The Milk is Free ~ On Writing and Earning

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 Thanks for reading. -PMc←

8 Replies to “The Milk is Free ~ On Writing and Earning”

  1. I much enjoyed reading this response, Patty. What interesting jobs you have done! Like you I started earning in my early teens – jobs would include cleaning a boy’s school kitchens and lavatories (NEVER again)…making breakfasts in a tiny guesthouse where one elderly resident had a parrot who had kippers every morning – and many others. Thanks for the memories!

    On a more serious note – I have come across this rather sad article by Carlo Gebler, looking back over his life as a professional writer. “What You May Lose by Becoming a Writer”
    it would be well worth giving it in its entirety to students.

    A quote:

    “I am also bitter. I hope it doesn’t show, but I am. I am so fucked off with how the world has gone to the dogs and in particular that little bit of the world I think I care about most, which is the Kingdom of Literature: for on top of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, all sorts of other deleterious developments have worsened the lot of writers (at least in these islands) over the last fifteen years, among which, and in no particular order, are the following: the rise of branding; the enslavement of publishers to media endorsement by celebrity presenters; the obsession with the physical appearance of writers which in turn has meant publishers demand ever younger, ever more photogenic authors; the decline of the editor in publishing houses in order to save money; the abandonment by publishers of the idea that writers have lifelong careers and that given the right support over a lengthy period they can develop; the failure of payment for literary endeavour either to keep pace with inflation or to reflect the actual amount of labour involved in literary production; the atrophy of community (writers have never been more marginal and their enterprise more quixotic and ridiculous); and, finally, the eclipse of literary forms that once helped writers to survive, such as the short story, especially the short story broadcast on radio….”

    Back to the desk!

  2. And yet, Vanessa, maybe in all of this there is something to be optimistic about…? The rise of the small press perhaps giving voice to a greater number of writers (albeit un(der)paid in most cases,) children being lured to reading by these blockbuster titles and perhaps developing and elevating their tastes as they continue to read, bringing their good reading habits (as opposed to their tv viewing habits or electronic game-playing habits)to all sorts of literature. I, too, feel disheartened by the rise of the brand and the corporatization of literature but glad to know that some are still willing to fight back, move forward, be heard, get read. (Feeling a bit Polly-Anna-ish this morning for some reason…)

  3. I’ve always worked, too, Patty. Started when I was 15 slinging hot dogs and french fries. Worked all through high school, and always had at least two jobs in college.

    I doubt I’ll ever be able to make a living solely off of writing, though that’s the goal. Finding a way to balance the wage-earning jobs so that I have enough time to write and to seek out writing jobs is the hard part. I’ve just taken a month off of a 40-hour/week job that I do from home so that I can finish my thesis. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

    When I was a stay-at-home Mom for several years, the not-working drove me absolutely insane, and it wasn’t long before I was picking up odd jobs here and there (editing school district newsletters, volunteering for this or that). I have to keep my brain busy and distracted and fed, otherwise it gets dull.

    That said, I need to be choosier about the jobs I take to fill my time (and earn the almighty dollar). They have to be jobs that actually do feed me. When they start sucking the life out of me, then I have to move on.

    None of this has anything to do with actually getting the writing done, though, does it. And it’s certainly possible that my relentless need to pick up extra jobs is a way of procrastinating getting the work done.

    Great post!

    1. Interesting your line about maybe taking on the extra work in order to avoid the writing; I think I feel that might happen to me as well. But still, I am involved in very little that I don’t really care about, so perhaps that is reason enough to do so much. And there are stories everywhere, aren’t there? You first work as a writing student (I know we talk about this a lot, Viki) were stories pulled from the strange and interesting events and adults you worked with. They made you think, they made you wonder, they made you write stories in order to make sense of things.

  4. Also, I’ve met so many students who’ve never really worked. That’s scary. How are they going to make that transition from student to employed-person? I think parents do their children a huge disservice by not requiring them to work in some manner. Working is a learned skill.

    Maybe that’s why there seems to be so much laziness in some students. They simply don’t know how to work.

