (or re-writing) Waiting for the Rain…”
I am not yet at that stage where I write to live. I live to write amongst other chores. In return, writing, like the many other things that I do, makes me live on.
I often think about the prolific American writer, John Grisham who sold millions of copies of his second novel, The Firm. He took three years to write his first book, A Time to Kill which got published in June 1988 after being rejected by 28 publishers! Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000 copy printing. The day after Grisham completed A Time to Kill, he began work on his second novel, The Firm. He did that before realising much from the first book. He says that right from the beginning, he wanted to make a brand and what kept him going was just the desire to write. Then boom, the money started to come. The Firm is a 1991 legal thriller and the second novel by John Grisham. It was his first widely recognised book and, in 1993, after it sold 1.5 million copies, was made into a film starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.
As a writer, I also love the fact that I am leaving something behind, even if it’s only a fart in the universe, better still a by-lined footprint. In this sense you could say I write to live. I write to live forever.
Equally, I do realise, that writing means different things to different scribes, and each has to be respected for their motivational compass.
Of all the words of Kurt Vonnegut’s Of Mice and Men, the saddest got to be, ‘‘It might have been.’’ As writers, we got to hold society to what might have been. I like to see myself in this realm, with my books, short stories and literary essays, affirming to me that I have done my fair bit, taking aim at those spreading bigotry and xenophobia in post-Brexit Britain.
I quit my PhD to devote more time to writing. The PhD had become a dispirited performance whereas writing makes me alive
I have had a taste of backlash already with cancel culture and, of course, the trusty reminder, “You should be grateful, this country gave you a home and a safe haven. Careful, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” As if I am here illegally and the host country is also not benefitting from my manpower.
“So you got to hold down your day job to write at all?” That is the other question I’ve had to contend with.
Writing is one of my oldest hobbies. Now that I have started publishing, it’s becoming something more.
I actually quit my PhD to devote more time to writing. It had become a dispirited performance whereas writing makes me alive.
There I was interacting with unknown readers from different parts of the world, in some cases sparring over my content, the way I represented the gender divide, identity politics, what have you. I loved the vibes and kicks this gave me. Perhaps this was my eureka moment when the penny dropped and I realised writing was for me and beckoning I give it my all, which is what I have done.
I’m aware my finances would be better if I took some soulless boring data entry job, but my spirit would shrivel and die like a forgotten potted plant. I measure my worth by lives affected. And writing affords me just that.
One is always best off doing what one truly loves. John Grisham has this to say: “I find my story, find its voice, its people, its pace, and I retreat into my attic for six hours a day and shut out everything but family. As I write, I don’t think about the readers, the sales, the movies. I think about the story. If I get it right, everything else falls into place.”
To Gift Mheta my friend of many years, thank you for the inspirational message here which has kept me going: ‘‘Keep writing, Chatora.’’
Some of the one-liners over the years. I’ve taken up the “Why we write” conversation with fellow writers and naysayers. The many responses I got have been nigh instructive at times anecdotal as exchanges below shows.
‘‘I support a family of eight as a writer. People can believe what they wish.
Of course, it’s a terrible financial choice. But if you’re doing it with no money expectations, what’s the problem?’’
‘‘The problem is people who are out of writing think you’re raking in the thousands, but the reality obtaining is far from that.’’
‘‘Ignore the party poopers. I found a way to earn a 6-figure sum the first four months of writing. There are many ways to make lots of money. Ignore them. They’re jealous they can’t be free or doing what makes them happy.’’
My uncle told me that once.
My own father also had these words of ‘‘encouragement’’ for me: ‘‘Writing isn’t a real job. It won’t pay the bills. Who wants to read the exact same shit every other two-bit author is writing? Not me, I’m afraid. Got better things to do.’’
‘‘Cheers dad! Thanks for the support.’’ What else can I say?
Some of my writer colleagues argue: Those naysayers’ comments may be true. Everyone wants to publish a book with dreams of making money. There is much more to it than meets the eye. Publishers will not tell you the struggles you face because they want your money.
I have a day job like that I trained for, and I do that. I also write novels and short stories. I write what I love and what I want and don’t worry about money or about what other people think. One great writer once advised: “I hate to give advice. It’s so easy to dispense and even easier to ignore. Get a real job in a real career and stake your claim in your chosen field, then write as a serious hobby.”
Perhaps, it is best to draw insight from Arthur Miller who once remarked: ‘‘Do not be beguiled into thinking that that which is without profit is without value.’’
Do not be beguiled into thinking that that which is without profit is without value.
I suppose some people have no idea what it means for someone to pursue their passion. I feel sorry for the miserable lives they must be living.
Royalties come in dribs and drabs and they’re minuscule for want of a better word.
A colleague opined:
I’ve been writing full time for 12 years now. I answer to nobody. My time is my own. I don’t need to commute, and I live in a house on the shore with a great view. Okay, I’m not super-rich in money, but I’m rich in all the ways that matter to me.
Any route can potentially be a bad choice, but you can’t let that stop you from making choices. I wonder how many books are read by these folks giving you this advice. I don’t currently earn as much as I did working full-time in software management, but tell you what? I’m 100 times happier.
There are many jobs for writers. Companies pay good money for people who can write. Besides, there are always exceptions, one may write a best seller novel and be like J.K. Rowling. She made a billions of dollars. So, what’s not to like there?
