This question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.
First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.
But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.
A business / profession?
Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.
If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.
An art / vocation
What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.
I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.
Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.
In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.
Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.
An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
#1 by danholloway on September 18, 2016 - 7:27 pm
I’ve just written a piece on this (following the same conversation I would wager). When this debate crops up among writers I am always left scratching my head somewhat, so I think it helped me that I spent Saturday morning at my friend’s MA art show, because artists will by and large look utterly blank if you try and frame the debate the way many writers do, which is a reminder that we are not alone! Most artists will take it for granted they have an artistic statement, for example, that they wrestle with for years, trying to understand their place in the history of their discipline. This struggle, and how it relates to their practice, to the myriad techniques they have learned will dominate their lives.
Many will also feel the conflict with their galleries over commercial issues, and will agonise over authenticity, but their primary goal is always to make art (as defined above in terms of creating a place for oneself in a wider debate) – which is what distinguishes an artist form someone who does art as a hobby, and is pretty much the “comparing” you talk about.
This kind of conversation – about where we fit in a wider cultural picture – is the thing that’s by and large missing form indie communities (where any such talk is sometimes overlooked on forums, is always overlooked at conferences, and sometimes gets outright hostile reactions – we should be talking in our groups as much about what happened to Modernist sentence structure as we do about how to format a Facebook ad) that is there when you move outside to literary discussions, and is, I think, the next step we have to take if we want to be taken seriously as literary writers.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:01 am
Hi Dan! Yes, I think we’re talking about the same conversation 🙂
What an interesting example you bring here. Yes, we don’t see these questions discussed very often. I wonder if people fear the debate will get judgemental – eg each faction will feel dismissed or undermined by the others? But even if they don’t enunciate the differences, we see them emerge anyway. I’m sure you saw the discussion where a writer asked about the pressure of success – and the different ways that was interpreted. For some, it was sales – would the new book sell as well as the old? For others, success was defined as fulfilling artistic expectations.
#3 by Madeleine D'Este (@madeleine_deste) on October 12, 2016 - 7:39 pm
Great blog post and awesome comments. There are many different types of writers, each with their own raison d’etre. My goals are entertaining readers rather than pursuing capital A “Art” goals. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take my writing seriously.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 13, 2016 - 5:52 am
#5 by Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D. on September 18, 2016 - 8:43 pm
For me, it’s not so much that I find my identity in my work as it is that I express my identity through my work. By devoting myself to what I write, without necessarily intending to do so, I find that I put little bits of myself into every story or essay. It’s always surprising to me, as I look back over something I’ve written (weeks, months, or years later) and see things that I was not conscious of while I was writing. If I were writing primarily for income, that certainly would not be the case.
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:02 am
Hi Lisa! Nice example – thanks for stopping by.
#7 by Gail L. Winfree on September 18, 2016 - 8:59 pm
Reblogged this on Winfree Writes and commented:
After I published my first book, an ex-friend felt she had to explain the perils of publishing to me. I’ve heard it before. She went on about all the books being published today and that most of them never sell and so on and so on. Doom and gloom. You’ve heard it before, too. She was trying to make a point that I’ve never make any money writing books. Then she asked me how I ever expected to sell my books in such a competitive market?
First of all, I told her, I don’t sell books, I write them. Maybe my books will sell, maybe they won’t. I hope they do. I hope I can make money writing books. But if I don’t, I can feel good about creating something that will outlive me and perhaps make a difference in someone’s life a hundred years from now.
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
When I’m writing, I feel good. When I’m writing good, I’m lost in a wild dream where the story, the words, and I travel freely across the universe on cloud 9. And sometimes, I’m so lost in my writing, I lose control of the words I’m writing. They laugh, sing, dance on the page, play hide and seek, musical chairs, ring around the rosy, somersault over sentences and across paragraphs, leaving me exhausted and exuberant and that’s when I know I’m doing my best writing.
“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”
— Tom Clancy
Authors ultimately measure their success in book sales. But I agree with Mr. Clancy. Just completing a book is a success. I’ve done a lot of things in my life just to say I can do this. I believe one of the reasons I started writing books was to prove to myself I could do it.
I’m not a best selling author. I’m not an award winning writer (though early in my career, I did win a few journalism awards). People aren’t clamoring to buy my books. Did you know that the great Bruce Lee never won a martial arts competition? He never held a belt. He didn’t compete. He was too busy improving his art and developing his own style of martial arts and becoming one of the greatest innovators the martial arts world has known. So I may never be an award winning, best selling author, but I will continue to write and improve on my writing and do my best to be an innovator of my own writing style.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:04 am
Hi Gail! What great quotes and examples. Especially the Clancy idea – in many ways, finishing a book is like a long, solo sea voyage.
