How can you earn a living from your passion for the written word?
When I started as a writer, it seemed exceptionally difficult to earn a good living from the written word. That's probably because I was trying to make a living as a journalist in Ireland, and as a pretty small country, there were few opportunities. But I quickly discovered that my experiences weren't unique. It's pretty tricky to earn a living from the written word. Or at least it was up until a few years ago.
Now there are a variety of platforms and online tools that make it easier for writers to connect with readers and their audience. You can start a blog, you can build a following on Twitter, you can self-publish a book, and then you can create a companion course.
There are a plethora of opportunities for writers today. It depends on where your passion lies, but finding time for all these projects and balancing creative work with earning a living can be challenging.
In this week's podcast, I caught up with Adam Davidson. He's the founder of Planet Money and a former writer for publications like The New Yorker.
He's also the author of the rather excellent book, The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the 21st Century, which I recommend you check out. In the book, Adam profiles eight rules that people who are passionate about something can use and apply to earn a good living from whatever takes their interest, including writers.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Adam: I’ve taken up other things. I’ve tried to cook, I’ve gotten into bike riding. There’s other things I’ve taken on that I wasn’t a natural at and I just gave up. But writing, I was kind of okay being bad at it for a long time. And I don’t think you ever reach a point where you’re done. I mean, I still feel incredibly disappointed in myself, sometimes proud of myself but, you know, it’s just something I’m willing to spend my whole life trying to improve. And that’s either a blessing or a curse.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How can you earn a living from your passion for the written word? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. When I was starting off as a writer, it seemed to me that it was exceptionally difficult to earn a good living from the written word. That’s probably because I was trying to earn a living as a journalist in Ireland. Ireland’s a pretty small country and there were only a few media organizations that I could find a job working for, and it didn’t pay very well so it wasn’t long before I gave up on journalism. But I quickly discovered that my experiences weren’t unique. In fact, it’s quite difficult or it was quite difficult to earn a living from the written word, at least up until a few years ago, when a variety of platforms and tools online made it much easier for writers to connect with readers and their audience. You can start a blog, you can build a following on Twitter, you can self-publish a book, and then you can create a companion course. There’s a plethora of opportunities for writers today. It really depends on where your passion lies, but it can be difficult to find time for all of these projects and to balance creative work with earning a living.
This week, I caught up with Adam Davidson. He’s the founder of Planet Money and he’s also a former writer for publications like The New Yorker. He’s also the author of the rather excellent book, The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the 21st Century, which I recommend you check out. And in the book, Adam profiles, eight different rules that people who are passionate about something can use and apply to earn a good living from whatever it is takes their interest, and that, of course, includes writers. Now one of my key takeaways from talking to Adam is that he’s somebody who’s found creative success working for NPR and through Planet Money. He’s also built up a readership through books like The Passion Economy. In the interview, he talks about his next creative project and how it’s more of a personal or a passion project rather than something which is going to be overtly commercial. He also elaborates on, I suppose, the tension between doing something that pays the bills and doing something which can help you build a business, all of which are important and which are creative projects, and then doing something which is just for you which you want to release out into the world. And he explains what this looks like for him. My conversation with Adam reminded me of when, during the pandemic, I spent a good year writing a story-driven parenting book for new dads. The book’s called I Can’t Believe I’m a Dad and it’s out on Amazon. Now, as you may know if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, most nonfiction authors who earn a living from their book earn a living by having a course, by offering consulting, by offering public speaking, or by having a series of nonfiction books on the topic in question. I plan to do none of those things with this book. It was a one-off creative project. It was simply something that I wanted to write because I had lots of stories from becoming a dad unexpectedly when I was 24, I’m 40 now, and I wanted to turn them into the kind of advice-driven book that I would have liked somebody to offer me over a pint of beer when my girlfriend became pregnant some 16 or 17 years ago. In other words, writing the book was something fun that I wanted to do and I wasn’t too concerned about the sales or the end results. Adam is doing something similar with one of his creative projects and he elaborates on that in this week’s interview.
