Sometimes You Have to Write for the Love of It


There are writers who write only for money. There’s nothing illegal about that. Indeed, I strongly believe in writers making dough.
There are other writers who write primarily for artistic expression, and don’t seem to care about money at all. That’s not illegal, either.
And then there are writers who write as a source of income but sometimes just want to write something for love of the writing itself, even if it’s not going to generate revenue.
That’s how I would describe my new short story, “Golden.” 
This story is different from my other work. It’s not a genre piece. Let me explain.
I admire great short-story writers, because the form is so challenging. Among my favorites are Hemingway, Saroyan, Irwin Shaw and John D. MacDonald.
The latter author is not usually thought of as a short-story writer. He’s best known for his brilliant Travis McGeeseries.
But I contend that MacDonald was one of America’s great literary talents. That he chose pulp and paperback originals for most of his work had to do with his need to make a living as a writer, and fast, after World War II.
I have an extensive MacDonald collection. A few weeks ago I pulled off the shelf his volume of literary-style short stories, The End of the Tiger. I turned to a story I’d not read before, “The Bear Trap.” A man is on a road trip with his wife and children. When they stop at an isolated gas station a seemingly innocuous event triggers a memory in the man. His “shattering moment” comes back to invade his present. It tells us about who this man really is and, in the way of great short stories, something about ourselves.
It reminded me, once again, that a great short story can have an emotional resonance as powerful as a novel. I still remember the strong emotions I felt after finishing stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (Hemingway); “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “A Word to Scoffers” (Saroyan); “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” and “The 80-Yard Run” (Irwin Shaw); “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates); “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (Raymond Carver).
And speaking of Carver, many of you know I got to be in a workshop with him when he taught for a time at U.C. Santa Barbara. What I recall most is that I couldn’t do what he did. Or what some of the “star students” in the class were doing. And no one was able to teach me. I felt like a failure, like I didn’t have any true literary talent at all.
It took me years to discover you could actually learn the craft. I’ve also written about how I came out of the movie Moonstruck wanting (needing, really) to write something that would make others feel the way I felt just then.
A similar feeling overtook me when I finished the MacDonald story. 
So I wrote “Golden.” 
I have no idea if it’s any great shakes. I feel a little of the old knee knocking I experienced in that classroom with Raymond Carver. 
But maybe that’s a good thing. If your knees aren’t knocking on occasion, maybe you’re not stretching enough as a writer. 
Maybe you’re not risking love.

So what about you? Do you write for love, for money, or some combination of both? 

47 thoughts on “Sometimes You Have to Write for the Love of It

  1. This should be a simple question. I started writing for the love of it. Now that I am at the point of making money from it, I’m doing less writing and more worrying.

    I think I’ll ignore the next book in my series for a day or two and write some flash, or shorts. Could be therapeutic.

  2. When I first started, I had constant visions of fame and fortune running through my head. Having gone through several phases since, ranging from “forget it” to “I don’t care if it ever gets published,” I seem to have settled into the love of writing end of the spectrum. But my love for it drives me to improve. Because it’s not just a love for my writing, it’s a love for the craft. Mind you, though, I do hope I’m taking in some sort of income from writing by the time I retire. That will keep me from driving my wife insane or walking the malls.

    • I really like that, Ron…your love for it “drives” you to improve. That’s a ticket for success.

      All hail longsuffering spouses married to writers!

  3. Jim,

    Great story! I downloaded it and read it this morning. You’ve stretched and connected – a home run. By the time I finished, I struggled to see through the tears – and struggled to close the lid on some of my “mistakes” and self loathing from the past.

    On the question of motivation for writing, my answer is almost exactly the same as Ron’s. The joy of immersing oneself in learning – the joy of creativity. This is interesting, because just this morning I had the idea – I’m going to look for the opportunity to ask Jim to consider a future blog on “The Complete Writer’s Craft Library.” I would love to read your thoughts (and followers of this blog) on all the books you would recommend on the craft of writing.

