28 August 2000
Thank you for asking about my retirement so I can think about these things some more. You know, I do not like the idea of retirement and do not use the word. I tell people I have not retired, but that “I quit employment.” They go blank, so it is better to tell them “I am a freelance writer.”
A friend told me one time, a few years ago, that on the average, a writer in the United States earns $1900 a year. I don’t know what this means. Possibly, there are an awful lot of people scribbling away, and they bring down the average; or, the business of earning one’s living by the pen is fraught with difficulty. I believe both to be true, but especially the latter.
Although modern society supports a large segment of its society whose medium is reading, writing and thinking, and who pays them for it, my own experience is that it is not an easy thing to get into. One has to be focused and willing to sacrifice to get there. Biographies of artists, scientists, authors – intellectuals in general – are stories of drudgery and struggle against the odds. Rare are the fortunate few who have places already made for them: more typical are the poets I’ve met who grumble that they support themselves at temp jobs while they squeeze out a few drops of poetry which may ultimately earn them a very few dollars.
We are a society of extremes: a small percentage produce best sellers and movie scripts that go for millions. The vast majority are on the margins. I’ve marveled that the typical press run is 1200 to 3,000 copies, the same as it was in the infancy of printing, five hundred years ago. The main difference is that now there is a larger volume of published titles and in more areas of specificity.
My own path is that though I wanted to be a writer and be paid for thinking, I made choices that meant I was soon involved in other obligations that made the free-lancing life too risky. Raising children and paying mortgages seems to override a lot of independence, creativity, and the time required to be productive. And, of course, we humans occupy a range of different personality types. I find myself unable to dash off anything but have to think about a topic or question for a long time and do a lot of re-writing before I gain satisfaction with what I have done. Only then, can I set aside my self-criticism and with some ease go public.
Instead of freelancing as I might have wished, I occupied myself with several years of mulling my thoughts and experimenting with ideas under the promise that by planning-ahead I would some day come to the position to do what I always wanted to do. That day has come. I’m subsidizing my own future. Whether I ever earn anything by reading, writing and thinking is no longer important for me – I don’t have to – reading deeply, thinking critically and writing creatively are the important things. Still, nothing is automatic, and the last months have taught me the value of routine, forethought and self-discipline.
Perhaps, all I’ve said is too idiosyncratic. Plenty of people are busy reviewing books, writing essays and magazine articles, consulting, and doing the other profitable things that revolve around reading, writing and thinking. I’m glad to have had a library career, where I was always close to intellectual work, to the emergence and flow of new ideas and means of expressing them. That’s where I had a chance to develop my learning and thinking skills. Even though my everyday life for close to forty years was not always what I exactly wanted, I felt I was on the right track.
I still do.