I hope you enjoy my catch up with Adam. If you do, please leave a review on iTunes because more reviews and ratings will help more listeners find the show. Or you can also share it with another writer friend on Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening.
Now let’s go over to this week’s interview with Adam Davidson.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Adam.
Adam: Hey, Bryan, wonderful to join you.
Bryan: Your book has some fantastic ideas about how anyone can earn a living from their passion. What struck me is it’s something that writers can do and perhaps it can help them overcome the kind of the myth of the starving artist. But before we get into all about the key ideas inside of your book, could you give listeners a bit more information about your background as a writer?
Adam: Sure. I’m one of those people who’s always wanted to be a writer, as far as I can remember. I actually wrote professionally at age eight and nine. I grew up in New York City and there was a local newspaper and I don’t even know how it happened but my parents arranged for me to write children’s reviews or reviews of children’s shows at eight and nine and I remember being so incredibly proud to write something that was published and I was part of another children’s journalism thing in junior high school and wrote in high — so it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I think I imagined I’d be more in the fiction space. I tried my hand at playwriting. So I sort of fell into journalism more in wanting a paycheck but I’ve really become in love with, I don’t write any fiction. Some people I’ve written about declare that I’ve written fiction. I’m joking. I’m making a bad joke. Yeah. You know, and I’d say the world I think of myself in is kind of, you know, sort of pretentious, but the literary nonfiction, so it’s journalism, it’s nonfiction, but you’re trying to use narrative structure, dramatic structure, scenes, characters, feelings, emotions, all of that, as opposed to like hardcore breaking news reporting which can be well written and can be less well written.
Bryan: Were those storytelling skills that you described skills that you picked up on This American Life?
Adam: Certainly This American Life is probably the single biggest influence and Ira Glass are for sure. I mean, I grew up — my dad’s an actor and I have this memory of he was a member of a theater company that was popular in New York City in my childhood in the 70s and 80s called Circle Rep and I remember being at a party with — I might have been 12 or 13, I can’t remember, but my dad and a bunch of the people from the theater company, and I remember like all the actors were being very performative and singing songs and being loud and I was sitting next to one of the playwrights who was sitting kind of in the corner observing and was talking to me and I was like, “That’s the coolest guy here. He’s really taking in what’s happening and reshaping it.” And I remember thinking like, “I wanna be like that guy. That was so cool.” So I grew up with a real respect for, well, good writing, but I think I was a pretty terrible writer for a long time, or maybe not terrible but certainly not confident, not overly competent. And so working with Ira Glass at This American Life really gave me a language, a structure, a way to really get deep in thinking about how stories work. Ira is sort of — do people know him in Ireland?
Bryan: I would imagine some people do. Yep.
Adam: Yeah. And, obviously, your listeners are all over the place but — so, yeah, he’s probably the single biggest influence, although The New Yorker magazine certainly just reading people in The New Yorker, trying to figure out what are they doing? Why am I having the feelings and thoughts I have when I read this writer or that writer trying to understand what they’re up to? I feel like that’s something I’ve been doing certainly since high school, although I’m guessing a lot of writers, you know, it took me a while to even think I could ever be a really good writer. I think I always felt like there was some magic that I didn’t have access to.
Bryan: A lot of writers or new writers would kind of face that limiting belief.
Adam: I think so, yeah. And Ira Glass actually has a lovely talk he gives where he talks about how someone who’s gonna become a good writer often — you have a sensitivity to good writing and that’s really one of the most important things to have is being able to feel when something’s well written or not well written, but it can really damage you because your writing, your output is not as good as your ability to assess so you’re even more aware of how crappy a writer you are. So when I talk to young writers, you know, something I say is, “This just is a thing I’m willing to devote my whole life to,” like I’m okay — you know, I’ve taken up other things. I’ve tried to cook, I’ve gotten into bike riding. There’s other things I’ve taken on that I wasn’t a natural at and I just gave up. But writing, I was kind of okay being bad at it for a long time and I don’t think you ever reach a point where you’re done. I mean, I still feel incredibly disappointed in myself, sometimes proud of myself, but, you know, it’s just something I’m willing to spend my whole life trying to improve and that’s either a blessing or a curse.
