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When Creativity Pays The Bills: Finding Balance


I would imagine that most, if not all of us, who get into writing do it for the creative outlet, at least at first. But I would also wager that once we start writing, most of us also begin to fantasize about sharing our work with the world.

And most of us don't want to be satisfied just sharing that work for free, either. We want to know that we're good enough to get paid for it.

Maybe, someday, we want to make it a career.

I've been earning a living as a professional writer for twelve years. I've been lucky enough that writing fiction has been my sole source of income, more or less, for about seven years.

It is a wonderful, gratifying, dream-come-true privilege to be able to write that.

I've been extremely lucky, and nothing I've accomplished would have been possible without the love and support of my family and some really good friends, but still.

Life has been pretty good to me so far.

A funny thing happens, though, when you turn your creative outlet into a career: it starts to feel like a job some days. It's a fun job, but it's a job nonetheless.

I wrote my first novel a few months after leaving a journalism job. I wrote it hoping it would find a publisher and I would earn a little bit of money for it, but aside from my rather primitive understanding of the crime fiction market, I had no expectations for the book.

I had nobody to satisfy, really, but myself.

My next book was much harder to write. By that point, I had a two-book deal with a big league publisher to write a series I'd not planned to write.

The publisher was throwing heavy marketing weight behind my first book. We were getting excellent reviews from journals and great blurbs from household-name writers.

There was going to be a tour. There were magazine interviews. There were EXPECTATIONS.

Which, like I say, is all well and good and wonderful. I grew up dreaming of this stuff, and I sure wouldn't trade it. And as the series grew to four, and then six books, I certainly enjoyed writing them, even if they weren't exactly what I'd had in mind when I first set out on this journey.

I think part of being a professional creative is finding ways to make a creative outlet out of the job that's paying your rent. And I certainly had plenty of latitude to write about what I wanted within the boundaries of the FBI/state police crime thriller framework I'd set up for myself.

But I think no matter how much latitude you give yourself or are given, when your art becomes commerce, you're bound to lose some of the satisfaction that comes with pure creative expression.

And I realized I needed that, even as I was writing creatively for a living.

One really rewarding thing I've noticed is that the books I write by and large for myself, with no EXPECTATIONS, are the most satisfying to write.

My first novel, THE PROFESSIONALS, falls into that category. So does this year's book, GALE FORCE, which I wrote because I couldn't find many modern-day nautical adventures in the bookstore, and I freaking lap that stuff up as a reader.

Next year's book, DECEPTION COVE--essentially a Jack Reacher book with Lucy in it--made me fall back in love with writing; for the first time in a long time, I was so excited about the story while writing the first draft that I couldn't sleep at night, and that I walked Lucy for miles and miles just working out plot points in my head.

I gave myself more creative latitude, freedom with language and plot and theme, than I might have felt I had while writing to please a publisher, a sales and marketing team, to fill a slot in a catalog.

So that's one way to find balance. Just write what you like and hope that it sells.

(I have a feeling it will.)

Another rewarding way I've found to maintain my creativity is to pursue an entirely different hobby of expression.

There's no money in taking pictures of trains, for instance. None. And nobody's ever going to pay to eat my cooking. But I enjoy both activities immensely nonetheless, and probably more so than I would if there were dollar signs attached.

It's fun to turn every off every mercenary thought and just bake something.

It's fun to hike into the woods and stand on a mountainside and take a picture of a train that maybe a hundred people in the world will see and appreciate and give a "like" to on Instagram.

It's not about likes and it's not about dollars. It's about doing something fun and just being creative.

And ultimately, isn't that why we got into this stuff in the first place?

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