I read two pieces about the logistics of supporting one’s self as a writer yesterday and this morning– or maybe a better way of putting it is how it’s almost impossible to support one’s self as a poet or fiction writer. (Note that one can make a good living as a writer if you include in that definition the things we train our students to do: technical writing, editing, documentation, content management, social media work, web site development, writing teacher, etc, etc. But that’s not the kind of “writer” either of these pieces is really talking about. I suppose I could parse out the problem of limiting the definition of writer to “someone who makes art,” but that’s another post for another time).
The first is an essay “‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from” by Ann Bauer and in Salon It’s an essay about how Bauer’s life as a writer is possible because her husband’s job pays the bills, and it’s also Bauer’s critique of the many writers who come from a similar space of privilege and do not either realize and/or acknowledge how that privilege allowed them to become a successful writer.
The second is a blog post at Gin and Tacos, which is really a rejoinder to Bauer’s essay, called “Dirty Little Secrets.” Here, “Ed” (the guy behind Gin and Tacos, who is a semi-anonymous Political Science professor in the midwest) compares the unspoken financial independence of many writers to the unspoken use of steroids by body builders, especially those posing on the covers of various muscle magazines. Among other things, Ed writes,
“The difference between the award-winning author … and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.”
I see both of their points, but I don’t think the fact that almost all but the most popular of pop writers need to pay the bills with some combination of a day job, a sponsor, and an inheritance is that big of a “secret.” And I certainly never thought the body builders in those magazines were so pumped up all as a result of clean living.
I learned concretely about the money issues (or lack thereof) for creative writers while in my MFA program back in the late 1980s. I had a few classmates who seemed to have come from the sort of privilege Bauer describes, but most of my fellow classmates (like me) lacked trust funds, and it became clear quickly that despite our hopes and dreams, we weren’t going to make money from our little stories and poems.
I remember one guy– he actually wasn’t a graduate of my program but he was around as a part-time instructor– who had published a first novel that had been considered quite successful. I believe it helped him land his part-time teaching gig. The publisher only printed a few hundred copies of his book. Another guy who was in the MFA program at the same time as me had published an “award winning” novel a few years before he even started attending classes and earned his degree. He was quite full of himself; I believe he went on after the MFA program to have a series of temp office jobs. There’s another woman who I sorta/kinda know (she was in my program a few years after me) who seems to be a lot like Bauer: she writes and publishes novels and can afford to do so because of her husband– and it might help that she lives in Europe, too. And of course the faculty teaching us in the program also obviously needed a “day job.”
In fact, I know of only two people from my MFA days who have enjoyed what I think most people would call some popular and financial success primarily as a writer. One is still a good friend and while he made a fair amount of money from a novel years ago and he still technically makes much of his living from his novels and short stories, he also teaches part-time and he lives as frugal as anyone ever. Another is Sheri Reynolds, and while I would bet that she could “just write” if she wanted to, she’s also a professor at Old Dominion University. (By the way, both of these people are super-great folks and super-talented writers).
Almost everyone else I’m vaguely aware of from my MFA days has gone on to something else besides creative writing. Judging from Facebook, a lot of my MFA peers have gone on to private sector jobs of various flavors, work with nonprofits, teaching/working in high schools, teaching college (mostly as a non-tenure-track person, but there are a few folks I know who went on to tenure-track gigs in creative writing), or on to PhD programs and, in a few cases, tenure-track jobs in other fields (like me).
So the fact that creative writers cannot live off of their writing is not much of a secret, and knowing that explains, more or less, why I went into a comp/rhet program when I did way back when. I was (and am still) risk adverse and not fond of insecure employment, so the idea of taking a series of shit jobs so I could try to “make it” just wasn’t a reasonable plan to me. And besides all that, I wasn’t sure then (still am not sure now) I had the talent to do it.
As I have written about before, I decided to go into composition and rhetoric because I knew I wanted to stay in academia (especially after I attempted to have a real job), and I knew there were jobs out there in comp/rhet. But I also think that comp/rhet is a field that complements, complicates, and expands what I learned about writing in my MFA program. That has and hasn’t turned out to be the case. Yes, I have been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an MFA student as a writing scholar, particularly the importance of habit and craft. But no, I haven’t been able to successfully make the mental shift to move from writing scholarship to writing art. Though one of the reasons why I’m writing so much about this right now is that’s one of the goals during the sabbatical, to return to fiction for the first time in about 20 years. Wish me luck.
Anyway, to get back to Bauer and Ed at Gin and Tacos: the next time you go to a reading given by someone who has published a “well-regarded” book but not one that has been riding the top of the New York Times best seller list for at least half a year, assume that person has some combination of other work and/or other wealth. And the next time you look at one of those muscle magazines, remember that’s the steroids and the HGH talking.