    Thanks for all you teaching.

  4. That’s a wonderful idea, James, and I am looking forward to reading your short story. And your wish to write for the love of it reassures me in my wish to do the same. I post my short stories, both true and fictional on my blog. Whether I will write some of my future short stories for money as well, I don’t know. But as an author to be published yet, writing and publishing on my blog helps me to remain with my feet on the ground and enjoy writing now and not after a book of mine is published. If I don’t enjoy the writing now, I will not enjoy it after publishing either.

  5. I was a journalist for several years, then a freelancer after that. So, I’ve made money writing nonfiction. Then I decided to try my hand at fiction and learned it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’ve tried to give it up several times, but something compels me to keep trying and learning. So, you might call it love, but sometimes I think it’s more like a high school infatuation!

  6. Just downloaded the story. i’m saving it for my after dinner coffee when I can really enjoy it.

    I love writing short stories. I’m beginning one called “Gnawing on the Cat’s Tail”. However, I think I’ll pause and read a little first.

  7. I love the form. In the summer of 2006, I pubbed a dozen or shorts in ezines ranging from kitchen table to respectable. The Internet saved the art when we lost the pulps. I got my first check for writing for a 1000 word flash titled “The Brain Eaters.”

    As I walk the tightrope of querying, I’ve set Book 2 aside for a bit and am trying to corral some of the ideas I’ve been having. One is turning into a short that I am subbing to a contest. A prosecutor has to connect with his Santeria roots to understand and stop a series of church vandalizations. The character and premise could morph into full-length work.

    Shorts are a great way to capture a character before you lose it out of your head.

    And I love me some 100-word flash. Maybe a Friday Flash Fiction contest . . . *makes appealing face* with a TKZer or two kicking in a book as prizes *wide innocent eyes*

    Off to download! Terri

  8. Wow. What a grand short story. I love it nearly as much as my dog-eared copies of Plot & Structure, Revision and Self-Editing, and Elements of Fiction. You (with a couple other WD pros) are taking me from journalism to authorism (is that a word?). I’ve almost finished the first draft of my first thriller!

    Thanks, too, for the mini-lesson on short stories. BTW, I’ll be back. This is an awesome website.

  9. Thankfully, I am a kept woman. That means I can totally concentrate on writing the stories that won’t let me sleep at night.Now, the only stress I have from writing is whether it’s good enough to hit that little “send” button.

  10. Having earned my keep as a journalist and a freelancer, I know about writing for money. And enjoyment because I genuinely enjoyed asking questions (reporting) and writing about what I learned.

    Now, I make stuff up. And it’s a good deal more challenging. I also get more of a lift whenever someone tells me they like my story. Money from fiction? Ahhh. We’ll see. But it doesn’t really matter. I can be a hobbyist if necessary to continue crafting my stories.

    Short fiction, that’s difficult. I tend to only think in terms of a series–so NOT short-storyish. But with your list of favorites, perhaps I can study and ask questions (report) and then write.

    Your idea of writing from the middle is a brilliant insight into what happens probably quite a bit. It’s when we recognize what works that we can better repeat and reap the benefits! Thanks much!!

  11. Thanks for the free download and the advice. You are my armchair adviser as I revise my first manuscript (“Revision and Self-Editing”). So that I keep my love of creative story-telling sharp and alive, I started a flash fiction challenge once a week on my blog. It’s a way to connect with other writers and readers, too. You’re right–you have to knock your knees once in awhile to stretch beyond your comfort zone!

  12. Got the story, Jim. Will read when I am done proofing my own stuff. ((((yawn)))). Gawd I detest proof-reading.

    And I am on the side of those here who found they had more fun writing when money wasn’t involved.

  13. Forgot to add: I also was inspired early by John MacD’s short stories. I ran across a beat up copy of “The Good Old Stuff” years ago when I was first starting to write short fiction. It reminded me a little of Graham Greene. Will have to go find the Tiger stories now.

