The Sustainable Writer: What’s Your Return?

strikes me that in America we don’t much have a ‘sacred’ place or role for the
isolate artist any longer. Everything has been sucked up into marketing and
celebrity and the almighty commodity—so if you are a writer, you are meant to
sell something. If it sells, it has worth. But in my heart of hearts I just
want to sneak individual books into the pockets of sad people. Or stuff pews
with them! Because writing gave me a place to go and be and grow when I wanted
to give up. And I’d like to put my foot in the doorway so that others might
find this place too.”
Lidia Yuknavitch, interviewed by editor Rhonda Hughes
is Geoff Nunberg’s choice for Word of the Year for 2015. In his
commentary on the word
, he notes that our job-based economy is disintegrating
into a series of gigs that represent not so much freedom as instability. Juggling
gigs is a fact of life to those of us who make our living with the written
word—those of us who, like Lidia Yuknavitch, long to sneak our work into the
pockets of sad people. 
The gigs are relentless—demands made by an industry,
by a culture, that can’t accommodate the sneak-to-pocket method of connecting
writers and readers. They come courtesy of your agent, your publisher, your
publicist, and your own oh-my-god-I’m-an-author-what-now research. Social media
gigs. E-newsletter gigs. Website gigs. Book launch gigs. The demands of wish-and-star
gigs that offer little of substance to sustain an author are among the reasons
so many give up the pursuit of their craft.  
A radical alternative: Embrace the role of isolate
artist, expectations be damned. This makes for short-term bliss, the kind you
get from a stint at a retreat or a residency. Sadly, it’s not especially
sustainable. If you want your work to be read, the gigs keep on coming. 
Another radical alternative: Take a cue from the
business folks. You know, like your publisher, who annoys you to no end with
concern about Return on Investment (ROI)—because your publisher is fearless
about the fact without ROI, you can’t stay in business.
I know—we artists aren’t supposed to muck up our
creative brains with business-y concepts like ROI. But if we don’t, gigs get
way, way out of hand, and our writing life becomes unsustainable.
Evaluating ROI is quick, easy, and potentially
life-changing for anyone who has (or wants) a career as a writer. Start by
listing all of your gigs—those you’ve undertaken and those you’re
contemplating. Social media, blogging, producing an e-newsletter, maintaining a
website, engaging with other writers, that sort of thing. 
Then consider what each gig costs (or would cost) in terms
of money, time, and (this one’s important) joy. Because if we don’t do this for
joy, what’s left?
After estimating the costs of each gig—on paper, not
just in your head—evaluate the return, in terms of the things that contribute
to your own personal measures of success—money, joy, growth, prestige.
Your ROI analysis will yield surprises. We’re creatures
of habit, so we keep at gigs even when the results aren’t that great—especially
when we hear that you “have to _____” in order to succeed as a writer.
When you factor joy as well as time and money into
your ROI analysis, you’ll make your own smart choices about each of your gigs. Activities
that yield little return for the investment will be trimmed back, modified, or
phased out. 
And don’t worry—you can evaluate ROI and still be an artist.
A smart artist, whose gigs are more about freedom than instability. A
sustainable artist.
writers looking for a good Return on Investment, author Deb Vanasse is teaching
Craft Intensive: Masterful Writing, an online workshop that begins January 25.
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