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Jia Tolentino’s advice for people who want to make a living from creative work

Courtesy of Elena Mudd
The only thing you can control, Tolentino says, is “the amount of pleasure you can generate for yourself in your work.”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Jia Tolentino has the kind of career a lot of writers would love to emulate. At age 30, she’s already published a book—the widely acclaimed essay collection Trick Mirror, which came out earlier this month—and is a staff writer at The New Yorker, for which she’s penned in-depth features on everything from the athleisure brand Outdoor Voices to the rise of Juul.

So when someone in the audience at a recent talk she gave in Brooklyn asked Tolentino her advice for aspiring young writers looking to make a living, the crowd seemed to lean in with baited breath.

Tolentino’s answer didn’t disappoint:

You can’t control anything about this industry. Whether you’ll get paid well, whether you’ll get paid, whether people will read you, what they’ll think when they do.
But you can control the amount of pleasure you can generate for yourself in your work … You can make writing fun and hard for yourself so that even if nothing comes of it, it will be worthwhile to have done it. It has to be an end in itself.

While her response was specific to writing, it’s advice that applies across a range of creative professions. At some point, actors, musicians, comedians, artists, photographers, and writers alike generally come to the realization that many of the factors that will determine their level of professional success come down to luck and chance. Not only is this discouraging, it can feel genuinely disempowering. If talent and hard work aren’t enough to eke out a living in our chosen field, what are we supposed to do besides give up?

The advice Tolentino gave, at a venue aptly called Books Are Magic, shows how we can wrest the power back. It’s normal to want professional validation. But it’s worth wondering how different our lives might be if we hurtled less eagerly toward the question of whether the things we make will be appreciated, and spent more time having fun making things in the first place.

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