Sheep Herding and Shrimp ~ Dennis McFadden on Earning as a Writer

As part of our on-going Conversation Among Writers “Why The Short Story?”, Dennis McFadden takes on Gina Frangello’s questions about the financial implications of a writing life.

Dennis: Man, talk about déjà vu. How many times has something like this happened to you? Standing around at the old writers’ conference cocktail party, having wormed your way into a conversation among a few faculty members, you throw in a couple of comments that aren’t too terribly far off the mark, and they all look at you appreciatively, as they might at a trained seal who’d managed to nose the ball through the hoop. Then they chatter on amongst themselves for a while until one of them asks if anyone’s tried the shrimp yet, just as you’re popping another shrimp into your mouth.

Did I mention my “traditional” career? A project manager with the New York State Department of Health? Not that I can blame Gina. Turnabout is fair play, after all. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bunch of us project managers were standing around trying to have a decent project management conversation when some writer (usually with misbegotten aspirations of someday becoming a project manager) tries to horn in. We might patronize him or her for a little while, but that gets old pretty soon, and we eventually forget he or she is even there.

So I certainly can’t blame her for not noticing me standing here, munching on the shrimp. I’ve never met her, and her rejection slips from “Other Voices” didn’t convey a lot of her personality, but I’m willing to bet she’s a nice woman. So, just to keep the conversation going, let’s take her questions one at a time and see if we can unearth any relevancy for a project manager and part-time writer.

What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? None, now. Not much then, either. When I left college, I was branded a good writer, and I knew two things: I would probably always write, and I would probably always have a “traditional” job. My background was strictly blue-collar, I wasn’t all that far removed from my parents’ Great Depression, and I harbored a subtle but actual dread of ever being in the position of not knowing where my next meal was coming from. A career in writing was every bit as likely as a career in outer space.

Naturally (having been branded a good writer), I also harbored a distant, vague notion that someday I might meet with some writing success, perhaps even enough to be able to chuck my day job—about the same probability as perhaps winning the lottery someday. Of course taking a decade or two off from writing probably didn’t lower the already formidable odds against that ever happening. But when I finally did get around to writing again, I turned to the novel, not the story, a decision that was probably financial to some degree (relevancy, at last!). If that remote possibility were ever to occur, it wouldn’t be because of a short story I’d written, it would be because of a novel. As the wonderful writer Manette Ansay would tell me years later, “I love the short story, but it’s the novel that pays the bills.”

How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? The money I’ve earned from my book and the stories I’ve published in magazines that actually pay in American dollars (Confrontation sprang for forty bucks!) might have almost covered an all-expenses-paid vacation to downtown Albany, but the writing expenses—those conferences ain’t cheap, never mind postage, envelopes, paper clips—precluded my dream vacation. So I’ve resigned myself to being content with the tax write-off.

Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? You mean besides getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning? Besides pissing off my wife by going to those conferences nearly every year, then having to eat bad food and read untold numbers of ungodly stories and try to come up with something nice to say about them? And having to try to talk to faculty members and hope they remember I’m in the conversation? Besides all that? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. These are the sorts of sacrifices one has to be prepared to make for the sake of one’s art, aren’t they? Nobody promised us a rose garden.

Oh, you mean financially? No.

Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Many years ago, as I was climbing the bureaucratic ladder, scratching and clawing my way to the middle, I was sorely tempted to just say the hell with it and become a shepherd. As a matter of fact, I went so far as to fill out the paperwork, but that was nipped in the bud when it came to light that I was allergic to wool.

But maybe that isn’t all that relevant to this particular conversation.

Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? As a grandchild of the Depression, I’ve never met an indecent dollar. You know the rest. If you’ve been listening.

What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, as I’m not sure mine qualifies as a “writing life,” at least in the context of the question.

But I’m willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

The harsh realities of economics (I can remember when gas was twenty-five cents a gallon, and the snow was up to here!) mean that I have to keep my day job, so the cons would include the aforementioned early rising (hey, I’m getting older, I get sleepy) and the other sundry aforementioned sacrifices. Of course, the pros were also mentioned afore: seeing your work in print, knowing that someone else besides you is actually reading the stuff, reaping in those glorious forty dollar checks. And writing. The pure, unadulterated pleasure of it. Creating lives where none were before, watching them strut and fret, feeling the goosebumps rising…

I could go on, but I think I’ll go stand over there and munch on some shrimp.

Hart's Grove

Stop by our View From the Keyboard series tomorrow and you’ll see Dennis McFadden’s 5:00 AM writing space and his trusty writing partner. Dennis, thank you. -PMc←

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4 thoughts on “Sheep Herding and Shrimp ~ Dennis McFadden on Earning as a Writer

  1. Dennis, do you know Dan Wickett? He’s an auto parts salesman from Michigan who, some years back, started a literary blog called The Emerging Writers Network for about 20 friends of his, while working full-time in a completely other world, nothing to do with writing/academia, just a very blue collar Midwestern world. Not unlike the one I grew up in too, though to which I have few connections anymore (not, I should specify, because I make any money at my writing–I don’t, and I teach only part-time, so my income is pretty pathetic overall: that’s precisely why I was curious about how this question of money impacts others. But I have indeed attended many an AWP Conference cocktail party, so in that regard you’re not far off the mark.)

    Anyway, Dan’s blog simply took fire and soon had thousands of subscribers. He now co-owns and runs Dzanc Books, the indie press of which my Other Voices Books is an imprint. So now, he’s my boss–or rather, he would be if I actually got paid for my work as an editor. For many years, though, Dan pursued his literary endeavors in some crazy wee hours of the morning and night, because he was still working in the auto parts industry full time. Finally, he began to eek out just enough money from Dzanc that he devotes himself to it full-time, though my guess is that he probably makes less money now than he used to, back in the glorious, caviar days of selling car parts, ha.

    I think he would very much relate to what you say here, and you guys would probably have some laughs at the expense of those of us who immediately (or desperately) gravitated towards academia or publishing as careers, and perhaps live in a kind of cultural bubble, regardless of our economic circumstances. He’s never taught a class that I know of, or done anything at all writing-related until he just randomly started the blog in his middle-age. He just loved literature.

    Most writers I know are kinda (or very) poor. Those who actually write full-time, or even who have tenured professorships that offer stable salaries like our fabulous Patty, are a minority. But I think that’s a different issue than the “cultural” one you raise, in terms of lifestyles, and that the things you say here are still all completely true. Cultural class and economic class are divergent things, and interesting things. I’ll try to talk about some of that in my response to my own question.

    Meanwhile: did I really send you rejections back in my Other Voices magazine days, or are you just taking the piss?

    1. Dennis McFadden

      Hi, Gina – nice to meet you. Great comments. Yes, you really did – or should I say someone at Other Voices did. The rejections were all unsigned and quite anonymous, so they might have come from out of the ranks of your army of readers. At any rate, all’s well that ends well. Most have since found nice homes, including two now settled comfortably in my collection, “Hart’s Grove.” Read them and see if they look familiar.

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