Bryan: Yeah, there was an idea, I think I got it in Out on the Wire, which is a book about storytelling that you’re actually profiled in when I first came across your work. And it talks about how when you get to a certain level with a craft, you go back and see what you did a year ago and then you can start all these new mistakes and then you raise the bar on yourself and just that process keeps continuing.
Adam: Yeah, that is something — I do believe that as you get better, it actually becomes harder, that writing becomes harder, in a way. Now, what gets easier, I find, is the self-doubt. The self-doubt is still there. Everything I write, I still have a — there’s a voice in my brain saying, “This is so terrible that it’s gonna cancel everything you’ve ever written and you’re gonna finally be revealed as a loser,” and I’ve never silence that voice but I now don’t pay as much attention and I can have some distance and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s that voice that always comes,” and I don’t care as much. Whereas in my 20s, certainly I kind of believed that voice and gave it way too much credence.
Bryan: Would you say your work on radio has influenced your traditional nonfiction writing and journalism? Or is it more the other way around?
Adam: I mean, I’d say it’s both directions. Radio and print are very different. They demand very different things and it took me a while to figure it out. There was like a two-year period in 2011 to 2013 where I was sort of dual employed. I was at the New York Times magazine and at NPR’s Planet Money, which is the national radio network in the US. And the idea that my bosses and I came up with was that I report a story and then I’d be able to do it for print and do it for radio sort of at the same time. And what I learned is they’re just so different and the requirements are so different that I really just had to report them as two separate stories, even if they were about the same topic or the same people. And I found it took me a while to — I remember when I had been doing a lot of radio and then I wrote for a magazine being told that my writing was way too casual, way too conversational, so Planet Money or This American Life, as radio shows, they’re very conversational style. And so I try and get more formal and then there was a time when my radio scripts became way too formal and too much like the New York Times or whatever. And that was a little frustrating, although eventually, I mean, it’s like learning a second language, for a while, it’s really hard to think in that other language, but now it feels more natural. When I sit down to write radio, I just kind of do it. I think some of the things are very similar. I mean, certainly at a high level, you want a narrative, you want characters, you want scenes, but the way you get there is quite different.
Bryan: It sounds like a tone or something, an accessibility of something you think about a lot, because I was following you on Twitter and you were talking recently about how some academic writing can be difficult to find a way into and sometimes that can be a barrier for people consuming academic work.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I think that writing — a lot of writing requires empathy, empathy for the reader and understanding where the reader is so a lot of what I’ve written about is economics and finance for a lay audience, for a broad audience and I spent a lot of time trying to think where is that reader? Do they understand the basic like nouns and verbs? You know, if I’m gonna do a story about how investment banks are trading credit default swaps, I sort of have to assume most people I’m talking to or writing to don’t really know what an investment bank is, they don’t really know what it means to trade a financial product, they don’t know what a credit default swap is or what any of those words mean in this context and so I have to be empathetic to that reader. Now, if I were writing for insider financial press, I could write differently. But I do — certainly when I was at university, I found it very frustrating how academics, the amount of stuff you’re presumed to know is too much. It hides the material in an inaccessible way.
Bryan: I suppose every industry has its own language and terminology which is familiar to people working within it and then they’re kind of victim of the curse of knowledge and then they assume other people understand what they’re saying and maybe they get surprised or frustrated when the general readers or viewers don’t.
Adam: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s totally appropriate to use jargon and to use technical terms when you’re talking to a technical audience. You know, This American Life or Planet Money, we had very specific technical language for certain types of narrative moments. But I think some academics, sometimes, I don’t wanna over — they both wanna use technical jargon and they wanna complain that the general public doesn’t understand their field. And so my feeling is if you’re gonna use technical jargon and you’re gonna write for a very narrow, already informed audience, you can’t also complain that a broad audience doesn’t get you because what are they supposed to do, you know? Go to grad school in your discipline?
