The value of writing

It’s one of those skills that is absolutely vital to the world, takes a great deal of time and energy to master and that not everybody can do yet is given very little value by society. I worked as a writer for several years before returning to school and trying to pivot to a career in urban design. One of the big reasons for the shift was that the only stuff I could get paid to write was soul crushingly dull and made my body ache. I can pump out 5,000 or 6,000 words in a day on any topic in any style if you pay me enough.

That was the stuff of SEO keywords jammed into sections of websites. It is not why I decided to become a writer. It is why I decided to stop trying to survive off of writing.

Upon returning to school I immediately appreciated the value of being able to write a lot and decently well. I am not scared of writing and many people are. It is much easier to write a lot on a topic you are head over heals obsessed with. My two American flatmates guessed that on a good day they could do 1,000 words. I wrote an entire 5,000 word assignment including edits and layout in a day and a half.

Despite the obvious benefits of a skill that I laboured for five or six years to get good at I have been told repeatedly that writing is worthless. It is something you do because you love it and deserve no respect or payment for it. Once I was told that because my program and ambitions were of no use to society they should receive no government funding and that I should be ineligible for scholarships. This sentiment can be felt more generally in interactions with people who work at proper jobs and in the oil soaked veins of Calgary’s economy. It was a breath of fresh air moving to Copenhagen and then DC where nobody told me how in a voice showing how naive and ridiculous I was that it was good I was following my dreams. In DC they were probably doing exactly the same thing as me.

A recent Walrus article discusses whether writers are worth paying:

Many young writers have reconciled themselves to forgoing the bare necessities: “No children, no car . . . no home,” said Richardson. This can pose a challenge to attaining in life the self-sufficiency authors enjoy on the page. Morgan Jerkins, a writer in New York whose first collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming, told me, “I want to get married and have a family, and I do wonder, if I’m going to continue being an artist, will I need to be with a partner that is more financially stable than I?” Jerkins shared none of my basic ambivalence, however: “Writing is a job and it shouldn’t be devalued just because it’s not medicine or law.”

The article does a good job of tracing the roots and history of how writing is conceived in relation to money. For me, as a polymath, I can extend these thoughts to creativity. I am interested in a variety of creative things but don’t know if any of them are something I want to rely on for money. Photography is probably the most viable of the three things I do still I can’t picture myself at 45 carrying around heavy gear and spending five hours at an event. I’ll do it for now if the opportunity arises but the photography that is easiest to get paid for is physically demanding.

There’s something to be said for divorcing money from the equation. Back in the day working as a journalist was a good path for the would be writer to practice and live a comfortable life. Now it’s less clear. One thing I struggle with is how all these divergent skills and interests I have, all of which have entailed studying and countless hours of practice, add up to a life that is comfortable and possible. One where I have the freedom to make the things I want to make without counting on the public finding my obsession with a particular park in Calgary and it’s history to be sufficiently interesting to read about.

Our society has decided that creative professions are both exciting and cool and worthless at the same time. If we paused to see the skill, work and value of these pursuits we could build an economy that was more balanced and fulfilling. Whatever you do don’t tell me that writing is worthless.


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