  14. Yesterday I attended my first writers conference – Left Coast Crime. I don’t know who was scarier – the famous writers or their fans. Mostly beside the tips on better writing and character development, my biggest conclusion is that I will never be a beautiful writer. I heard Louise Penney speak and I read the 1st paragraph of her 1st book and was completely bummed that my writing style was so poor when compared to her. Then I thought about why do I write? My 1st book Vials is not commercially successful, but I am hopeful that my WIP will be better. I write because I hope I spin a good enough story that my readers will escape into the book for the hours that it takes to read it. I also hope that I don’t turn my reader off with poor grammar or typos.
    Thank you for your daily advice to become a better writer.

    • Alec, congrats on your first conference, but even more on your desire to write better “the next time out.” As long as that’s your creed, you’ll do well. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. I just downloaded the book!

    I’m amazed by authors who write great short stories. So much to pack in in a short amount of space. I’ve heard it’s a great exercise for novelists.

    • Thanks, Julie. And yes, the short story form will truly work you out. The greatest benefit, I think, is learning the “telling detail.” That’s what i picked up from Carver.

  16. Short, Flash, Novella, Novel… whatever the format, When I discovered that I could make money at it, then I started writing for money. But I don’t write to money, which is to say I sell my wares but my writing won’t stop if they don’t sell. I also give away a lot of stuff.

    As a matter of fact, Jim has motivated me. If anyone wants it, here’s a link to my novel 65 BELOW in both ebook and audiobook. Download a copy and have fun if you want. They’ll only be up there for a few days, so get it while it’s hot.

    To be honest, I write out of fear. If I stop writing, the story ends…and then what happens to all of you guys?

  17. JSB –
    I’m late to the show but glad I caught your post and comments. Thanks for “Golden” -will read asap.

    Whenever short stories are mentioned I am compelled to bring up “Flowers For Algernon”. I read it in 8th grade and the humanity, emotion and depth stood me on my head. Daniel Keyes showed me how writing could engage and elevate. Words printed on a scant number of pages demonstrated the transformative potential of story.

  18. Downloaded “Golden” and will read it tonight. Being a seven time self-published NF writer, making the switch to fiction is truly a challenge. I’ve put it away for awhile, picked it back up, and now my first romance novel is close to being finished.

    I recently had the joy of entering a 250 microfiction contest, where they gave you the opener. The story that started in my head was a completely different one by the time I finished. But I had so much fun, and the story came out better than expected! What a fun diversion to write short and snappy.

  19. Thanks for the free download of Golden. I will read it later today. I have written all my life it seems. Most of it has been to clarify my thoughts in my personal studies and to help me retain it in my memory. I considered myself a teacher, but I loved to write. Recently I confessed to being a writer. I have written a novel and am editing it for e-publishing. I never expected to write fiction, but I am loving it. It’s so fun to watch my characters write their own story! I hope to make money someday with writing, but for now I am doing it for the love of it.

  20. I downloaded both books, and read the short story last night. What a wonderful story in just a few short pages! I think it is hard to write short, shorts. Thank you for writing this and showing us how it it supposed to be done! πŸ™‚

  21. JSB–
    I read “Golden” and it did for me what very good stories can do: it summoned up experiences of my own from long ago. I was guilty of equivalent cruelty when I was growing up. Neither of my parents knew about it, but I did. The sense of regret, of something done or said that can’t be taken back has served me well ever since.

  22. Less than an hour ago I posted on my blog ( “Why Do You Write?” How timely, James. Thank you for answering that question without even reading my blog post! I shared that I write to see God change lives. I was blown away by a reader’s email to me this week. Absolutely humbled and overjoyed. In that moment, no other reason for writing existed. πŸ™‚

  23. I am not a professional writer. I wrote a 50K word children’s story that (in theory) would be the “8th Chronicle of Narnia.” Of course, CS Lewis’s stepson, Doug Gresham, told me they will NEVER publish another story in that series. Too bad. I love my little book.

Comments are closed.