Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing: It’s Not About The Money. (Not yet, anyway.)

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Writing: It’s Not About The Money. (Not yet, anyway.)

The highly-awarded writer Richard Ford penned an essay in The Globe and Mail not so long ago that really struck me as the finest example of a moving target: how a writer defines success.

“The first book I ever wrote sold to its New York publisher for the sum of $3,500 – which didn’t seem like a lot of money, even in 1975. It mattered a great deal more to me that my novel would be published and possibly read than that somebody paid me for it,” Ford wrote.

How sweet. How true. And how long did that warm and fuzzy feeling last, Richard? Was three and a half grand good enough for the advance to your second or third or fourth novel simply because you were happy people would read it? Or did you rightly expect a bigger cut of the share of profits after you became the only writer to ever win both the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner for the same novel (‘Independence Day’)?

Ford continues: “Oh, when I read about writers being picked by Oprah or winning an Oscar when they’ve tried their hand at screenwriting – and I find out that a big truck has backed into their driveway and unloaded millions – I admit I’d like to know what that feels like.”

Excuse me? Ford envious of some publicity junky like James "Creative Non-Fiction" Frey getting the Oprah stamp?

How many writers pausing right this minute from a wily work in progress (a work that despite their best efforts may never even see the light of day) would paint themselves purple for a week to just be nominated for the Pulitzer? Or to have snippets of their work collected into a special Vintage edition as Ford has (and it’s called ‘Vintage Ford’. I know this because I’m reading it right now). Or as Ford later admits, to never have to worry about balancing writing with a “regular day job” or being one of those “poor college-professors-who-also-writes”.

Oprah? Really? Jeepers creepers, Richard, the rest of us still get giddy when the annual Public Lending Rights cheque shows up and we can order the good steak that doesn't come in a tube.

All to say that success is by nature a moving target. It starts for writers with trying to finish a work - whether short story, poem, play, or novel. And then it moves to getting the thing published, which is the biggest feat of all. Then it changes to wanting your book at the front of the store. Then on the best-seller list. And finally, adopted and produced as an Oscar-winning movie hopefully starring Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, and Dame Judy Dench. (And maybe that cute girl Jim Carey creeped out with his YouTube testimonial of love).

For a writer with Ford’s international sales and global panache to suggest he’s still struggling with the rest of us to have calls returned and books not returned is a little hard to swallow. But I do buy his most salient point, which is the fact that nobody in his or her right mind would choose writing as the quickest and most assured way to lots of money.

We all do this for the same reason, I suspect: we want to.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page