Bryan: Yeah, I agree. One thing that drew me to your work as well was, I suppose it’s an idea that it’s difficult for writers and creatives to earn a living from something they’re passionate about, but I guess that’s kind of something that you argue against in your book, where you describe how you can turn a passion into a potential career. So how could a writer do that today if they are struggling or they feel like it’s a really difficult profession to earn a living from?
Adam: So writing is very challenging to earn a living from so I definitely don’t want to say, “Oh, don’t worry, you’re gonna make a fortune, just do whatever you feel like.” I think that there’s a slight bit of a paradox that I would say strong writing, storytelling narrative has never been more valued. There’s never — it’s sort of amazing. If you stop any executive at a big company and say, “What do you think of storytelling?” Five years ago, they would have said, “What are you talking about? Like, you mean, for my kids in kindergarten?” Like they wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. Today, it’s an obsession. There’s a real recognition that in this economy, in this, you know, competitive, global, fast changing economy, telling a powerful story is more valuable than ever before. And, you know, if you Google corporate storytelling or business storytelling or whatever. So, similarly, you know, you look at kind of the golden age of TV and film, but making money as a writer, in many ways, has never been more challenging. It’s really, really hard. And that is the case for a lot of passion-based work, that there’s something you love, there’s people willing to pay a lot of money for it, but to get that money, you may or may not have to make certain compromises. So what I would say is, first of all, it’s kind of defining what do we mean by writing. So, in my mind, when I use it for myself, I really mean constructing a truth, a true narrative. It’s a narrative that you are creating so you’re making strong selections about which characters to follow, how to build scenes, how to build an overall arc, how to identify moments of drama. I really love that process. I find it very challenging to do that for others, like, you know, being hired by a company to write their narrative, I just find I can’t do it. I have to care. But I have found that I can do quite well teaching people in companies how to tell their story and the basics of storytelling. So that’s been my personal compromise is I’m gonna make money by taking the skills I think I have and the knowledge I have as a writer and creating these courses and these consultancies where I’m arming people in corporate America, most of my clients are in America at the time, to tell better stories, and then hoping to make enough money off of that, which so far has worked, so that my writing can really be what I wanna do and I don’t have to worry so much about my own writing having a market.
Bryan: That’s interesting. It sounds like you separated I suppose the pressure on your writing to pay the bills from what you do to pay the bills and earn a living.
Adam: That’s a new thing. That’s a pandemic thing. That’s something in the last two years. So I had, you know, kind of — I’ll be honest, my dream career, I went to NPR where I created Planet Money which allowed me to do long-form radio writing. I went to the New York Times magazine then to The New Yorker. I wrote a book. And, you know, I wouldn’t change any of that for anything. It was a wonderful lucky break. But I just reached a point where what I learned is the higher you get up in prestige, at least in American writing, so The New Yorker, I think, is widely considered the top place for a nonfiction writer in America, it’s a wonderful place. I don’t wanna put it down at all. I love it. I love my time there. I love the people there. But you are now a part of a major institution and every word, every page has a lot of eyeballs on it and a lot of — stakes are very high. Each issue has to be great. Which is wonderful. I’m not mad at that. But I just found I wanted to, as I enter my 50s, I wanted to have a time where my writing is a little more playful, a little more my own, and I just didn’t see a way — it felt like a trade-off I was no longer happy to make is putting my writing life in the hands of others, even if they’re the best in the world at it and they’re wonderful people, like it’s not an insult to them, it’s just I wanted something different in my life.
Bryan: So the writing that you’re describing that’s more playful and personal and maybe had less feedback from lots of different editors, is that’s something you’re going to publish in a book or on your site or elsewhere or on the radio?
