Let me sell you your dream

I have this little dream. It’s not an especially original or exalted dream. In fact, it’s rather commonplace and possibly even cliched. I want to chuck the work-a-day life and live deep in the forest where I can read and write and chop wood until I reach a state of perpetual bliss.

I’m taking steps in the direction of realizing my dream. I own a bit of rural property, deeply wooded, with a nice lake and a sometimes passable road leading to it, and I’ve recently had erected a small, one-room cabin on it. In fact, the image you see in my banner at the top of this blog is a picture of the lake and the location of the small cabin, though the photo was taken before the cabin was built. (If you can make out the small, horizontal white line about an inch to the right of the exclamation point, you will see the foundation that was being poured for the cabin.) Update: Should I ever change the background of the banner, I realize that much of this paragraph will no longer make sense.

Living in a state of perpetual bliss, of course, requires an independent income, and since no one is offering this to me, I’ve had to work out how to achieve one myself. To this end I began reading rural living “how-to” books, paying particular attention to the sections dealing with making a living far from office buildings and factories. Many solutions involve providing service to the information economy: programming software, data mining, doing online graphic design, et cetera. All things that could be done before a well-connected computer anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, I can’t claim these skills. Nor do I think I can rely on some of the alternate suggestions such as raising a crop or selling eggs.

One income-raising suggestion I had seen proposed repeatedly in these books (and the reason I have stopped reading them) is to write a book telling others how to make a living far from office buildings and factories. I could make my living in the woods by selling books telling others how to make their living in the woods. I’m not joking. I have seen this suggestion several times in the “how-to” books I’ve sampled. And each time I saw it, the book in my hands suddenly felt tainted. I felt I was being manipulated and victimized. It seemed like a Ponzi scheme. The writers told me I could make money by telling others how to make money, who in turn would follow my advice and tell others how to make money until all the forests of the world were populated by hermits telling each other how to go about their business.

And so, gentle reader, I come to the point of my post. I think the very same thing happens in the field of creative writing. It seems as though every time I click a link at some writer’s personal blog or to learn more about a given commenter on a post, I’m taken to someone’s “how-to” write website. There may, in fact, be more sites devoted to telling writers how to write than there are sites by actual writers.

The dream of being a financially independent fiction writer is also commonplace and cliched. We’re all taking steps to realize that dream, of course, and many of us may achieve it in some fashion, but the path before us is not always clear or certain. It is strewn with the snares of self doubt and the pitfalls of a publishing industry in turmoil. And here is where these predatory “how-to” writing sites leap in. For a fee, these sites will conduct an online writing class, or they will sell you their book on how to write, or they will read your manuscript and make suggestions. And so on. I’m sure many of these outfits are legitimate and provide a real service. And I’m sure many more are at least sincere about what they offer even if their advice and experience are limited and superficial. (I was at a site recently that offered to review my manuscript to make it worthy of publication, and it was operated by two writers who hoped to be published themselves one day!)

And so a plethora of sites and books and magazines are written about how to write. They make money by supposedly teaching us how to make money with what we write. I’m reminded of a college freshman who takes a survey course on western literature or psychology or particle physics. Because it is a survey course, the material tends to be superficial. Yet the freshman sees it all as being easily comprehended and feels he has mastered the subject, leaving the classroom to pontificate yet only having the barest glimpse of the whole subject. Similarly, it appears to me, many hopeful writers take one or two classes or read a half dozen books or publish a few stories or win a few writing contests and consider themselves suddenly qualified to tell others how to write. And I’m sure they all believe that what they offer is valid. (Well, not all. There are one or two magazines I believe truly set out to exploit the writing dream.)

The one lesson I have come to, through several decades of moderately successful effort, is that I must keep my own counsel. The only ones who can teach me how to write are successful writers. I can learn more from reading and rereading one good novel than I can from an entire shelf of how-to write books. Others may want to sell my dreams to me, but only I can actually pursue them.

And so I come to the end of a long but I hope coherent post. Thanks to those few of you who stuck with me to this point. The only writing advice I will offer, and I offer it for free, is this: keep reading and writing.

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6 Comments on “Let me sell you your dream”

  1. rachel Says:

    I am so naive… I actually think I believed that this “how to make money” phenomenon was new or unique to online/blog money-making.

    Lately, I feel like I have been caught in some sort of blog loop in which all of the blogs are about how to make money with your blog… and they sell you lessons on how to make money with your blog so that they can make money with their blog. It is a horrible cycle of the blind leading the blind and It really is a bunch of BS.

    My new goal (a lot like yours) is sincerity and authenticity… well, and to somehow make some money! 🙂


  2. Ah – as a writer and a teacher of creative writing, I can totally see where you’re coming from. I enjoy teaching very much, and see it as a separate and creative pursuit, not just something to fund my writing. Although there’s a guilty part of me that knows if I was teaching a room full of people nursing, it is likely most of them would end up making a living being nurses. Not the same for my writing courses – does that mean they only exist in order to give me a job? It is a thought that has crossed my mind, but I do hope not.

    I like your blog – just discovered, but will be back.

  3. Pete Says:

    You could always leech off your friends in town, like Thoreau did.


  4. If I had friends, I’d be more than tempted… sadly, most of my friends are in the same (leaky) boat as me…

  5. Beth Says:

    Best piece of writing advice you can give!

  6. Brian Keaney Says:

    You’re absolutely right! The whole creative writing/become an author industry does indeed resemble a Ponzi scheme in many respects. It’s a relief to hear someone say so.


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