#9 by Viv on September 18, 2016 - 9:18 pm
I’m going through quite a lot of struggles with this sort of issue and because I’ve really not been at all well mentally for a long while (never mind the physical) I’ve had trouble expressing my thoughts. In the end, I think I have had to accept I am not a commercially viable writer, and perhaps never was; yet for all that, I think I still have something to say that is worth saying (so to speak), before I go.
Apologies for the garbled nature of my comment.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:07 am
Hi Viv – not garbled at all! I like your point about ‘having something to say’ – the feeling that we’re provoked to express something, which is totally separate from whether it fits the needs of a market.
#11 by authorleannedyck on September 18, 2016 - 9:50 pm
I’m driven to create and want to be proud of what I have created. Creative inspiration comes from a place deep within me.
Does this make me an artist?
I want to be a successful author and this — in part — means making money from my writing.
Does this make me a businesswoman?
Thank you for beginning this discussion, Roz.
#12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:09 am
Hi Leanne – the businesswoman or the artist? I suppose that depends on whether you modify your work to fit market conditions. But also, the positions don’t have to be exclusive. You can be 80% of one and 20% of the other.
#13 by barryknister on September 18, 2016 - 10:20 pm
The question is either answered in economic terms, or it isn’t. The IRS defines my writing as a hobby, because I lose rather than make money at it. But I define my writing as a vocation, in the manner of those who take religious vows. But instead of devoting myself to a set of rituals related to a theology, I devote myself to a set of rituals intended to develop and then refine the best narratives I’m capable of.
#14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:11 am
Hello Barry – good example!
#15 by acflory on September 18, 2016 - 10:39 pm
I know I’ll never be another Frank Herbert or C.J.Cherryh, but I want to be. I also know I’ll never be commercially successful, but I’d like to have that as well. And then there’s the question of legacy. I would like to believe that someone will read my stories after I’m gone and in doing so gift me with a measure of immortality.
On a day-to-day level though…I enjoy my worlds. They give me a reason to get up in the morning, and I get lost in them. Is there a catergory for ‘all of the above’?
#16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:12 am
Hi Andrea – ‘all of the above’? I hadn’t thought of that.
#17 by acflory on September 19, 2016 - 7:05 am
lmao – bet you did!
#18 by Natalie K. on September 19, 2016 - 1:50 am
Hmmm, some interesting stuff in this post, Roz. Right now, I think my writing is more of a hobby. Whenever I start thinking of it in more serious terms, I sometimes start to freak out and worry that I’ll never make any money at it (I have yet to earn anything from my fiction, though I have done some fun freelance nonfiction writing over the years) and that I’ll always be bad. So, for now, I feel like it’s beneficial to regard it as a hobby because it makes me happier. That doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to learn as much as possible to improve and start submitting my stuff someday/putting my stuff out there as an indie author.
#19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 6:14 am
Hi Natalie! This is another question – how are we measuring success? By commercial sales or by proficiency? Thanks for stopping by!
#20 by MG Mason on September 19, 2016 - 9:27 am
I think the answer to this question is about intent – if you want to make money from it, then it is a business, even if it is not particularly profitable at present. If you are not at all bothered about making money, and simply do it for the enjoyment while seeing making money as a bonus, then it is more of a hobby.
#21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 7:40 pm
But the art, MG! Where does that fit?
#22 by MG Mason on September 19, 2016 - 7:42 pm
It’s always art. I don’t see the business v hobby dilemma ad being mutually exclusive of art 🙂
#23 by jrhandleyblog on September 19, 2016 - 12:33 pm
For me, writing just is….. And I’ve never thought of it beyond that. But the post was insightful and well written!
#24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 7:41 pm
#25 by Erin Bartels on September 19, 2016 - 12:58 pm
Excellent thoughts, especially a hobby as defined as something essential to my well-being, but not something where I compare myself to others, and art/vocation as something in which I yearn to stretch myself in order to do honor to the form. Very nice. I think I’d agree with you on all of these counts.
Painting, photography, gardening, and sewing are my hobbies. I definitely invest time and money in them, but they are meant solely to bring me enjoyment, diversion, and sometimes a little exercise. I will never do them as a career. I have made some money sewing for others, but I hate doing it. Once people know you can sew, they ask you to fix things–invariably zippers, which, as a sewist, I know require dismantling most of the piece in order to replace. That’s not sewing to me. I have sewed in exchange for the cover design of my short story collection, and that was well worth the effort.
My full-time job/career/9-5 is copywriting at a publisher, which I do for the paycheck and the health insurance. (It’s had the added benefit of giving me an inside track to how publishing works and what publishers value in an author.) I also take on the occasional freelance writing or editing job, and these I do for the money but also (in the case of editing) because I like helping writers grow.
My art/vocation is most certainly writing. It’s something I had talent for, but also something I have spent the past decade working hard to improve. It is an art that will never be mastered, one that I will always strive to push further.