Adam: Yeah, so I’m working on a book, it’s actually a book about — it takes a lot of the ideas of the passion economy but it’s focused on one cheese maker in Vermont. Vermont where I live is famous for artisanal cheese, like really nice cheese, and this is probably depending on who you talk to, like that best cheese maker in America or certainly one of them. And it’s just a fun story that’s a business story. I mean, it’s kind of like — each chapter of my book, The Passion Economy, I profile one person or one business that found a way to make a business around their passion and this will be like a book-length version of it, which I’m excited about. Then I’m working on a few different podcasts that I’m excited about with some friends, working on some TV shows, writing scripts. So I certainly hope all of these things eventually make money and reach the world and are edited and stuff, but I just didn’t — like when I was thinking about this book on cheese as an example, I could come up with a more commercial idea, I could come up with an idea that was gonna get a bigger advance, that was gonna maybe get more publishers interested, and I just felt like, well, I just wanna write a book that’s exactly the book I wanna write, and if it has a smaller audience, that’s fine with me right now. Maybe I’ll change my mind and maybe, hopefully, it will get a big audience. I’m not against big audiences.
Bryan: It sounds like it’s a personal creative project or a personal passion project.
Adam: Yeah. I mean, it’s still a commercial product, I do wanna be clear, like I will try and get the biggest publisher I can and try and get the biggest advance I can and want it to have the biggest marketing campaign. But, honestly, I find that because I’ve been a writer, I’ve never had a period of my life, an extended period of my life where I was writing stuff just for myself, you know? I’ve always had a boss, I’ve always had an editor, and I’ve always written — I mean, in high school, I’d write short stories but nobody would see them or maybe my English teacher would see them. In my 20s, I would write plays but nobody ever saw them. So I really haven’t had a period of my life where I was just seeing what I wanna say and seeing what I wanna write. And I wanted to try that before I’m frankly too old. But I still hope they’re commercial. These aren’t — like I’m not writing my diary. Like I do want these to be published books or published articles and I want them to get a big audience. I just don’t wanna be driven by that.
Bryan: And for a book like that, would you rely on a traditional publisher to promote it for you or are you going to go to your audience on Twitter or maybe hope that readers of The Passion Economy pick it up out of interest?
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I love the new world of kind of writing in public, writing with an audience. I mean, I’m from kind of a traditional New York City-based world of media where certainly ten years ago, maybe five years ago, being self-published was like shameful. I mean, you’d rather be a prostitute than be self-published. And now, I’d say it’s still looked down upon by elite media folks but it’s not as looked down upon. Now, my preference would be a publisher, like a big New York publisher. My last book was Knopf which is one of the best publishers in America and I’d love Knopf to publish my next book. That’d be great. I would love that. But I also really enjoy connecting directly with people, like I’m pretty open to the idea that it would be more of a kind of a group project, a shared project.
Bryan: Interesting. A lot of well-known US writers have kinda asked their publications and employers to set up personal newsletters where they’re sharing their writing. Is that something you might explore?
Adam: Yeah, that would be something I’d explore. The reason I haven’t really done it yet is because it’s too — even that, I don’t wanna have to write once a week. I wanna be able to write like — I really am in a self-indulgent period, you know? Where I really wanna kinda find out what do I wanna — I just feel like I need a year or two of just writing, following my own drum. But the economic picture for elite, high prestige journalism in America is bad. When I was in my 20s, in the mid-1990s, if you wanted to be a magazine writer, the ultimate goal was $3 a word, you’re willing to settle for $1 a word, and you thought you could probably start getting $2 a word. That would be a typical model. So, if you’re at a 3,000-word article, can I get $3,000 for it? Fine. I’d rather get $6,000, but one day, I’ll get $9,000. And in the mid-90s, I mean, you have The New Yorker, you have the New York Times Magazine, but you also had all these other publications that were really publishing like really beautiful nonfiction, Esquire, GQ, Playboy, Chicago magazine, we had all these alternative weeklies. I mean almost every town, the Chicago Reader, the Village Voice in New York, the Washington City Paper, who are paying like real money for real literary nonfiction. What’s funny is at the time, in the mid-90s, we kept bemoaning the fact that it was no longer the mid-80s when there really was a crazy amount of money and opportunity. But today, it’s still you’re hoping to get $2 a word, you’d settle for $1 a word, and if you’re really lucky, you get $3 a word, but more than likely, you’re getting 10 cents a word or 20 cents a word online and there’s far fewer kind of traditional legacy publications. There’s obviously way more online publications but those pay truly terribly. So, that traditional path, there’s far fewer options and they pay very poorly. And there’s no real like — so that was why I wanted to completely restructure my writing life. I wanted to move into this world where I made my money in a way that was writing adjacent, that allowed me to — and I really enjoy — I love spending time with people, helping, teach them how to write and coming up with frameworks that take all the things I’ve learned and make them repeatable and learnable. I love it. So it’s not like a woe is me kind of thing. I hate doing corporate writing. I hate being hired by some company. I’ve tried it, I hate it, you know, to write something for them. So that wasn’t acceptable to me. But this teaching thing I’m really enjoying, and then it frees me. So right now, it’s probably half and half, where half of my time is kinda doing stuff to make money, half of my time is more creative. It might even be like 75 percent making money, 25 percent creative, something like that, but my goal is to flip that so it’s 25 percent making money where I can cover my basics and then move on.
