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The Writer’s Life Is Not For The Feint Of Heart

First of all, let me tell you that I have been a professional writer for close to 50 years. So I’m not cobbling this post together from stuff that I have seen. That’s called editing, and frankly, that’s what most blog posts that you see are about.

I live in the world of writers. My friends are writers. I have searched long and hard to find real writers to read, as in books, and to follow on social media. This means that I have also found a lot of people who write but are not professional writers. They basically write to support their businesses, but they are not born to it. It’s what they do and not who they are.

Tier One

The writing world, like any other subset of the known universe, breaks down according to the 80/20 rule of almost everything. To wit, 80% (give or take) of all the people writing today are not professional writers. They are writing because they are fulfilling some sort of quota for their marketing program. They work hard at it. But it is not who they are.

The 20% who are left are the real writers. The people who were born to it. Could not imagine themselves doing anything else. Have learned to make a good living doing it and are completely fulfilled by the fact that they get to write every damn day.

Tier Two

Now this 20% breaks down into its own 80/20. The 80% being the ones who work in businesses that require writing. Like advertising, design, printing, and any number of other businesses who do their own marketing, etc.

The 20% of this is 80/20. are the ones who get to write exactly what they want and make lots of money doing. The novelists, the editorialists, the essayists, the philosophers, the screenwriters, the songwriters, the playrights, the documentary writers, the TV writers, etc.

Tier Three

If you really want to get anal you can further break this down into another 80/20 with the 20% being those at the very top of their profession. The Bob Dylans, The Gordon Lightfoots, The Roger Waters, The Lennons & McCartneys, The John Grishams, The Daniel Silvas, The George Lucas’, The Quenton Tarantinos, The Robert Townes, and the list goes on.

As you can see, the writing business really is a pyramid, and the vast majority of those who are writing will never be able to ascend beyond the layer of the pyramid where their skills and interests put them.

But, and there’s always a but,  for those who choose to try and work their way up the food chain, the first thing they find out is just what a daunting task it is. But just because it’s daunting, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It happens all the time. How do you think the people at the top got to where they are? They worked their way up from the bottom. Because everybody starts there.

The Mindset

For writers in Tier One, most simply hope to be able to get into some sort of management position that will assure them a great salary and a solid retirement. This is where I was and that’s more or less what I was able to achieve.

Writers In Tier Two have a much more difficult task because the competition there is not just against other writers, but against a myriad of gatekeepers (agents/editors/publishers) busting ass to keep them out. Forcing them to really push their talent to the limit and beyond. Thus the ‘not for the feint of heart’ escriptor. I know this because I made several forays into this world, hoping to be discovered and bumped up to the next tier.

But, let’s face it, the top tier of any given food chain is populated by people who really had to tough it out, sacrifice like crazy, and push themselves constantly. I had other priorities in my life, as we all do, and really wasn’t willing to sacrifice all those things the sake of maybe success.

Guys like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been in the news a lot these days. These guys are among the very richest people on the planet. But you don’t really know what it took for them to get there. How they had to claw and scratch to sell an idea that nobody’d ever heard of, and that almost everybody scoffed at.

But the reason they broke through and got to where they are is simply that they believed in their ideas and never stopped pushing the peanut up the hill. I personally admire people who are driven like that.

And that’s exactly the way it is in the writing business. You’re either 100% in it, or are just doing it as some sort of recreational activity, or even worse, to fulfill some marketing quota. If it’s the latter, then you will eventually run out of gas, simply because you’re not doing all the work required to keep it moving upwards.

But that doesn’t make you some sort of defective. What it makes you is something other than a writer. If you feel that the burden of all the work you have to do to market yourself is more than you can handle, maybe you should consider an alternative approach. There are all kinds of people out there who can advise you on that. And many who can help.

But if you’re a writer. If it’s in your blood and you really love it, then all you have to do is keep pushing. You may not make it to the next tier, but each tier has its own 20%. Aim for that. And if you can go farther, give it all you’ve got and see what happens.

The best thing about it is that if you are a writer, at the end of the day, you will always have it and even just the act of doing it will be its own reward.

PS: The reason I know all of this is that I made it to the top of Tier One and left the advertising agency business well equipped to run my own consultancy, which I did for 30 years. I thoroughly investigated going to the next level, but realized that most of the activity in getting there at the time involved a) moving to LA or New York, and b) spending more time than I thought was worthwhile trying to please the middlemen, (agents), in order to get there.