#26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 8:10 pm
Hi Erin! Gosh, how interesting to hear what your hobbies are. I should have asked that question more specifically at the end of the post. It’s so illuminating to get these unexpected snapshots of people I know from this blog.
Like you I’ve occasionally been paid for plying my hobbies. I was paid as a dancer in a flashmob commercial. We did two weeks of rehearsals, including several all-night sessions, which was a blast. But I knew very well that I had severe limitations – including stiff joints that won’t bend like those of a proper dancer. And the hanging around was a killer.
I didn’t know you were a copywriter for a publisher. I bet that will be handy when it comes to writing pitches for your own books.
#27 by Carmineberyl on September 19, 2016 - 1:22 pm
I like to think of my writing as an art rather than a hobby or a business/ vocation. I started writing late, I happen to suffer from more writer’s blocks than anybody else on the planet, I hunt for inspirations but often find none; but when I write, I put my mind, heart and soul into it, so that something better than just “good” comes out of the exercise. I think of my writing as my purpose in life and if I happen to touch the life of even a single person in the slightest way, I feel that I haven’t been unsuccessful in my endeavour.
#28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 8:14 pm
Hello Beryl! I like this idea of aiming to write ‘something better than good’. I think if we have the art ethic, we’re rarely satisfied with what we’ve produced. I think there can also be a certain amount of stagefright because our expectations of ourselves can scare us – which is perhaps what you’re describing with your writer’s block. Thanks for exploring that here.
#29 by Carmineberyl on September 23, 2016 - 1:22 pm
I think you might be right about the stage fright. I do expect a lot from myself and try to choose the best from among a few writing options. This means that I do spend a lot of time thinking instead of writing, but I do hope that it’s for the best.
#30 by DRMarvello on September 19, 2016 - 1:53 pm
I tend to agree with MG Mason that my intent and expectations have a lot to do with how I view my writing. I *intend* to earn money from my books, and sometimes I actually do so. Writing is my primary business activity, even though I don’t earn a living from it (on average). I’ve had brief periods of time where my books sales earned a living wage, but those periods never lasted. My experience with publishing has crushed my expectations at the same time it has stoked my aspirations. The only way to be sure that I’ll never write a breakout novel is to stop writing.
One thing I don’t do is engage in the art discussion. The word “art” seems to carry a lot of emotional baggage and subjective definition. You already know how I feel about the “black beret syndrome.” I prefer to view writing as a craft that I will forever be learning to master and publishing as a business that’s my conduit to readers.
#31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 8:15 pm
Daniel, I have a picture of myself in a black beret. Unfortunately I can’t figure out how to load a picture as a reply to a comment!
#32 by Kira Morgana on September 19, 2016 - 1:55 pm
Reblogged this on The World of The Teigr Princess and commented:
So how do you identify yourself as a Writer?
For me it’s definitely a vocation. The books I sell are just a way of keeping count for me; to tell me if I am doing something right or not…
#33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 8:16 pm
Thanks for the reblog, Kira!
#34 by odonnelljack52 on September 19, 2016 - 6:33 pm
I’m a reader first and I enjoyed reading this post, but not a writer last. When I write I’m a writer, but the whole marketing thing makes me want to duck my head under a duvet and shout…You know my novel (Lily Poole) teaches me about marketing, tells me all the things I don’t want to know and lasts as long as a cone on a summer’s day. Yet, you know it doesn’t matter how much of how little you’ve sold, or how wonderful everyone else’s writing is. Sometimes it’s just enough to say that’s mine. Even the ugliest pug of a dog has an owner if s/he’s lucky that loves her or him. On the library shelf it’s unremarkable but sits in good company. I love books. That’s the only truth I know. Writing allows me to understand the world a little better, to understand myself a little more, to be more empathetic. If I say you can’t put a price on that I’m going to stab myself. OUCH.
#35 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 19, 2016 - 8:17 pm
Don’t stab yourself! Thank you for exploring your thoughts so honestly.
#36 by Don Massenzio on September 21, 2016 - 12:53 am
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
#37 by K.L. Allendoerfer on September 21, 2016 - 2:08 pm
By these definitions, my writing is definitely a hobby. But I do feel that I have important things to say. But anytime I find myself going down a road in which I would have to compare myself with others, something goes wrong. This is also true if I get too externally ambitious, whatever that means. I can’t define what it feels like and but feels wrong. I do it seriously and try to improve. I don’t do it to pay the rent or to find a sense of self-worth. It can be hard, but like with exercise, no pain no gain is outdated and incorrect advice. If it hurts in ways that are damaging to me, I stop, take a break, and re-evaluate what I’m doing.
#38 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 21, 2016 - 11:03 pm
An interesting take that manages to wriggle between the cracks – and rightly so, as we’re all different. Thanks for being contrary!