Bryan: So you’re teaching online via your course but you’re also teaching in person.
Adam: Yeah, we have a video course that we’re launching next week. When is this gonna?
Bryan: It’ll be a few weeks so the course will be out by the time you’ve launched.
Adam: Yeah. So we have a video course, if you go to masterfulstory.com, and then we do live courses like twice a year where the video courses just I recorded it, you can take it, there’s workshops and assignments, but then the live course, it’s more of handholding and coaching. And then we do private engagements for certain companies. So we’re working with LinkedIn, working with some others, where it’s more like a private training and coaching for particular people at a business. That’s how I took the things that I’m most passionate about in the world of writing and figured out how to make the least number of compromises and still make money. But other people, I’m not saying the way I did it is the only way to do it, it’s just that was — it took me like eight months last year, literally I finished my book and then I spent like eight months, how am I gonna build my passion life? I’m giving everyone else advice on how they should do it, how am I going to do it? And I really explored all sorts of ways of I have this lifelong passion for writing, how am I gonna turn that into a business that will support the way I wanna live my life and this is what I came up with which I feel pretty good about. I think it was a good outcome.
Bryan: You described that 75/25 percent split a few moments ago. So what does a typical day look like for you at the moment, Adam, when you’re writing?
Adam: One great thing about deadline journalism is you have one big assignment and you have an editor who’s gonna be mad at you if you don’t finish it. I really have organized my life around deadlines and so I am really struggling with projects that I love and I’m excited about but I’m the only one who’s excited about it, like I haven’t yet — I don’t have an editor, I don’t have outside pressure. And that’s my active struggle. I have one writing project I’m so excited about. So there’s the cheese book, which I am doing work on. There’s another book I’m working on with a friend who’s a historian at Harvard and it’s an idea, it’s basically there is this true crime that happened 4,000 years ago that we have all these cuneiform tablets that tell us the story and it’s a great story, brother against brother and kind of international intrigue. It’s kind of amazing. It’s like a true story that we know a lot about from these cuneiform tablets and so we’re trying to write basically a novelization of a real crime and it’s so fun and so exciting and I keep putting it off because there’s other things that are urgent. So that’s really what I’m trying to build is how do I protect my passionate writing when, on any given day, there’s gonna be five or six like pressing things but they’re not my passion? And I’m struggling with that, to be honest with you. If you have any suggestions, or if anyone else does, I’m really open for them.
Bryan: Yeah, those are difficult questions. Gotta pay the bills before it comes time to work on —
Bryan: — what you’re passionate about too.
Adam: Yeah, it’s tricky. I guess these are life challenges, right? We are always balancing and they seem like classic writer challenges.
Bryan: Good problem to have too though. I suppose some writers at the start of their career could be struggling to find any time to write. So you mentioned the courses on masterfulstory.com. Is there any other place listeners should go, Adam, if they want to listen to or read your work?
Adam: Yeah, at adamdavidson.com is pretty much everything I’ve ever written or recorded. It’s a little messy, I have to work on the website, but I think I’ve posted pretty much everything there. And then my book. I’m on Twitter a lot, @adamdavidson.
Bryan: Okay, I’ll put the links in the show notes. Thanks for your time, Adam.
Adam: This was a joy. Thank you, Bryan.
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