Tag Archives: Vocation

SOME Return on the Investment

money treeLast week, I proposed that being published is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of every effort at writing, that most people engage in the other arts without expectation of being paid for whatever they create. And why shouldn’t writing be the same? I also pointed out that a drive to publish may, in fact, divert especially developing writers from their best efforts.

A reader responded this way:

This is a tough one for me, I have to say. Writing and kidlit are my passion. Yes, I would want to be involved with it even if I didn’t want to be published. For me, though, it is my only true option as far as something I can pursue as a vocation … so getting published (though a long shot, especially as a financial resource) is something I don’t just want, it’s something I need. Sure, I love to write … but all the years AND money I’ve spent in the effort to get published simply pushes me further into debt… . I need SOME return on the investment, so, although I do believe it’s the journey that matters, sometimes the goal has to be achieved. … This writing life is definitely not an easy one in this way.

I’m with her, with all of you who would say something similar. And I’m very aware that the argument I make comes too easily from one who is publishing, has been publishing, for many years. But I haven’t forgotten. This writing life is definitely not an easy one. And the difficulty of it is compounded when you are spending much of your time and resources on writing and have not yet published and need to publish to survive financially.

On My HonorMy writing career has been good to me in that way, though it took a long time to develop. I spent the first fifteen years writing full-time before I ever once earned enough to live on in even a modest way. The balance was finally changed only by the serendipity of having On My Honor win a Newbery Honor Award. And I do mean serendipity. There is so much luck involved in any award. There must have been scores of other books out there in 1987 that were equally deserving, but they, for whatever reason, didn’t catch the eye of the committee. I have always watched for the new opportunity, have supplemented my income with part-time teaching and lecturing, and have worked hard and consistently, but still I know that much of my financial success, such as it is, is due to happenstance as much as to my efforts. Not an encouraging message, I’m afraid, but an honest one.

Killing Miss KittyAnd a further admission, with the exception of On My Honor, my books that bring in the most income are often not my best work. They are ones that happen to capture some market niche or to be combined with the right popular artist or to be picked up by mass retailers, all simply luck. Truth be told, sometimes the books I’ve been most passionate about—Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins being the most glaring example—don’t do particularly well in the market. Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, in fact, was a colossal failure. When it was emerging it got a lot of buzz, an unusual number of books went out even before the publication date, and when folks got a look at the challenging contents, those books returned to the publisher in a flood.

So … am I saying if you’re hoping to make a career out of writing, to make it your work, it’s time to give up? Not at all. But I am serving warning. I suppose “Don’t give up the day job” is as succinct a way to put it as any.

Yet I will return to the point of my last week’s blog. Despite the vagaries of an unpredictable market, despite the fact that commercial and even cynical sometimes comes out on top, the shortest road to success for most of us remains the road to our own hearts. When we write what we uniquely care about, we offer the world something no one else can give.

And then, whether our work sells well or poorly or not at all, we will have fed our own souls.  And that matters!

P.S. Another reader responded to this topic and sent me this link to a blog which many of you might be interested in.  Here it is:

Marion, I understand this one all too well and just wrote about it for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo Writing Challenge. I’m sending the link because some of your readers might not know about her blog and will find true support here. — Karen Henry Clark


 “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”                           —Frederick Buechner

When I was growing up, that word—vocation—had one meaning and one meaning only. When someone said, “He has found his vocation,” it meant a call to serve the church. Nothing else qualified.

6_10I never thought of other kinds of work as vocation. After all, I grew up with a father who frequently said, “The reason they call it work is because you don’t like to do it. If you liked doing it, no one would pay you.” (He had graduated from college into the teeth of the Great Depression and, after years of struggle, had settled on a job much beneath his capacities, but one which he was certain would provide security. He also said, “When the next depression comes, I won’t be one of the ones laid off. I’ll have seniority.”)

Even without a specific word to apply to what I was seeking, though, I entered adulthood determined to find work that I loved. That was, at least in part, a gift gleaned from my father’s cynicism. I would not let his truth be mine. In the late 1950’s I had a much easier road than he. Not only were times better, but once I had been employed long enough for my husband to complete his graduate degree, I could settle into being a mother and wife and do the work I loved without having to weigh its economic viability.

And it was gladness that kept drawing me back to the writing, the gladness it filled me with every time I turned to it. I let the gladness lead me without ever naming it. I simply knew I wanted to write, that writing was my job, the work I went to every day, security be damned. And security was damned. It never even peeked over the horizon. For the first fifteen years and the publication of seven novels and lots of time spent lecturing here and there and always teaching several evening classes on the side, I never came close to earning enough money to live on. But the work itself sustained me even if I contributed little to the family coffers.

When the day came for me to leap out of the burning building of a twenty-eight-year marriage, I was terrified, as I should have been. I had $2,000 in my pocket, not a clue where the next penny would come from and a career I was committed to wholly that seemed unlikely ever to support me. But I knew my life depended on that leap . . . literally. I also knew that my writing was one gift I had to carry into my new life and that, if I was to survive, I must figure out ways for this work I loved to be able to give the world what it truly needed.

I was—and am—certain that the world does, indeed, need stories. It needs information, artfully gathered and presented. It needs poetry. It needs words shaped and refined and sorted for meaning. And it needs the deep gladness that rises in your heart and mine every time we do this good work.

Because the gladness shines through.

My father’s choice, made solely for the sake of security, proved to be a false one. When he was in his fifties and the economy was going strong, the Lehigh Portland Cement Company for which he had worked diligently, if joylessly, for so many years, decided three of their plants were outmoded and closed them. My dad was out of work.

It was serendipity, something I’m sure my father didn’t believe in, that he soon found another job in the small community where he and my mother lived. It was a job more suited to his abilities, and I never heard him complain of it. But watching from the sidelines, I learned an important lesson.

Do the work you love, whatever else you must do to make that possible. Do it with gladness, and the rest will fall into place.