#39 by tomburkhalter on September 22, 2016 - 12:40 pm
Roz, when you first posted this, I made three or four different stabs at something like a sensible observation, and erased every one of them. I hadn’t really thought about that question as it relates to my own work in, well, decades if ever.
Then a couple of days ago I noticed a quote by Stephen King someone posted on FB, that went something like, do not come lightly to the blank page.
I even wrote a poem to that effect, back, way back in time.
Do not come lightly to the blank page.
I think the answer is in that sentence. How do you approach the blank page, or the blank canvas, or whatever media you start with? How do you go from the formless chaos to a message?
How do you come to that blank page? Answer that question for yourself, and you know. Just don’t answer lightly, because we all of us start out in life as blank pages.
#40 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 22, 2016 - 12:50 pm
I love this answer, Tom. Aye, aye and aye.
#41 by jennifermzeiger on September 22, 2016 - 5:24 pm
“But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard.” Love the way you put this!
Pretty sure I can’t frame the debate better than Tom did about the blank page. Perspective does indeed seem to define what your writing is to you so perhaps being very intentional about what you intend for the blank page is the key.
#42 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 22, 2016 - 9:26 pm
Hi Jennifer! I think Tom did rather well there. I hope he’s still reading.
#43 by Lisa Ciarfella on September 23, 2016 - 5:10 pm
I like how u say that “the work that truly defines them is the passion project.”
Your comparison of an actor making one movie to pay the bills, and another to satisfy their artistic urges is a good one! Seems like we all probably do this in one respect or another. Life demands it, basically! We can only hope that eventually, one gives way over the other so we can spend more of our time on the good stuff!
I’m not even close to being “there” yet. In fact, just opened another rejection email a few minutes ago….
Thanks for reminding me why I keep slugging it out!
#44 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 23, 2016 - 6:10 pm
Thanks, Lisa. Glad it struck a chord.
#45 by A Work in Progress on September 26, 2016 - 8:45 pm
Comment #5, Gail L. Winfree, what he says! And especially the Kurt Vonnegut quote. Speaking only for myself, I write because I can’t help myself. I must. Money does not matter in my creative equation. Publication, yes, I’d like to be published, primarily so my writing can be out there for readers. Most heartfelt desire is to see my books on library shelves, and know readers are connecting. But I write because stories and characters live in my and it’s my passion to give them voices. Thanks for a most interesting discussion.
#46 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 26, 2016 - 11:22 pm
And thank you for joining in, Jean! Knowing that readers are connecting … a not inconsiderable motivation.
#47 by danielwalldammit on October 4, 2016 - 8:39 pm
I write because it’s how I think. If my thoughts don’t find their way onto a page or at least a computer file, they stay half-baked in my head and they never go anywhere. Taking the time to express what’s in my skull is an important part of fleshing it out and making it worth keeping there. I’ve never made any money off it, so I’m definitely a pro. I make a living teaching, so some of the ideas I communicate on my blog find their way into my classes and visa versa, but I’ve never sold a story. I have a couple books, but thus far they haven’t gained the interest of an agent. Writing them was an important experience for me, and I often try to improve them, but they are thus far meaningful mostly to me. I wouldn’t say that I have no ambitions regarding my writing, and they to seem more important to me than my hobbies, but I could hardly count myself an artist. It’s a nebulous thing at present.
#48 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 4, 2016 - 11:06 pm
‘Taking the time to express what’s in my skull…’ indeed. Doing that can be a reward in itself. Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Daniel.
#49 by Alexander M Zoltai on November 1, 2016 - 1:21 pm
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
In today’s re-blog Roz Morris explores topics that most anyone can translate into their own life concerns—wonderful article ! 🙂
#50 by juliecroundblog on November 1, 2016 - 2:18 pm
What a great discussion. I think the people who say they write to leave something behind show that their writing is more than a hobby. I started writing to influence how people thought, hoping that the messages in my fiction had a more lasting power than when I spoke and few people listened! I found the stories took over my life. The greatest pleasure is when someone says they enjoyed them – no matter that I never make any money!
#51 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 1, 2016 - 6:20 pm
That raises another question, Julie – would you still do it if you made no money? 🙂
#52 by juliecroundblog on November 2, 2016 - 2:55 pm
#53 by trotter387 on March 31, 2017 - 4:30 pm
A brave approach to a complex problem because it depends very much on another persons perception. I write for a living and for pleasure. Originally for pleasure, just as I paint, draw, read, study , investigate, walk and talk. All of these things play a big part in who I am and what I do.
So the answer to the question from my computer is yes to all the above and yes because of it I can earn a living.
Will anyone get to read my real writing? Who knows for now I’ll publish as a white label freelancer. Great post and as I said brave to put it out there.
#54 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 31, 2017 - 6:43 pm