There was a time when my wages were a result of my fundraising efforts. I was horrible at it. I lasted about two years, and only then by taking job after job of the oddest sorts. Finally I admitted defeat and secured a position at a publishing company that paid me a set hourly wage. Instead of cajoling or guilting my friends every month, now I only had to keep my bosses satisfied.
Around that time I was getting the itch to write—and by “write” I don’t mean keep a journal or send letters to loved ones that didn’t involve asking them for money. I mean writing for publication. So I set to work getting my name out there. I’m about as good a networker as I am a fundraiser, but I managed to make a couple of connections that led to some intermittent assignments and a corresponding byline. I was living the dream—if by dream you mean a steady paycheck and some cash on the side, with an occasionally indulged delusion of grandeur.
I still work in publishing, and so the collision of fame and fortune is almost part of my job description. Several times a year, I put a book contract in the mail to someone who’s always dreamt of writing a book; when I get the contract back from them, I send them a check. Sometime later, I send them a printed book with their name on the front and the back and the spine, and typically another check. It’s generally a tossup as to whether they’ll be more excited about the book or the check.
I get it, when authors care more about the money than the book. For one thing, who wouldn’t want a little more brass in the pocket? But more than that, these days anyone can write anything for easy and cheap public dissemination. Getting paid to write is more than just remuneration; it’s validation.
That being said, some authors care more about the book than the money—and not for the reasons you might think. Sure, ego can be a factor: money is fleeting, but a Library of Congress entry is forever. But many people will pay any price to have their book published because a book is an investment, a calling card that just might open doors to large crowds and correspondingly large speaker fees. Sometimes the shallowest revenue stream flowing from an author’s writing is the royalty check.
Play this game for more than one round and you start to see a problem: everything, from your name to your way of turning a phrase to your innermost thoughts, becomes a commodity—raw material to be mined and converted into capital. You no longer create just for the sake of creating; you create to exploit, and everything is exploitable.
You reach a point where you catch yourself mid-thought and think, Where can I pitch this?
Once, when I was regularly failing to hit my fundraising goals and desperately cutting costs to get by, my monthly letter took an introspective turn. “If something’s worth doing,” I wrote, “it’s worth doing for free.” I remember leaning back from my computer and wondering if I actually believed it. Of course, it’s countered by no less than the apostle Paul reminding us that the worker is worth his wages. But I remember deciding that I did, in fact, actually believe it. And it has changed how I write.
Writing for free, it turns out, is freeing. It also turns out that exploitation doesn’t just affect the exploited; it affects the exploiter. These days I write what interests me, and I don’t write what bores me. If people want to pay me, I welcome their money, but if something doesn’t strike me as worth the time and energy, no amount of money will sway me. (At least no amount I’ve been offered to date.)
Jesus once said that you can’t serve both God and mammon. That’s not a statement about mammon; it’s a statement about us. You can’t serve both God and food either, but that doesn’t mean you give up eating forever. You just decide that when it comes down to God versus food, God versus mammon, God versus anything, God wins. Jesus isn’t judging, he’s observing; more than that, he’s offering a way of life: Choose who you’re going to serve, and then do what makes sense. As Augustine put it, “Love God, and do as you please.”
Sometimes doing as you please results in a little brass in your pocket, but when you love God and doing-as-you-please doesn’t pay, there’s a good chance it’s worth every penny.
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"More Than a Sabbath" Collection
- How to Fast the Other Six Days
- My Fast from Ladder Climbing
- My Fast from Earning
- My Fast from Competing
- My Fast from Producing
- My Fast from Consuming