Something Dignified and Heroic ~ Gerard Woodward on Earning as a Writer

For the past few months, the novelist and short story writer Gerard Woodward has been writer-in-residence at Columbia College Chicago. It has been a great joy to have him spend time with us, and we will miss him. But Bath, England is home for Gerard, and so he must return. Through the magic of the internet, though, we can keep the conversation going. Here Gerard answers Gina Frangello’s questions about writing and money making, and he also poses the next questions for us to consider in “Why the Short Story? – A Conversation Among Writers.”

Gerard: I have always seen a writing career as a way of avoiding, or side-stepping, or ducking, the need to have any other sort of career. When I made the decision to try and be a writer, at the age of ten or thereabouts, part of its attraction was that it appeared to be an occupation for which one needed no qualifications, no training, no financial investment (apart from pens, paper and typewriter), no network of other people to worry about, no bosses or supervisors. The only downside, I could see, was that there was no salary.

Well, I exaggerate a little to say that I foresaw the impecuniousness of the profession at that tender age, and like most people I assumed that once you had a book published with a proper publisher, your financial problems were solved for the rest of your life. Beyond that vague notion, the question of money and how I would support myself didn’t enter my head.

But sooner or later it did. Perhaps it was after the first thrilling, (but shockingly small), cheque arrived from a literary magazine. Ok, you gradually realise, I’m not going to make much money at this, at least not yet (and the ‘not yet’ is very important). How am I going to find a way to support myself that doesn’t take away all my time and energy for writing?

There seem to be two kinds of writers – the pragmatists who sort out their financial lives with a steady job and regular income before trying to make room for writing, and the idealists who launch into a writer’s life straight away, and then try and find room for doing something that makes money. Both approaches have their pros and cons, the penniless bohemian might sometimes look enviously on the comfortable lifestyle of the gainfully employed but time-starved writer, often to have their envious stare returned. In the end there is only one answer to the above question – how do you support yourself as a writer in a way that doesn’t take away your writing time – by selling that writing to publishers. Any other means of support is going to eat into that writing time, no matter how closely related to writing it is. I have nothing but admiration for the pragmatists who maintain high pressure careers, waking up at the break of dawn to write for a couple hours before the day’s salaried work begins. Some people just have those sort of overspilling brains that still have something left after the day’s demands have taken their toll. I’ve undertaken all sorts of work, most of it of the manual and menial kind, to support my writing. I was lucky enough to get some awards and prizes for my writing early on, a few thousand pounds here and there, which in those days I could make last for years, and which persuaded me I was heading in a direction that was worth following. Eventually the prizemoney ran out, and I still wasn’t earning enough from writing to support myself, (I was a poet) so I took a job. It wasn’t the first time I had worked. When I left school, aged sixteen, I had six jobs in two years, thanks to a low boredom threshold and a healthy job market (yes, it was a long time ago).  There are some very versatile and industrious and resourceful poets who do manage to make a living out of freelance teaching, giving readings, doing workshops and so on, but I wasn’t resourceful enough to be one of them.

As a writer, I’ve always felt that it doesn’t really matter what one does in the world, it is all experience that will feed into the writing. The jobs I had sound mundane (warehouseman in a motorway service station, vending machine filler, pizza restaurant waiter, antiques dealer to name a few) but they provided a vast resource in terms of characters and stories that I will be mining for years to come. It doesn’t matter if a job is physically demanding, as long as it’s not mentally demanding. It means there is energy left in the brain. In fact I think hard manual work can be quite good for the imagination– it tires out the body but actually invigorates the brain, getting the oxygenated blood flowing through the cortex. One forgets how physically demanding thinking actually is (stop laughing, people with physically demanding jobs), you can measure the energy consumption of the brain as it performs mental tasks, and it is like watching an electricity meter when someone switches a toaster on. I sometimes start creative writing classes with physical exercises, to stimulate blood flow. Never forget that the imagination runs on blood. (I frequently forget, which is why I’m struggling to stay awake as I write this).

So, let me try and answer the specific questions in Gina’s post. The first one is by far the most complicated. “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write?”

I feel, quite strongly, that a piece of writing doesn’t exist, in any meaningful way, until it is published. Up until that point it is simply an externalised and fixed part of your imagination, something you can refer to if you want but something that affects only you and those people you might have shown it to. To bring a piece of writing fully into existence it needs to be published. (I will ignore, for the moment, on-line publishing, its still too early to say what counts as proper publishing in that nebulous world). In other words, one writes with the eventual goal of publication in mind. (I exclude purely personal writing such as journals, diaries or pieces of writing aimed at one person, like an epistle (although no one writes those any more, so we’re told)). What this means is that one should write with publication in mind. When a piece of writing is published, money usually changes hands (or it certainly should). So writing, publishing and making money are all part of the same triple-streamed process. But this doesn’t necessarily mean one writes purely for money. As we have already discussed, there is so little money to be made from publishing short stories that the financial imperative couldn’t seriously play any part in the creative process. Even more so the case with poetry. (When a teenager of my acquaintance speculated that a certain poet was only ‘in it for the money’ I had trouble explaining why I was rolling on the floor laughing). With novels it is different. The potential market for any novel is huge. Of course, most novels only reach a tiny fraction of the market. Nevertheless, it is a very different world from poetry or the short story, and in theory one could make a living from writing novels, and nothing else. But do the maths (or the math), decide what you think is a comfortable annual income, and multiply it by how many years it takes to write a novel. That’s how much advance you’ll need for your next novel, and for every novel you write thereafter, for the rest of your life. Then consider how many writers you know might earn that sort of advance. And then consider how many writers are currently professors of creative writing.

But why not? Updike managed a novel a year over his very long career, and was quite open about the fact that that was the only way he could hope to earn a living from writing – a novel a year for the whole of his working life. And he managed it, without too much dilution of quality (forget about ‘Terrorist’) right up to the end. Not all of us have that energy or sheer talent. I’m already seeing gaps of two or three years opening up between my novels, the sad mathematics of which means I’ve maybe only got five or six left to write. Oh God, how did I get to this depressing piece of speculation? What I’m trying to say that there is nothing wrong, in fact I think there is everything right, about writing for money. I would even go so far as to say there is something dignified and even heroic about it (stop laughing again, people with proper jobs), much as I try and avoid romanticising the writer’s life, anyone who tries to dedicate their life to the production of written stuff in a time when written stuff is being pushed aside by filmed and digitally animated stuff is a hero in my book (or will be in my next book). But the point is – the money should not affect the content. I should say that in big letters really, THE MONEY SHOULD NOT AFFECT THE CONTENT. The writer’s purpose should be to make well made things that publishers would like to buy. If a book is written well enough, the content is of less importance. So don’t write something because you think it will have a mass appeal, write it because it’s what you’re interested in and excited by. The most common feeling I have when writing is – who on earth will want to read this? – and then carry on regardless. If it’s well made, someone will buy it.

I think I’ve answered as much as I can or want to. Now I must get back to making some money.

Oh – I nearly forgot. It’s my turn to ask a question now. I have a strong feeling that the best ones have already been asked, but here’s one that has always intrigued me. What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Thanks, Gerard. We will miss you over here! -PMc←

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