Gina Frangello’s Plan B ~ On Writing and Earning

Continuing with “Why the Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers, author of Slut Lullabies and My Sister’s Continent, Gina Frangello answers her own questions about making money as a writer.

Gina: Recently, I posed the question to this group about how our writing lives are impacted by financial concerns. We are a diverse group of writers, and the responses thus far have been equally diverse, from Dennis McFadden, who works full-time as a projects manager for the New York State Department of Health, to those leading a more traditional “literary life” (a category that itself entails much diversity, both economically and in terms of what this means for how much writing time such a life actually permits).

Money is a deeply complex thing in the arts world. Although there are writers, painters, musicians, etc. who make a great deal of money at their craft, these individuals are perhaps more in the “minority” than in any other professional guild, so to speak. Among attorneys, among nurses, among teachers, among advertisers, among electricians—among just about any profession one can think of that isn’t arts-based—there is less extreme disparity between those who attain a celebrity level of fame and money, vs. those who literally earn not one dime for their work . . . like, ever. Generally speaking, if you train to become a doctor, for example—going to medical school and graduating—the only reason you would make absolutely no money would be if you are not currently practicing medicine, or that you have obtained sufficient wealth that you have made the choice to now donate your expertise philanthropically as a volunteer. Writers, sculptors, guitarists, on the other hand, may literally work daily at a craft that never pays, period, and that necessitates full-time work in another field for the entire duration of their lives. Even taking into account those in the arts who may lack the essential dedication or skill to succeed, there are indisputably legions of driven, talented people out there who simply never “make it,” and part of that equation entails a particular relationship between art and money that seems unique to any other field.

I grew up poor. This is something people tend to say, because “poor” means different things to different people: being the poorest members of an extended family; the poorest household in an otherwise affluent town or suburb, etc. My meaning is pretty literal: my family was below the poverty line, which at the end of my youth (the time I left home for college) was 10K annually. My father never graduated from the 8th grade, and no one in my entire extended family—on either side—had ever gone to college. Hence we were poor both economically and culturally: a distinction that’s become increasingly interesting to me* as I age, since I know many, many writers now, as an adult, who make a low annual income but whose lives bear little in common with the lives of the culturally-and-educationally-impoverished people I knew in my childhood.

Like many writers, I have written since my earliest memories. I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and then illustrated them and made them into stapled “books.” I began writing my first novel in earnest at the age of 10, ripping pages off a brown butcher roll of paper my mother had bought to save money. I meticulously hid my writing from my peers, who already considered me a dork for reading so much and constantly wanting to go to the library instead of hanging on the corner, playing sports, or chasing after the neighborhood gangbangers. When I put the nail in the coffin of my own weirdness, by neighborhood standards, and went away to college (on grants and loans), I had already been writing fiction for basically fourteen years, but it never occurred to me for even a minute to major in writing.

I had never met a published writer.

The one “writer” I knew at all was unpublished, unemployed, lived in my parents’ garage and tended to have a lot of dead ants on his floor. He drank too much and died of liver disease in his fifties. I had never—regardless of the season—seen him without the same tan raincoat, nor had I ever seen his hair clean. To say that he was not an ideal role model (though it may also be true that he was the best-educated person I knew in my youth—and according to my father the most “interesting”) would be an understatement.

As I saw it then—and as I still, I must admit, see it now—anyone who would major in writing as an eighteen-year-old college student with no clear vision of how s/he will make a living in this big world must have a trust fund. (Since most of my writing students here in urban Chicago have nothing resembling trust funds, I realize that this perspective is not accurate, but must conclude that my students are a far more optimistic lot than I.)

But as for me at eighteen: I majored in psychology. I was going to get my PhD and open a private practice, or so my plan went. I got all the way through my master’s degree and practiced as a therapist for three years before starting to stay up all night writing my first novel, and calling in “sick” to work in order to stay home and write, and—in my mid-20s and one year into my marriage—defecting from the practical plans of my youth and going back to grad school in writing.

At this point, my husband was on a NASA fellowship in space physics, and if I’m remembering it accurately that was something like 25 or 30 grand per year. This was in 1994. By the standards of my youth, you have to understand, this was Rockefeller terrain—this was the kind of money I would flagrantly quit my job for and go back to pursue my previously unattainable dream of writing as a career. My husband and I labored over this decision and decided that we were going to swing it—that we would live on his income as an academic (he was doing a post-doc at U of C at that time) and somehow pull together a life in which I could write full-time. Previously, it had been a given that I, as a therapist, would probably make more money than he ever would as a physics professor. Now, that plan was upended, and any solid income from me was no longer a “given.”

It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago. So many things have changed during that time. My husband, tired of moving from city to city and grant to grant, soon left the world of space physics and went into finance, where his income has improved (though is arguably even less stable and predictable, given the current economy). I, meanwhile, got my master’s in Creative Writing, published quite a bit of short fiction in lovely literary magazines that almost never paid, started reading for and eventually took over the editorship of Other Voices magazine, got most of my way through a PhD program, launched a book press in 2005, have taught at several colleges (most consistently at Columbia College Chicago), had two books of fiction published, became the Fiction editor of a hugely popular online literary site (The Nervous Breakdown), have gone through three literary agents, recently went on a fairly massive book tour, have another novel coming out in 2012, and just two days ago finished a new one that is about to go out “shopping.”

These days, I am often asked to blurb books and write letters of recommendation. I appear, it seems, to have a career in writing—and if judged by Dennis’ standards of standing around literary conferences, readings and parties (with or without shrimp), talking shop with other writers, I indisputably lead a “writing life.” To be blunt, I am pretty geeked out with excitement about this literary life of mine, and the ghetto girl who grew up knowing no one who even owned a bookcase can scarcely believe it is real.

