Why do all this work?: A guest post by Charles Wohlforth

Writing a book that’s worth reading is hard enough. Doing it without going broke is harder. Selling what you’ve written to the public is the hardest part of all.

I’ve been making my living as a freelance writer and author for 17 years. I know how to make money at it. But the work is always hard, enough so that you soon need more motivation than the thrill of seeing your words in print.

Most of the writing that people get paid for is stuff they would never write otherwise. One of my steady assignments for the last 15 years has been travel books, of which I’ve written four. I wish I never had to describe another hotel room.

But by keeping in the game with unglamorous work, I’ve carved out a lifestyle that allows me to do work that is more important to me. The real satisfaction comes from writing material that is larger than yourself, either for its enduring literary merit, or, more importantly, because it changes how readers perceive and act in the world for the better.

Writing my books on the environment, The Fate of Nature, and the previous book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, have fulfilled my need for meaning in my professional life for the last decade, although they’re the hardest to write and definitely the hardest to sell of all the work I do.

Right now I’m on the road, doing publicity for my new book. It’s a lot like running for office, except the election never comes—you just have to keep on campaigning. There are an awful lot of easier ways to make money.

But I feel incredibly lucky. Because I got to say what I needed to say, and I have readers who are entering into the world of my book and being moved by it.

Ultimately, it’s all about that connection, the simplest thing a writer does, and the most rare and difficult.

2 thoughts on “Why do all this work?: A guest post by Charles Wohlforth”

  1. This is right up my alley. I have been pondering, talking to any who will listen, writing messages to self, about the need to go to work for the work. I got two grants last year, one small, the other in the $1000's, after making a case for my need to work for my writing. In some cases, I needed time to do submissions and follow ups but I also needed to build my own presence in the world of poetry — to meet people, to put myself out there in new ways. I figure that much more time must go to working for the work than is spent in creating it. I look at it this way, if I believe in the work, if I find it worthy, then I must go beyond giving it birth to giving it a life. Just this week, a lyric i wrote in 2004 was put to music and performed by a jazz singer. This happened because I never abandoned the piece.

    At times, I have felt horribly egocentric pushing the work. It's easiest if I keep the created thing in the forefront, as separate from me. Once things start to move, you create a kind of milieu — a pool of operation — and from there, you can take off and go further. Like the candidate, run for the office for which there is no election — just notoriety — maybe a pinch of immortality.

  2. Charles Wohlforth

    I understand about the feeling of being a self-promoter. It can seem creepy. My grandmother was a successful novelist. Everyone in the family made fun of what a publicity hound she was. Now I realize that's why she was a successful novelist.

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