Thursday, December 3, 2009

Publishing: Giving Yours Truly a Sense of Purpose Since 2001

Yesterday, while driving back to my family's house after yet another interview (!), I listened to the end of NPR's interview with Jason Reitman, who directed Juno and, more recently, Up in the Air (which he also wrote, in collaboration with Sheldon Turner). I didn't catch much of the interview, but while discussing his latest project Jason mentioned something that had intrigued him -- and which, in turn, really struck me.

Up in the Air features a character who makes his living by firing others. While filming in St. Louis and Detroit, Reitman took the opportunity to put out an open casting call for people who had recently lost their jobs. He interviewed each of the hundred people who responded for ten minutes, and simulated their lay-offs on-camera, asking each of them to respond as they had on the day they were fired. The process was eye-opening, as you can imagine.

And what intrigued me about the interviews Reitman described was this detail: though he asked each of his interviewees what the hardest part of unemployment was, none of them answered the way he expected. He had thought people would say the obvious -- that finding money was tough -- but not a single interviewee mentioned that. Overwhelmingly, the unemployed people to whom he spoke responded that what they struggled with, each day, was finding a sense of purpose. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing," they told him.

Okay, so that's not the spot of cheer you were looking for to start your day. But I was really struck by the reality of that comment, and I can't help but draw parallels to my own situation as I look for a way into the publishing industry, and to the situation of those already in the industry as it changes and as it suffers from the economy.

Let's be honest -- none of us are in this for the money. The industry has taken a hit of late, but it's never offered the sort of career that makes many people rich. And that fact, in some ways, really defines the people who enter the industry, whether they do so as writers, editors, publishers, designers, publicists, marketers, or salespeople. The people who come to the industry, knowing it offers long hours and low pay, come to it because they have what everyone is looking for. They have an overwhelming sense of purpose.

When publishing struggles -- when you're worried about your career, or struggling to keep up with its changes, or trying to get your footing and find your way into that elusive first job -- it's more important than ever to take some time to remember that, and to hold on to it. So tell me, writer friends and editor friends and random followers whose presence here may or may not make sense: what makes the industry meaningful to you? What have your struggles been, and what do you do when you need to be reminded of why you keep on going? What triumphs have given you a sense of purpose?


  1. I took the exact same thing away from that interview. I only caught a glimpse, and it was that moment in which he discussed "purpose" and it stuck with me. Wonderful post.

  2. Great post, Rachel! I agree that no one really goes into publishing expecting to become wealthy. No one's parents push them into it like they do with law or medicine. I remember when I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Someone asked, "What would you do with your days if you were independently wealthy?" My first answer: read. My second answer: par-tay!

    On a more serious note, there is some money to be made in publishing: even though editorial assistants typically make somewhere between 29k and 39k, some executives can make close to $180,000.

    Lauren Moriarty

  3. I am, as you know, no publisher, but I think what you're saying here is a valuable message for people in any industry (it certainly rings true with me). If you're in it for the money, you're in the wrong business, period; if there's no other passion in it for you, you'll never be able to sustain yourself through the lean periods, and you'll have no motivation to improve yourself if you do manage to find stability in your industry. You need to have that drive or otherwise you're just marking time.

    Nice, thoughtful post -- I'll have to see if I can find that interview on the web and have a listen. Sounds interesting.

    Rosalind Wills

  4. Hi the post! It's so true that most of us just need a sense of purpose in life...something that fulfills us in one way or another!

    Me, for instance, I love to write as a hobby. I have no idea how with a full time job, family and little free time that I can still manage it but somehow I always do. My full time job involves doing something completely different and doesn't afford me any type of creativity and I find that this extra "outlet" gives me my daily does of getting out of reality for a bit and using the creative side of my mind. I'm addicted to reading and I just feel the need to write.

    But I totally agree that most of us don't do it for the money. To be honest I never even planned on trying to get published. Writing for me is more like "me" time and my personal therapy. But to see my writing on paper, bound and for sale, well, that would be an awesome little conquest, wouldn't it?