What’s the difference between these two writers: David Sedaris, who people pay fifty dollars to see read out loud for an hour, and the open-mic writer, who is allowed five minutes to read before the timer interrupts him to get off stage? In business speak, the difference is value. Specifically, the power to create value through art.
“Truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard,” says Dinty W. Moore, essayist and writer of both fiction and nonfiction books.
I’m using a word as abstract as “value” for a reason. It’s subjective, and it varies by writer. The value I get from a powerhouse Dorianne Laux poem is totally different from the value I get from a hilarious Sanjiv Bhattacharya essay. Value comes in many flavors. Finding your flavor will be part of finding your voice.
In order to be valuable in the strictly economic sense we’re talking about (all art is valuable to its artist in the more transcendent sense), art has to stir up the insides of the viewer or listener. People pay for the emotional experience art brings them. They pay for the hit of dopamine that a gripping story releases in their brains. When the time and energy they spend reading return only confusion, boredom, or redundancy, readers don’t feel as if they’re getting much value for what they put in, and they put the book back on the shelf.
Until your work becomes art, it’s not doing anything for readers. If a story or poem is not working, it’s literally not working, the same way a drug might not work. It’s as if someone went to score coke and got a bag of baking soda. There’s no emotional value, so people don’t want to trade monetary value for it. If they’ve already traded time and/or money for it, in the form of a book purchase, tickets, or hours, they’ll get annoyed and tweet about it.
In the beginning years, chances are your writing is not art just yet. This is exactly how it should be. And it’s exactly why you’ve got to work on improving your skills if you want to make money from your words.
During the first part of your writing process, the value in the writing is all for you, the writer. You get the relief of getting your feelings out in a rant or the joy of writing a scene that makes you laugh. The act of writing provides value to you.
That does not mean it’s valuable to the reader yet. Most likely, when your friend or your mom or your husband reads your raw writing, it’s not doing anything for them.
How do you make sure what’s valuable to you will be valuable to your readers?
Bust out your tools. Get your red pen and slash away at the adverbs. Get out your plot chart, and make sure your work has stakes. Use your literary devices to lay in rhythm and imagery that please human readers.
People value writing when it entertains, introduces them to characters and cultures they might not otherwise meet, surprises them, paints a character they relate to, or helps them understand a deeper truth they never considered.
There are a thousand ways to make a story valuable, but all of them require work.
Writers who make money with their words offer something readers are happy to give perhaps an hour’s worth of income for—income they could have spent on a martini, a bouquet of dahlias, or a subscription for premium pornography. We pay David Sedaris to read a story in a room with us because he cracks us up and makes us feel good. That’s the particular flavor of value he offers. Some people prefer the value offered by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Anis Mojgani. Some people find value in watching two people pummel their knuckles into each other’s faces. That is not my flavor.
Value is subjective, but it has to be perceived by the reader.
You have to find the people who like the kind of value you think you can create, and work until you figure out how to make it. The longer you practice, learn, and hone your craft, the more value you’ll give your readers, and the more they will be willing to give you to keep you going as a writer.
Copyright 2018 by Paulette Perhach. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Welcome to the Writer’s Life by permission of Sasquatch Books.
Paulette Perhach is a writing coach and author of Welcome to the Writer’s Life, selected as one of Poets & Writers’ Best Books for Writers. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Elle, Marie Claire, Slate, Yoga Journal, and Vice. She’s most widely known for her viral essay “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund.” She offers a free year of daily writing prompts at her site welcometothewriterslife.com.