Writing for money and writing as a cultural activity

I am not going to edit this. I am just going to write from the heart and the mind and the memory.

Writing for money and writing as a cultural activity are not the same thing and there is rarely a happy relationship between the two but  every once in a while they come together and when that happens a writer is wise to leap for joy.

It has happened for me only once or twice.

I have known since I was a teenager that writing was the cultural activity I wanted to pursue. Words were the route my soul would take; my soul was a word-soul; its deepest connection with humanity and history was triggered by language, particularly English, the language of my long forebears. It was through words that I felt my first connection with humanity at large, and sensed the grand, heroic and tragic story of humans in struggle against each other, against nature, against fate and the gods, and in struggle against themselves, their own nature, their own locked-in fates, their own limitations and vices. It was language and words. That was how I connected. This first occurred when I read Dylan Thomas’s poetry at the age of 14. I sensed there a world evoked that was my world, a world where colors were brighter and speech was richer; it was a world that mirrored the sense of my own soul, that within me was a world where colors were brighter and speech was richer than that around me. This began a romance with words as my primary cultural attachment; words were my vehicle.

The question of how to make a living, however,  how to make this soul connection work in a money-making way, was a terrible and vexing problem which I only now and then solved. Writing for a living I mean. It’s not a simple problem, for along with this romance of words I also had this vexing emptiness of spirit, this deep hole in my heart, this constant nagging emptiness and unease that led me to seek refuge in drugs and alcohol and wildness. I was an alcoholic from a young age, and alcoholics typically do not solve the problem of how to make a living in the most sensible way.

So in my 30-year romance with words  I learned much about how a living may be made writing words for others to read but how certain sacrifices must also be made, some of which will be so painful to the soul that they cannot be borne, and so one must choose, at times: to write for money or to save one’s soul.

It happened, however, that after years of struggle I found a job at Salon.com in 1999 where I was able to practice word craft in a pleasurable way and also get paid a living wage.

This is  rare and when it happens a writer is wise to ride it as long and as hard as possible. So I did this for 12 years, which was an amazing thing.

But here is what happened as I was able to write to my heart’s content for 12 years for a living wage for Salon.com. I was able to overlook the fact that it was a  cultural activity and view it just as a thing I did for a living.

But it was a cultural activity. It was not something done in a vacuum. It was an act of connection.

When I lost that job in September 2013 I was thrown into a state of uncertainty. I had to unravel who I was and why I had been doing it. For most of a year I continued to write the column but I resented writing it. I resented Salon for ending the column and I resented the fact that I was now writing the column for free. I couldn’t quite make out what I was supposed to be doing. Was I now writing the column as a marketing activity to draw attention to my other, money-making, activities?

To write the column as a marketing activity seemed demeaning. It seemed wrong. Yet to write it simply for free, out of vanity, did not sit well either. Nor did writing it for a salary seem doable; all the major outlets had their advice columnists already, and I was not sure, frankly, for a while, if writing an advice column was the salaried work I wanted to pursue. I had a sense that what I had done at Salon was over.

Tomorrow: Coming to terms/Swinging for the fences