There’s even a hilarious Einstein meme on Twitter: ‘‘Stop listening to negative people. They have a problem for every solution you may come up with.’’
Any kind of art is a “bad financial choice” as a full-time job. But if you are doing art just for the money, it’s silly because there are better and easier ways to make money.
Perhaps none sums it better as my other respected colleague; fellow writer Josh, he remarks:
I don’t care if it makes me money or not. One day, one hundred years from now someone may find something I wrote on a flash drive, and it could inspire them long after my death. Or it could be something that makes someone laugh. Through writing we live on, can’t price that good feeling.
“Get a real job!” They tell me.
Not remotely interested, writing will do me just fine. Actually, I ended up quitting my 9 to 5pm job in favour of writing.
And boy! Ain’t I happy I followed my passion and chose writing in the end. Best decision of my life ever!
Now, let’s do some number crunching. The average income for a writer in the UK is £12,000 per annum. Way below minimum wage. But hold on, the figure is misleading – some earn mega and some, nothing.
Royalties come in dribs and drabs and they’re minuscule
We do it for love, damn it. For a teeny weeny chance at our names and ideas living for longer than we do.
Iconic anti-apartheid South African poet, Donato Francisco Mattera, affectionately known as Don, who passed away Monday 18 July 2022 had a way with words and he wrote with deep passion about freedom, friendship and the dream for a better South Africa in which people of all races coexisted.
In one of his iconic poems, he demonstrates that his poetry was part of his being and the way he felt and responded to the world:
I feel a poem
Thumping deep, deep
I feel a poem inside
wriggling within the membrane
of my soul;
tiny fists beating,
beating against my being
trying to break the navel cord,
crying, crying out
to be born on paper
deep, so deeply
I feel a poem,
He felt deeply. He was passionate about the world around him. Don meant an idea, an opinion dying to be spelt out so that one feels at peace again with his environment.
Don was a committed poet, more like David Diop and Agonstinho Neto. Don often felt that, if need be, the poet, the artist, may just have to pay the supreme prize. Coming from a background of strife, segregation, arrest, banning and many ills during apartheid, he saw art not as a luxury but something that often brought the artist to the brink. He felt that “the poet must die” in order to make his or her point.
“The poet must die
her murmuring threatens their survival
her breath could start the revolution;
she must be destroyed…”
The more books you have out there, the bigger the chances to make a living, that’s my theory. My first three books just got published. I hope more will follow.
That’s only good advice if you are only in it for the money. I grew up in a family of avid readers, so I enjoy writing up a good story and seeing each one through until the very end!
Who says, simply picking an occupation for its earning capacity is a guarantee of success? There is the little matter of talent and luck. Ignore them and do what you are good at and gives you the most satisfaction. After all, it’s giving unwanted advice that’s a bad life choice.
I work with colleagues who profess their undying love for writing and yet can’t lift a pen to write anything. Their usual mantra being, ‘‘I’ll do it in retirement when I have more time at my disposal.’’ I don’t know when I will have time or when I won’t, so writing is my business in the now.
What is fulfilling to me, and fellow writers surveyed is; Our craft maybe considered bad financial choices, but bad financial choices are the bedrock of a happy, normal life.
Well, I’m glad James Baldwin, Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera and countless others didn’t do something else.
Hitting it big in any of the arts has always been a long shot. But if you hit it, wow!
This whole debate reminds of Ernst Fishers seminal essay: the necessity of art perspective:
Perhaps, “Writing is for writing’s sake” after all.
Most artists do not keep score that way through their painting, sculpting, music, and writing. Birmingham songwriters I know told me: writing songs for the money is like getting married for the sex.
Writing is the heart of communicating accuracy, empathy, history. Few things could be more important than bringing clarity and complexity to the human condition.
To hear Tempus Fugit tell it in The War of Art:
“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”
If I could please add to this amazing chat brewing, I would share Charles Bukowski’s “Roll the Dice” poem:
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
otherwise, don’t even start.
I write because I enjoy it and to me is fulfilling. I just need a lot more sales, which reminds me: I’m not in it for money, am I?
Perhaps, it’s instructive to end by quoting that lowercase icon, bell hooks: ‘‘We write because we respect time and we have that realisation, it may not be on our side, thus we just have to write.’’
We are in it for the long haul. In any case, I was a writer before book advances or royalties, and I will still be a scribe long after this.
As Ernst Fischer puts it, ‘‘Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But that is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.’’
One day I will write about agents, those who can’t write but stifle and crush writer’s dreams! First though, happy writing.
Andrew Chatora Biography
Andrew Chatora is a novelist, essayist and short story writer of Zimbabwean origin based in Bicester, England. Andrew has published three novels and is currently working on a collection of short stories: Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories. Chatora’s work is critically acclaimed for its depiction of migrants and the many challenges they face. His work is heavily influenced by his own experience as a black English teacher in the United Kingdom and the hardships he experienced during the transition. Chatora’s latest book Harare Voices and Beyond has been favourably received globally and is currently a Wayfarer’s Intralingo book club nomination. Harare Voices and Beyond, is a nuanced and earthy reconstruction of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, a subject that has often gone the way of grand narrative and patriotic history.