Bread Work and Real Work

One of the great advantages of being a freelance writer is having the choice to write on whatever grabs your interest. But that blessing is also a curse if your curiosity knows no bounds, as does mine. Given the demands of life and the need to make a living, the curious writer can devote only so much time to explore the vast universe of subjects suitable for his craft. Not all of us can be like Isaac Asimov, the master of science fiction who wrote over 500 books in his lifetime on every topic imaginable, not including short stories, essays, and criticism.

So every writer must answer these questions: What do I want to write about? More importantly, why do I write?

George Orwell addressed these questions in his famous essay, Why I Write. Aside from making a living, Orwell’s reasons for writing were four-fold: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. In other words, he wrote (1) out of a desire to appear clever and important; (2) a desire to engage in the art of writing and description, (3) a desire (or need) to see things as they are, and (4) to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Aside from making a living, these reasons for writing are mine as well, and I often refer to this essay when I wonder where to go in my freelance career.

But there’s always that sticky need to make money.

Samuel Johnson famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” He was referring to working writers, of course. Considering his words today, there are a lot of blockheads around writing for free. But that’s a topic for another post.

Because I’m a professional writer and not a blockhead, I write for money. My main gig is medical writing and editing – you can see my website in development here. This is my Bread Work – it’s what I do to put bread on the table and pay the mortgage. Although I like medical writing (when I’m not dealing with ethically-challenged marketing people), it’s not my primary passion. I think that’s true for many medical writers; several of my colleagues have aspirations toward fiction writing, poetry, or nonfiction narrative – telling real life stories. I count myself among them.

My main passion is writing narrative and literary nonfiction, essays, and opinion on topics such as alternative economies, ecology, philosophy (especially philosophy of mind), feeling-oriented psychotherapies, early life influences on mental health, neurobiology (especially affective neuroscience), social ecology, Zen Buddhism, and, well, the list goes on and on. As I said, my curiosity knows no bounds! This is what I call my Real Work, after Gary Snyder’s book by the same name. In an interview, Snyder described real work as “the work we really do…what our lives are…” From his poem, I Went into the Maverick Bar,

 Under the tough old stars/ In the shadow of bluffs/ I came back to myself/ To the real work, to/ “What is to be done.”

To what is to be done … For Snyder, it is poetry; for me, it is writing that matters as my blog tag says. Over the coming months, I hope to be doing a lot more of this here as I do on my other blog, The Primal Mind. I also hope to be publishing more Real Work, turning it into Bread Work.

What about you? Are you a professional writer trying to do your Real Work while managing Bread Work? Tell  me how you manage it.

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2 Responses to Bread Work and Real Work

  1. Valerie says:

    I want to be a writer just like evobryedy else i have a group of friends who actually read my books and cant wait until i get done with a certain chapter or book. I want to know if there are more people like me who start writing a book and no matter what they cant stop writing they just have to finish the book. Even though the book maybe stupid and most likely doesn’t make any sense you just cant stop. Am I the only one who is addicted into writing a story? I have gotten to a point in which a person can say any word and I would be able to write a story on it. I want to know how do i get notice where are the good places you can go to get your books notice? And does anybody know how many pages it takes to make a pilot script for a tv series or movie? my guess 500 pages but i could be wrong? please respond i dont care if you think i am asking you ridicules questions that i should already know but i dont care?

  2. Virginia Heffernan says:

    I used to think more like you, Bruce, but I’m beginning to think of my writing as more of a really good career choice rather than something I want to be doing all the time. I find my bread writing immensely satisfying except when – as you say – it causes ethical stirrings or is just plain dull. I seem to have a strong urge to indulge my physical and risk taking self with sports and adventure right now (probably some kind of mid life crisis), and my “bread” writing allows me to do this. If I were to indulge in “real” writing that did not pay, I would just have to spend longer at the computer and the thought does not fill me with joy! But that could change: I’ll certainly never forget the thrill of having a “real” humour piece published in the Globe & Mail – in the days when it paid.

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