Want a "Real" Writing Career? Build an Oeuvre Like Great Writers Before You
Focus on the long-term
Short-term vs long-term writers
I have never been fast at anything. I think about things. Worry about the details. Focus on the process. I laugh — or, depending on the day — I SNARL when I read about people who can write a blog post in twenty minutes. For me, that kind of supersonic speed-writing with an emphasis on mass production has never resulted in anything meaningful to read.
Researching. Fact-checking. Headline testing. Developing subheads. Finding photos. Inserting metadata. Composing alternative text. Drafting. Editing. Proofreading.
Great writing takes time.
The same is true for a career. Yes, it would be nice if a post went viral or got picked up by a big publication that would promote it. Real income from massive “reads” would be wonderful, but in the end, that’s not the most important part of writing.
The critical thing is to produce works I’m proud of, over and over, year after year, decade after decade, building a body of work. Continuing to write — even when my pieces don’t gain notoriety or critical acclaim — proves that I am a real, long-term writer, not a shooting star, here one minute and burned out the next. Instead, I’m building an ever-evolving oeuvre that will not be completed until I take my last breath.
Why do you write, anyway?
Do you write to get followers? Do you write because you want to make money?
If you have an odd idea that doesn’t fit in with any trend or a particular topic, do you write it?
If you have an idea that will take you months to conceptualize, research, and put into words, will you take the time, knowing that it won’t appeal to the general public?
Long-term writers write because they must. Putting ideas into words and pushing words onto pages is an irresistible itch that has to be scratched. Even when no one is looking, no one is reading, no one is paying, real writers keep writing.
The “ouevre” philosophy
Short-term, wannabe writers who focus on going viral or amassing followers often quit if they don’t achieve rapid success. These are not the same as quiet, long-term writers who work for years, regardless of popularity and fame, producing ever-improving pieces to add to their oeuvre.
Great writers build oeuvres even while battling poverty, devastating reviews, and harsh criticism.
Edgar Allan Poe
We would never even know the name of Edgar Alan Poe if he had stopped writing because he didn’t get followers. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) had only 20–50 copies printed, and no one bought it. It wasn’t even known about until twenty-three years later when partial copies were found.
Poe is one of the first writers in America known to have made his living solely by writing, but sadly, he barely made enough to survive. He lived and died in poverty.
(Why is it that — more than a century later — writers still struggle to make money with their words? A topic for another essay, another day.)
Thankfully, Poe was a “real” writer who had ideas that forced themselves from his brain into his pen and onto the page. Regardless of financial success, Poe HAD to write, and he kept at it, publishing poems and stories year after year, building an oeuvre that is now treasured throughout the world.
Our viewpoint about Herman Melville’s success is skewed because we know of the modern acceptance of Moby Dick as a great work in the literary canon.
Melville had earned a bit of a reputation as a swashbuckling adventurer with his first two works, books of travel lore, Typee and Omoo. However, both books were popular at first and then criticized for untruthfulness, exaggeration, and plagiarism. Melville really wanted to write fiction where he was not constrained by “fact.”
When Herman Melville’s first work of fiction, Mardi was published, it was ignored. One critic said it had “ideas in so thick a haze that we are unable to perceive distinctly which is which.”
But Melville was a “real” writer. Upon learning of the critical reception of “Mardi,” he said this:
“These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation — if such would ever prove to be mine… But Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve Mardi.”
He kept writing, in spite of criticism and lack of sales, creating what we now know as his magnum opus, “Moby Dick.”
Moby Dick, Melville’s magnum opus
Moby Dick, when published, was also a total failure. Out of 3000 copies, only 1970 had sold within ten weeks of publication.
Critics said the novel was “so much trash.” It was “a vile overdaubing with a coat of book-learning and mysticism.”
“There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic.”
It wasn’t until the 1920s, thirty years after Melville’s death, that scholars began to look at it again and proclaim its worthiness.
Melville, however, wrote because he was forced to by the ideas inside his head. He was a real writer who kept producing, not giving up. He wrote “Billy Budd,” “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and “Pierre.” He probably had lots of other drafts and half-finished stories, but he burned all his papers and letters, leaving us to guess.
Ernest Hemingway is now an acknowledged master of American literature. However, his first work, The Torrents of Spring, was not successful. The novel was a rebuke of his contemporaries and a harsh spoof of the writing world. Critics gave it mixed reviews. The public didn’t like it or buy it.
Today, The Torrents of Spring garners little attention. What Hemingway created later in his oeuvre of novels, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea are more meaningful and more significant than his first book.
While Hemingway is not one of my favorite authors, I appreciate his endurance, his dedication to following his own path, and his ability to break away from the flowery prose common before him.
He continued to create even after a failed first attempt.
That’s what real writers do. They persist. They create. They build their oeuvre, no matter what.
What’s your hurry?
If you’re a real writer today, you’ll be a writer tomorrow because that urge doesn’t go away. I can’t imagine a time in my life when my brain isn’t spewing forth ideas and my hands aren’t itching to touch a keyboard or grab a pen.
I write because I MUST, in spite of my income level (similar to Poe’s,) and whether or not I get a widespread following.
I am a long-term writer developing works for my oeuvre, planning to spend whatever time I have left playing with words, following the advice of Ayodeji Awosika:
“If you want to be a content creator so badly, your timeline should be the rest of your life. No need to be in a rush.”
(Although I DO need to rush more than most people because I’m older and have statistically less time!)
The crazy but unquenchable hope of a writer who won’t give up
While I’m not holding my breath, there’s always the far, far distant chance that long after I’m gone someone will find value in what I wrote — my book, my hundreds of articles, newspaper columns, and blogs. Maybe some critic somewhere will comment on my work, use it to help beginning writers, or showcase the growth of an author by bringing my oeuvre to light.
In the haze of my wildest dream world, my future family will earn a little income from my not-so-lucrative previous passion and the oeuvre I left behind.