But that’s just me and my own set of priorities. Yours are your own too. And it’s really smart to know what they are before you attempt to ascend. And if you do have your priorities in order, you will understand how much work you have to do to achieve whatever your goal may be.

After that, it’s just a question of doing the work, keeping the faith you have in yourself strong, and pushing that peanut up the hill.

Jim Murrayhttps://www.bebee.com/@jim-murray
I have been a writer since the age of 14. I started writing short stories and poetry. From there I graduated to writing lyrics for various bands and composers and feature-length screenplays, two of which have been produced. Early on in my writing career, I discovered advertising. While the other media have drifted in and out, communications writing and art direction have been the constant through a 20-year career senior positions in Canadian and multi-national agencies and a second career, which began in 1989, (Onwords & Upwords Inc), as a strategic and creative resource to direct clients, design companies, marketing consultants and boutique agencies. Early in 2020, I closed Onwords & Upwords and opened MurMarketing which is a freelance strategic development/copywriting/art direction service for businesses working to make a positive difference in the world. I currently write long format blogs in 4 different streams, encompassing, entertainment, marketing, and communications, life in general, and the renewable energy and recycling industries. These are currently published on beBee.com. I have, over the years, created more than 1500 blog posts. I live with my wife Heather in the beautiful Niagara Region of southern Ontario, after migrating from Toronto, where I spent most of my adult life. I am currently recovering from spinal surgery and learning to walk again.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Everything does happen in its time. But mostly it’s about the pure joy of putting your thought down in a way that other might enjoy reading. As far as looking back and wondering about different roads, I never did that. Advertising was too much fun, back then. Not so much these days. But when I worked in the agency business I was surrounded by creative people who loved their work. Many of us still stay in touch by email and social media, real life long friendships. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you enjoy it and are challenged by it. These days I mostly challenge myself to tell a whole story in 120 pages of script.

  2. Hello Jim,

    Your article is to say the least thought provoking. It also provides an analysis and conclusions of why we have to, need to it just enjoy writing with no deadline, just pure transformation to another level of consciousness. I am retired and find I adore writing, just for the love of it. I have recently read Michael Sandler’s book The Automatic Experience. AWE is no coincidence. One of his tips is to write stories using a fountain pen. I have always had a fountain pen, but now it has a new lease of life! The connection from the heart to the pen nib and paper becomes as one.
    I write when I have inspiration. And that is my motivation and hopefully embrace readers with the reality of my fantasy; real descriptions of real life, or flying alongside swans and over trees during a flying dream. Thank you Jim for opening my door to writing even further . Brilliant article.
    Simon

    • Thanks Simon. I am sorta retired myself. And mostly I write screenplays for movies and series pilots. I have one cont act in Toronto and no agent to crack the whip on me, so like you I did it just for the joy of it. Sooner or later I will get around to marketing them seriously suppose. I have quite a sizeable inventory. One mini series and 11 feature screenplays. But for now, I’m just having fun and filling in the time between all the physio I have to do to get my legs back under me. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Hi Jim. I like this post. It is interesting to me because at this time in my life – after a 40+ year career – I am pursuing all those things that I might have tried to make a career, but instead chose the easy way…corporate America.

    In 1989, I was hired at a bank because of my writing. The man who hired me liked my “thank you note.” He said it was warm and personal. I’d never thought of myself as a good writer – I sure wasn’t in school. But that compliment stayed with me, and I stayed with him over 20 years at three different organizations. At the last organization, he allowed me to take on a role for which I wasn’t qualified but desperately wanted – Chief Learning Officer. It took me a nanosecond to realize I didn’t have the requisite knowledge so I went back to graduate school and officially became a writer.

    When the Program Director told me the program was “writing intensive” I shivered a little. But I shivered far more with knowledge-based tests, so I decided to try. I. loved. it. Early in my life, if someone gave me a 500 word writing prompt it would have intimidated me. Today, I have trouble writing in the confines of 1,000 words, but doing so in practice helped me refine my ability to be less wordy.

    When I finally left corporate America, I wanted to tell me story of what I learned in my career so 50,000 words later, my book was published by my professional association.

    All that to say, sometimes I look back and wonder if I’d taken a different road to a career – a more creative road – if I would have been more satisfied than I was in corporate America. But then I remember that everything happens in its time.

    Thanks for letting me take this trip down memory lane.

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