The Milk is Free ~ On Writing and Earning May 8, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Aleksandar Hemon, Dennis Lehane, Don De Grazia, Kafka, Nami Mun
Recently Gina Frangello—one of the conversationalists in our series “Why the Short Story?”—asked the rest of us about how our writing life affects our financial life. Do we make a living as writers? Did we ever consider pursuing a more traditional livelihood? As I watch a number of my students prepare for graduation and the now-more-than-ever complicated task of finding work that both satisfies and pays the bills (among them very big student loans), this question seems particularly interesting to me.
I have been working since I was 13. When I was in junior high, I breaded mushrooms at a sandwich shop and babysat every single Saturday night pretty much all the way through high school. I had a job as a shampoo girl, worked at McDonald’s, did filing at my father’s office, baby sat some more, spent a summer scraping and painting a family friend’s fence, and baby sat some more. Oh, and I was a candy striper, too. When I went away to college for the first time (it took me a few attempts to get it right) I had board jobs that included working in the cafeteria and housekeeping in the common areas of my dorm. Off campus I waitressed at a pizza joint and I bartended.
I guess I liked to work, for some reason. Did I need the money? Maybe some, but I think I just liked to earn it. I liked it to come from my own endeavors. Most of my friends worked in high school; we all had summer jobs. That seemed to be just how it was. Years later, when I was teaching (part-time when I was a grad student, when I was also working fulltime for a commodities firm, and teaching aerobics part-time) I asked my students to write about their worst jobs. And—this kills me—about one quarter of those students HAD NEVER WORKED.
Now we all know the legends of writers who’ve worked and the jobs they held: Kafka in insurance, Hemingway in a brothel, Tom Lynch as an undertaker, Dennis Lehane parking cars, and so on and so on. Work, I mean work outside of just the work of writing (and it is work, don’t let anyone fool you; if you think it is not work at least sometimes, then you ain’t doing it right,) might well be necessary to a writer. Don’t you think? There are those experiences we rack up and write about (have you ever read Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories about selling magazines in the Chicago suburbs? Don De Grazia’s account of factory work in American Skin? The odd jobs Nami Mun’s main character holds in Miles from Nowhere?) but there is also our extrication from the deeply internal gaze of the writer, the one that sometimes takes us so deeply into our creative mind that we lose all sense of the wider world, the external audience, the very important context of life outside our imagination. It is, I think, important for us to lift our heads and look around once in a while.
But this isn’t what you asked, is it Gina? Is writing a lucrative choice for a career? It can be, but for a very, very few. I write a bit of freelance, and that has helped pay the bills some, allowed me to—in all good conscience—write off my home office space when I do my taxes. My fiction has paid me little: a few prizes that usually come at a very, very good time; some small royalties and one-time token payments by journals and anthologies. When I first started writing seriously, the money mattered very little. This was when I was still working in the financial markets, back office manager, and then vice president of a small managed accounts firm. I made good money. Really good money. And I could pay my way through school as I went. But then one day I was sitting in a seminar at a commodities dealers’ conference, listening to a speaker talk about compliance documents and client responsibilities and series 7 exams and certifications, and I thought: What in the hell am I doing here? And that was when I started to make a plan. I moved out of my gold coast apartment in a high rise with a doorman and into a small courtyard building in Uptown (my car was broken into and my bike was stolen within a couple of months of my move.) I gathered a small nest egg. And I quit my “real” job. It wasn’t easy. There were times when I sold pieces of jewelry and much loved books so I could pay for the train to school. I ate a lot of noodles. But after a while I started to teach more (you know the adjunct dance, where you have gigs all over the place—five classes at three different schools was my record) and survived.
(I should say that after a year of near-poverty I married my first husband who made enough to support us both, but my desire to make my own money sent me back to a full time job as a bookkeeper for an insurance company while I was still teaching part-time. Luckily it wasn’t too long before I landed my tenure-track job at Columbia.)
So what am I trying to say? I would love to be able to live off my writing alone, but I am sorry to say that it is in all likelihood not going to happen. And I write, like so many of you all have said, for the writing’s sake, not for the money. But isn’t it a shame that we have to make that distinction? That our writing (and maybe I mean the kind of writing that some call “literary” here) doesn’t have a more recognized monetary value? That most of us can’t—as our ancestors did—get paid for a short story? That we are expected to almost always give our work away? And think of the journals and their editors and publishers. Not only do they give their work away, but I would imagine that most of them work at a loss, putting some of their own hard cash into the production. Why is that? Flower arrangers don’t give their work away. Professional ball players don’t. Strippers don’t. Are writers just cows who don’t mind giving their milk away for free? No moos of complaint?
BUT. This all sounds as though I am bitter about the writing for publication and profit thing. And I don’t really think I am. In fact, I very much like collaborating with small presses and with upstart journals—those venues that are not in the position to offer much (if any) cash. See, the thing is, when a small journal publishes my work and the time comes around for them to nominate pieces for various awards and prizes, my odds of being one of the nominations is significantly better than if I were published in one of the richer, glossier, wealthier publications. The same goes for book publishers. I am running in a narrower field in these smaller presses, and that can lead to some good things. I have won two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards after having been nominated by smaller, lesser-known journals. I have received a number of Pushcart Prize nominations. And these small presses are often run by other college teachers or students, and so it is not unusual that I get invited to read at various events. And sometimes, too, I get paid for that. And, like Vanessa Gebbie mentioned, I get invited to teach at various writers’ conferences and workshops, something I enjoy very much. (There are two of these coming up in just a few weeks’ time this summer.)
Each of us needs to negotiate this money/writing thing in our own way. Dennis McFadden works very hard at everything he does, writing and project managing. He has a family that he takes very good care of, and this is important to him. Would he be happier just writing, not knowing how his family might eat? I doubt it. Not having to worry about these things can make the writing go easier, I’d bet. And writing, I would imagine, also makes his daily work go better. Me? I’m willing to put the writing on hold now and again in order to do a good job at the other things I get paid for. But I will always, always, always come back to the writing. And doing other things makes me all the more needful of writing. And yearning is a good motivator for me. And let’s not forget how convenient it is to have a built in excuse (I gotta work) so that when the writing isn’t going well, we can put the blame on our busy-ness and not on the limitations of our own writing that day.
Writing students often look for jobs in writing, but I’d caution them to be careful. It is hard to want to write the things you want to write if you have had to spend all day in front of a computer. Teaching writing is not always the right choice for a writer. Being surrounded by the writing of others, your eyes and brains full of work-in-progress can also get in the way of your own work. I know a woman who went back to tending bar after one semester of teaching just because it was easier for her to think about her own writing when she didn’t have to think about someone else’s. Another friend teaches part-time and works in a grocery store. The grocery store work brings him into contact with other people’s lives and their stories, not bad experience for a writer.
So, to recap: Working. Yeah, it’s a good thing. Making money? Also a good thing. Writing? Now that…that is the best thing of all.
→Gina Frangello will answer her own questions about writing and making money in a few days, and Gerard Woodward will weigh in on this, too. Oh, and the clever cartoon is from http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading. -PMc←