Writing from the heart

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I should be spending more time tackling the vast amounts of paperwork on my desk that have been screaming my name, but right now I’m just not in the mood. Instead, I’ve been mulling over my current projects and am making some decisions about what I’ll be prioritizing in the new year.

I spent much of 2008 fulfilling dozens of projects, some of which paid decently, but many more represented far too much work for far too little money. I know I should be grateful, as a professional writer, for any assignment that comes my way, especially in this brave new financial world in which we live. I should be happy that I have a pretty healthy-looking portfolio of published clips, all of which were paid gigs, not to mention a fairly well-received column for the local paper that I hope to continue for as long as ideas come to my stress-addled brain. In 2008 I gained my first commercial client, interviewed a New York Times bestselling author, traveled to Singapore to do research for my novel, completed the requisite 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, wrote my column every single week from February through the present without a single break (not for illness, holiday or the absence of my muse), and even published my first reprint. I won new fans and plenty of enemies (check out the “testimonials” on the Newspaper Columns page on my Web site, if you haven’t already), some of whom really need a quick grammar and spelling review.

So yes, it’s been a pretty productive and rewarding career, writing-wise, and I imagine that if I were willing to pursue my vocation with even greater fervor in 2009, I’m sure my income will increase in lockstep.

However, therein lies the fundamental problem. My income, however much I worked for those dozens (over 100) articles, profiles, essays, and columns, is just under half of what I had hoped for this year. Indeed, it’s a mere fraction of what I made in my previous job, and although I didn’t think I’d be able to match my previous income, even on an after-tax basis, I’m still floored by how little I really made this year, despite all the work I did. And no, it still looks pretty pitiful even after all the small business tax deductions are taken into consideration.

Big sigh. It’s quite disheartening, I must say, to realize that all the work one does really does amount to very little when you break it all down into its smallest parts and determine a per-hour income. I didn’t even make minimum wage, when you factor in the actual time I spent with each project. That may sound merely inadequate when you’re 21 and fresh out of a creative writing college degree, but it’s downright tragic when you’re weeks away from 37 and wanting to fund a decent Roth IRA.

So 2009 will be a watershed year, in more ways than one. One of the things that’s really making me re-think my whole writing career is the realization that I’ve earned nearly every dollar of this meager income writing about things that, uhm, really don’t interest me that much. Oh sure, I love writing my columns, even with the dreaded weekly deadline. Now that I’ve learned how to jot down column ideas whenever they come to me into my handy-dandy Palm Centro, I’m pretty much free from writer’s block when it comes to sitting to down to write the darn thing. I can fire up my Palm, open up my “Column Ideas” document, and choose whatever I feel like writing about.

On the other hand, 90% of the projects I’ve worked on the past year have basically represented nothing more than a paycheck (albeit a pretty small one). One editor once affectionately referred to me as a hired gun, and that’s basically what I am. Many of my gigs have been assigned to me, and I willingly took them. I don’t regret doing so — they’ve paid bills and helped us get to Singapore, after all — but now that I’ve done it for awhile, I can honestly say that, the money aside, I’ve lost the appetite for them. If they were well-paying gigs, it would be different, but when you’re asked to craft a persuasive article, complete with photographs and a lengthy interview with several subjects, and then in the end you see maaaybe $200 for about 15 hours of work, well, you see where I’m going with this. $1200 would be different, but $200 is just slave labor.

In the meantime, the project that’s closest to my heart, the one that I’ve been working on off-and-on (mostly on during the month of November, aka National Novel Writing Month), languishes, waiting for me to finish it and finally make the deep edits it so desperately needs. I’ve two more book projects waiting in the wings, and another project I’m seriously considering, a screenplay or script adaptation of a much-loved novella. None of them may ever lead to massive riches — or even a dollar in income — but they’re the things I think about the most whenever I ask myself the question, “Sooooo…what do you really want to do with your life? What do you want to do so much that, were you not to do them/it, you would end up regretting it forever?”

Yeah. Those projects.

Does this mean that I’m going to give up my freelance writing? Not likely. I’ve a major project coming up in January that will take up much of that month’s time. It’s a good gig, and one of the few decent-paying ones. I’m still committed to the weekly column I write for the local newspaper. I also want to return to my regular blogging, especially on this one blog project that has shown much promise throughout its short but fun life. I would love to see an income arise out of that, as that represents the kind of writing I enjoy, i.e., writing that represents what’s most important to me, what I love and am passionate about. But for now, I just want to come back to it and welcome its presence back in my life again.

For the most part, though, I want to rededicate the new year — my 37th — to the personal projects that inject my life with meaning, grace and hope. I had hoped that I would have at least finished a first draft of my novel by now, but the great thing about life is that it always offers second chances. So for 2009, among other resolutions I’ll mention in later posts, I’ll include this: Write more from the heart, and hope the money will follow.