The lure of the dramatic life arc
Money, incentives, audience capture & writing online
Greetings from Barcelona—
I’ve always loved reading about other writers—biographies, explanations of process, how they make sense of what they do. Much of my early professional life was spent romanticizing the whole thing. It’s all too easy to picture the solitary, tortured soul, punching away at the typewriter, cigarette burning down to the stump, glass of whiskey at the ready.
One thinks of Bukowski’s “so you want to be a writer,” the prose “bursting out of you,” coming “unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut.”
Later, I had to spend quite a bit of time de-programming myself from such romantic nonsense.
Nowadays, I mostly think about writing in terms of a craft I’ve spent decades improving upon. Writing earns me a living, and it also satisfies a creative itch.
I wrote about this almost three years ago:
In my own life, there have been several stretches, usually a matter of a few weeks, when I didn’t write a word. That may seem of small significance to a lot of people, but for someone whose identity is so tied up in being a writer, not to write for that stretch of time feels like a profound failure. Or dare I say, an existential crisis.
But what happens — what has always happened — is that I come back to writing. I miss it. I re-discover that, even if there is no one out there expecting to give me money in exchange for my writing, I still desire to write. I’ve asked myself the question a hundred times in my life: would I simply give up writing if I were able to make my living in some other way? And the answer is always the same: no.
I would still write. I’d write even into the void. For posterity. For myself. To help me understand what I think about what’s going on. Or just to exercise that part of my brain.
Writing is not easy for me, and I usually want to smack anyone who claims it’s easy for them, or if they try to give me advice on how to make it easier, maybe punch them in the face. All those “writing is easy” people can keep that crap to themselves, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, it’s still a fraught relationship, me and writing, even after so many years doing it.
Thus, I tend to bookmark, save, and sometimes obsess over things others have written on the subject, using them to help refine and inform what place writing should hold in my life. Below, I share some of those musings.
I. Valuing status over income
Possibly an obvious point, but Michael Makowsky writes that the status of writers is “grossly out of proportion to the wages they are earning in the market.”
Yes, writers prefer status over money, and I’m no different, though I’ve never thought of it as status so much as influence.
I really got off, for example, on speechwriting in politics and campaigns. There was a powerful politician person, and they were saying my words! When I was a reporter, it was incredibly gratifying to know my stories were being read by more than a hundred thousand people all across New Mexico every morning—and also I didn’t really care that that job didn’t pay well.
II. Being alert to audience capture
Being clear about my motivations I think makes me more alert to audience capture than perhaps others are.
“Write something people want to read,” wrote Zawn Villines a while back, in the middle of a long piece about finding success on Substack. Yes, sure, but also this is exactly the kind of advice to be weary of, whether you want a large audience or not, whether you want to make money or not.
Good writing that people want to read is kind of like inventing a new business—obsessive market research is only going to get you so far. (Why do you think most books never make back the advance publishers paid to the writer?)
I always think of the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Similarly, truly great writing isn’t crowd-sourced, poll-tested, or imitative. One has to actually invent in order to write well, which is partly why ChatGPT is not such a good writer.
And good writing is writing that people want to read. It’s kind of a paradox—you want people to read your writing, but in order to write stuff people want to read I advise you largely ignore the part of your brain that continually asks, “What do I think people want to read?”
III. Beware money
Related to above: earnings do not mean you’re good. Money does not equal quality.
Mastering capitalism is not the same as living a good life. In fact, the two are not particularly correlated as far as I can tell.
Still, money as an indicator of success is pretty much the water we swim in as a society. When people say you’re “winning,” at life, what they usually mean is you’ve made a lot of money: you sold your book, IPO’d your company, achieved FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), or what have you.
So, while I’m often jealous of writers who seem to be raking in that sweet sweet Substack subscription moolah, I remind myself that my end goal here is not wealth in itself, but rather all the other goals I set in my life, according to the values I hold.
There’s an old Atlantic article I think about, published just as people were re-evaluating their relationship to work post-pandemic. Authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen advised:
Think back on a time in your life before you regularly worked for pay. Recall, if you can, an expanse of unscheduled time that was, in whatever manner, yours. What did you actually like to do? Not what your parents said you should do, not what you felt as if you should do to fit in, not what you knew would look good on your application for college or a job.
That, in a sense, is how I think about topics for this newsletter. I’m writing about the things I do with my unscheduled me time: namely climbing, travel, and building stuff (i.e., my renovation projects).
The rest I largely try to ignore.
IV. Writing about yourself
Another temptation in writing: making every story into another chapter in your own personal hero’s journey.
Most talk about life as a path—I think it’s a wilderness.
The problem with a life path, I wrote a few years ago, is the suggestion that life has paths at all:
Most of us are trained from a young age to look for our purpose, to search it out, to find our path, as if we are wandering in the wilderness and need only to wander until we find the road, and when we find it, the way forward will be clear. But what if there are no paths and no roads? What if life isn’t some forest with futures laid out that we only need to search for and find in order to move forward? What if there is only… life?
I suggested that a large wilderness is a more apt metaphor for life. We kind of wander through it aimlessly, not knowing how large it is where each direction might lead.
So, how should one write if, like me, you are writing about yourself? The philosopher Kieran Setiya captured it well:
What makes the narrator’s life worth living is not some grand narrative, running from conception or birth to inevitable death; it is the countless little thoughts and deeds and gentle, joking interactions that occupy day after day after day. If you pay attention, Baker intimates, there’s enough in a single lunch hour to fill a book.
The more you appreciate the sheer abundance of incident, the more you’ll see any life as an assortment of small successes and small failures, and the less prone you will be to say, despairingly, “I’m a loser”—or with misplaced bravado, “I’m a winner!” Don’t let the lure of the dramatic arc distract you from the digressive amplitude of being alive.