Here’s the part I can believe: I make about as much money (less than 25K in my best years) as I figured I would, back when I—very accurately—assessed that, if left to a writing life, I would never be able to pay back my student loans, raise children, buy a house, or support my parents in their old age.

If it were not for my husband’s more standard career—and his unfailing support of my writing, editing and adjunct teaching—I would not be able to lead this lifestyle. The house I could do without, sure. But being a mother—and keeping my own parents financially afloat—are non-negotiable issues. If my family needed me to earn more money, then my editing, my part-time teaching, my taking time off traditional work to go on a book tour . . . those lovely perks of my life would be out the window in a heartbeat.

This is a fine and nuanced point, as it turns out. Because there is a difference between leading a writing life vs. being a writer, just as there is a difference between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty. Because even if I had become a psychologist with a private practice, I would still write fiction. I wrote fiction in elementary school, in high school, in college, while getting my graduate degree in counseling, while working as a therapist. No matter what I was doing, ever, I would continue to write. I would no doubt write somewhat less than I do now if I were also the primary breadwinner in my household. But to think about a life without writing, period, would be like a life without love or a life without air. It would be an impossibility.

On the other hand, I lead a certain type of literary “lifestyle” that is tied deeply to economic circumstances and choices. People who lead this sort of lifestyle—working nonprofit and teaching without tenure and having enough free time to hang out at readings or go to AWP every year—often fall into two categories: those of us with some other economic means (a dual income with one’s spouse, or the luxury of having come from money), or those of us who have made very difficult choices and lead an extremely Spartan lifestyle—one that may never involve home-ownership or raising children, for example—in order to be able to focus heavily on our art, whether or not it pays well.

There can be loopholes. Some writers may suddenly hit it “big” and earn good money on their craft, sure. More commonly, tenured professorships—increasingly hard to come by, but still the most coveted gig for most writers—can provide enough financial security that extreme sacrifices no longer have to be made, and though professors are not wealthy, they can usually afford to have a family, go somewhere cool on Sabbatical now and then, and still have enough time to write, which adds up to a pretty sweet life.

But my question . . . well, back to my question, huh? How does money impact our choices as writers? Well, some writers I know have made financially-driven choices within the writerly arena (such as writing novels based on successful TV series, or giving up literary fiction to write chick lit) that will support them in somewhat higher style without it meaning that they have to get some kind of office (or health department) job. For some writers, this can offer a compromise they find livable: a best of both worlds. But many writers—myself included—just don’t have the right skill or interest set for those kinds of compromises. For myself, I have always felt that if I were to suddenly face financial choices that made it imperative that I earn better money, secure healthcare for my family, then I would go back to working as a therapist, or perhaps teach high school English, rather than “changing what I write” to make my work more lucrative or—that loaded word—“marketable” in the arenas of publishing where the money is. To me, from the very first, the concept of writing has always been fully inextricable from being able to write what I love. Short fiction and literary novels, whether the market rewards these forms financially or not. All that other stuff—the publishing, the networking, the touring—is so much fun icing. But it’s never been even half of what I’m in this for. I write, as most writers I most admire do, because I have to. But more: I write what I have to write, psychologically, artistically. I don’t choose my style or topics based on practical concerns. The work chooses us, as much as the other way around.

The writing life is a beautiful life. There is an almost obscene pleasure in being able to talk about books for a living—a surreal honor in being entrusted with work-in-progress from students and from writers who submit to Other Voices Books or The Nervous Breakdown. There’s incredible camaraderie and rich, lifelong friendships to be found in a tribe of fellow-writers, fellow creative writing teachers and in-the-trenches indie editors, that would be hard to trade for water cooler office politics at an ad firm or something. If you’re like me, and never thought you would have the luxury to live in this world, you spend pretty much every day grateful, and work—even when you’re toiling seventy hours per week for the kind of pay you’d likely exceed as a line cook at McDonald’s—feels like a glorious vacation. This would be a hard world to leave, now that I have had the privilege of dwelling in it.

Someday, I may have to leave it. My husband’s industry is a volatile place. The world is a volatile place.

Should things change, I still don’t foresee myself abandoning short fiction and attempting to become a chick-lit writer or something to bring in some cash. I don’t see myself attempting to mold my writing around my financial realities. I think I would go back to Plan A, in which my writing would have existed on the sidelines of an Other Life, the life in which I would have been supporting my parents and children with a full-time, more predictable job and income.

Ironically enough, I might have no less writing time in that alternate scenario. Editing a book press and TNB Fiction, plus teaching, in addition to mothering three children with no childcare, does not exactly leave me with a full-time writing schedule as it is. Sometimes I write one or two days a week. Sometimes I do not write any new fiction for six months. I’m guessing I would manage just about the same amount of writing time if I were seeing clients or teaching high school. I’m guessing that the things that really matter would largely stay the same—that the work would remain.

But Dennis, I’m not gonna lie. I would really miss the shrimp.

_______

*The multi-layered distinction between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty is one of the main topics of this interview I did for Michael Kimball over at The Faster Times: http://thefastertimes.com/writersonwriting/2010/07/28/i-have-a-character-in-my-head-michael-kimball-interviews-gina-frangello/

Thanks, Gina, for your very thorough and frank answers to these questions. Gerard Woodward, recently returned to the UK after having been visiting writer here at Columbia College Chicago for the past five months (we’ll miss you Gerard!), is next up to answer Gina’s questions. Thanks for reading. Happy Short Story Month again! -PMc←