    1. Perhaps not all laziness, but I would say a lack of experience in juggling things they have to be solely responsible for. Working makes you face responsibilities, and that is good practice for everything else. There was a series on NPR last summer about summer jobs, and someone was lamenting that young people don’t have the same opportunities for odd jobs and work experience we used to. He talked about things like detassling corn (something done now by automation, I suppose,) selling magazines and seeds door-to-door (something most parents wouldn’t let their kids consider these days because of all the weirdos we fear,) slinging burgers and so on. I would bet with the economy the way it is, traditional young people’s jobs (McDonald’s, paper routes, etc) are being taken by out-of-work adults. And that is a shame for so many reasons, including that our students are missing out on working in a world bigger than the one they inhabit daily. There are no vampires in this place, nor wizards or kings. When people get hurt or beat up or shot, they bleed real blood, not something Technicolor or ketchup-y. When bad choices are made, the consequences are real and often full of disappointment, guilt, and shame, not punished by some sort of magical transportation to a distant, dark land. And when they make good choices, the consequences are quiet, sometimes unnoticed, not full of flashing lights and treasure chests. These real moments can lead us to our best writing, I think; they push a writer into a deep self-reflection about the way the world is, why, and the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

  5. Hey Patty, as one of your former students I’m glad I can still look your way for some wisdom. In the fifteen years since I left Columbia, I’ve been in the thick of this dilemma…how much time do I give to my creative pursuits? How much to the job? What about the wife, kid, aging parents? Friends? And then there’s standing in a trout stream frightening fish with a fly rod or the occasional and essential solitary backpacking trip to the high desert. Am I giving up on my writing by spending too much energy in any of these other areas?

    Of course, the magic formula that we dream about in grad school (or likely earlier) is to be paid handsomely for our writing.

    But the cold reality is that you can’t pay the bills doing that. Sure, there are some folks who do it, but they have the right combination of talent, luck and hard work. You can only take care of the 3rd item on that list.

    It’s a tough time to pursue writing. I can’t tell you how many agents have told me, “the writing is great, but it’s a tough market right now and I have to absolutely be in love with the book to take on a literary project.” Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying “fuck off,” but maybe it’s an earnest indication of the state of the market. But I’m not the least bit bitter or angry about that because I’m already thinking about the next draft or the next project. I don’t need any remuneration or permission for moving forward.

    Would I quit my job and stay home in my bunny slippers if some publisher offered to send me checks for writing whatever fiction I could dream up? I actually can’t think of anything more dull. Jobs are a pain in the ass, but I’ve met some of my closest friends in the workplace (many of them filmmakers, artists, journalists and not a few MFA refugees like me). I’ve had some interesting experiences. Oh, and I’ve never missed a mortgage payment, either. My kid has great dental.

    And now that I’m involved in independent filmmaking, I’m learning that creative pursuits not only don’t earn you money, they cost you. I know some folks who mortgage their houses or move back in with mom at age 40. I sold a screenplay option and the lawyer made more money on the deal than I did. And what was left became less than half of the budget for a short film. So you could say I’ve earned about negative $2K in my writing career. But that’s okay. It’s been great fun.

    A lot of writers hem and haw over the possibility of monetizing what they spend a huge portion of their lives doing. Jim Harrison once wrote, “Writers as a type tend to suffer greatly. But then so do miners.” But I guess growing up in a union household taught me that any work is good if you got it. Writing isn’t a career or a job. It’s bigger than that. Self publish, give it away, sell it to indie presses, try to interest an agent…none of those avenues change the finished project (unless the publisher or production company insists that you add a vampire and a car chase in scene 45). Ultimately nobody can keep us from writing and producing the best work that we can. I take a lot of comfort and inspiration from that fact.

    1. David Baker, so good to hear from you. Thanks for the comments. I hadn’t really thought of how many artists have to pay so much in order to practice their art. Makes me feel a little humble, really. I should have considered this, with my own husband a practicing visual artist. He must shell money out for anything he makes: painting, prints, sculptures, installations, experimental films. The returns, the monetary ones, are hard hard hard won. A writer can carry her work with her, and now, with on-line submissions, it doesn’t even cost a lot to get your work in front of the eyes of an editor.

      I wholeheartedly agree that the work away from the writing room is important for so many reasons, not the least because of who we meet and come to know. We don’t all have to be writers to share stories.

      Thanks for reading and responding, David. Good to know you are still hard at it. I recently looked up your blog ( and saw some of the really, really interesting ways you are working with and telling stories. Keep up the good fight!

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