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COLUMNS: Coffee on the Deck: The Editor's Ramblings on the Writing Life | Crafting Fabulous Fiction, by Victoria Grossack

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Coffee on the Deck
by Moira Allen

May 17, 2012:
Whether to Be Rich, Enriched, or Enriching...

I've just finished one of those "how to get rich" books, and it seems to have brought out my inner curmudgeon. The book was Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki -- and if wealth is your goal, I honestly can't say that I recommend it.

It did make one point I agree with, however: That the U.S. educational system (and, I assume, the educational systems of most of the rest of the world) do not prepare people for independent thinking, but rather, trains folks to be employees whose primary purpose is to build wealth for other people. Kiyosaki describes this, appropriately, as "the rat race" -- and it's certainly the rat race that many of us became freelance writers to avoid.

What kept me grumbling throughout the book, however, was the persistent emphasis on a single goal: Making more money. To Kiyosaki, it would seem, building wealth is all -- wealth for himself, wealth to pass on to his children. And by "wealth" he means, simply, money.

As a writer, I can't help but think that this is a limited, and rather sad, perspective on life. "Wealth" is a word that has been used, historically, to mean far more than the amassment of material riches. Can we be wealthy, without being rich?

I suspect that if the majority of folks who consider themselves "writers" chose this profession, or avocation, with the sole purpose of amassing material wealth, the readership of this newsletter would be down to about two. Not that there aren't plenty of us seeking to earn a living through our words. But most of us, I think, didn't choose writing as a tool to make loads more money than, say, data entry or real estate. Most of us chose it because we found a wealth in words that outweighs the wealth of a steady paycheck.

I suspect that most of us became writers because we recognized how, throughout our lives, we have been enriched by words. We were the oddballs in school who actually liked books. We looked forward to reading; in fact, our parents and teachers probably despaired of ever getting us to stop reading. "Put down that book and go outdoors and play!" we were told. (How many of us "complied" by smuggling a book outdoors with us?) Our peers regarded us as nerds, brainiacs, social outcasts -- but we'd already discovered a world so far beyond that which our peers valued that we didn't care (much). Books became our friends, our doorways to worlds real and imagined, our inspiration. They made us rich in spirit.

Gradually, as we began to spin our own words, we realized that what we had received, we could also give. Through our words, we could influence, inspire, and inform. Through articles, stories, poetry and books, we could enter do for others what generations of authors, past and present, had done for us. We could enrich the world with our words, just as our own worlds had been enriched by the words of others.

Does it matter, in the long run? Let's try a little test. First -- quickly, now! -- rattle off the names of, say, ten or twelve of the richest men of the 19th century. No peeking at Wikipedia! OK, we have Rockefeller, DuPont, Astor, Schwab, Morgan, um... hang on... There were lots more, surely! (And I'm sure you probably came up with a longer list, or a different list, from mine.)

Now... Quickly, again, rattle off the names of, say, a dozen great authors of the 19th (or even 18th) century. Again, no peeking at Wikipedia. Was it difficult to hit a dozen? Did you want to just keep on going? Did names come thick and fast? Twain, Dickens, Austen, Irving, Pushkin, Doyle, Harte, Bronte (plural), Sand, Eliot, Thackeray, Hugo, Baum, Carroll... Doesn't the list just go on and on? Again, you probably came up with a different list, a longer list... and that's precisely the point!

Another interesting point: Money can only be measured in terms of money. One speaks of the "richest" men, not the "best" rich men or the "greatest" rich men. But when one speaks of authors, one speaks of the best, the greatest, the most inspiring, the most inspired. And here's yet another point: Money is measured in terms of quantity, i.e., who has the most? But greatness can be attained without extinguishing someone else's lamp. The greatness of Jane Austen doesn't diminish the greatness of Charles Dickens, or of Mark Twain, or of Arthur Conan Doyle. Likewise, it won't diminish yours, any more than yours will diminish theirs.

Ironically, in the introduction to his book, Kiyosaki does list some of the richest men of America in the early 1920's, and then points out that by the end of the Depression, most of them were dead, many having committed suicide. (Another bit of irony is quite a number of the 19th century's richest men, and at least one famous author*, died on the Titanic...) It's a good illustration of the hard truth that if material wealth is all, then losing it truly means losing all.

I'm certainly not saying that we, as writers, should not strive toward material gain. I'm not one of those who believes that to be paid for our words is, somehow, to have "prostituted" our art. I've always regarded that attitude as the excuse of someone who has no real interest in enriching others but prefers to say, "My work is so brilliantly obscure no one can appreciate it but me." On the contrary, I believe "the laborer is worth of his [and her] hire." There's absolutely nothing wrong with being materially enriched by a skill that brings so much into the lives of others.

What I'm suggesting, and I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, is that while we are happy to earn the coin, we're in this for a great deal more. Those who are simply "rich" may make a splash in the here-and-now, but are quickly forgotten in the pages of history. Those who enrich are remembered, often for centuries -- even if they lived as paupers.

And these are tough times for many authors, times when assignments and paychecks can be few and far between. Yet it's exactly at such times that we need to remember why we started down this road in the first place: Because we were far more interested in sharing the wealth of the rainbow than in hoarding the pot of gold.

Every time you write something that helps someone learn, grow, heal, change, or simply smile, you've made someone's life richer. There's money and there's wealth -- and as a writer, you're storing up treasure that moth and rust cannot destroy.

*Jacques Futrelle, if anyone is wondering.

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Copyright © 2012 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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