Thursday, May 29, 2008

Writing and Money (blame Matt)

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?

Ah, that depends on so many factors. It’s cheaper in, say, Nebraska, than here in California. A friend of mine describes his years as a college student as “having enough money to get by, but not enough to afford dental work.” It would be nice to be able to afford dental work.

A good goal would be the median income for where you live.

Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?

Can? Sure. Is it likely, on an ongoing basis? Not terribly. In fiction, it helps if you have a series—those seem to be more stable. And it’s good if you are already famous or controversial for some other reason. Or if you write non-fiction instead of fiction.

To put this in perspective, I have a friend who made the New York Times bestsellers list, and another friend who made the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list. These blessed events brought them a nice wad of cash—but neither of them is able to make their living from writing alone.

If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?

Some seem to do well at mixing teaching with writing, which is probably the most popular strategy here in the US. (This is the real reason for the proliferation of MFA programs in writing. Unfortunately, it’s sort of a pyramid scheme, and there’s already more people credentialed to teach writing than there are available slots.)

I think most writers would do well to avoid jobs that call upon their writing abilities. Technical writing, advertising, and editing seem to use up some of the vital force that ought to go into the real writing. (That said, however, a few exceptional people thrive on working with words all day long, and can turn happily to their own creative work after spending all day fiddling with words in another context. More power to them.)

Independent project consulting, which is my day job, is tricky. It gives you a great deal of flexibility, but it’s unpredictable. You may have a big gap of time where you can write, but you also can have times where a project pops up and gobbles down every waking minute. And, if a lot of long travel is involved, that’s stimulating—but leaves you too stupid and jet-lagged when you get home to do any useful work. Also, you are adding one unsteady income stream (project work) to another (writing), which isn’t exactly a recipe for financial stability.

If you’re still young, I think there’s a lot to be said for the traditional Jack-London approach of taking a whole series of weird jobs that will look nice on the back flap. Drive a truck, pole-dance, enlist in the French Foreign Legion.

I’d be in deep trouble much of the year were it not for the fact that my significant other has a steady, lucrative job. Live with or marry someone more financially responsible than yourself, or find a nice garret. (Garrets are hard to come by in California.)

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

I think too many successful writers get thoroughly out of touch with the world. Work is a good way to stay in touch.

But too much work is—well, too much.

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?

Yes. And they should start by banning television, which has gobbled up so much of the market for stories. (The absence of television would have many other benefits as well.)

I don’t think the government ought to give financial support to writers, because I hate to think how they would decide which writers ought to be supported.

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

Well, I wouldn’t call my present circumstances a “solution.” "Situation" would be a better word.

Do I have advice? Oh, yes. First off, don’t write at all if money is a primary consideration.

Second, if you’re temperamentally able, pick anything other than the writing of print fiction. Write for television, or get into screenwriting, or write nonfiction books, or ghostwrite for celebrities. Bestselling fiction gets the headlines, but fiction in general is the least lucrative of fields for a writer.

Third, if you ever get a windfall, use it to pay off your mortgage, even though, at least in the US, this makes no sense from a tax point of view. Anything that lowers your long-term cost of living is a big plus.

Fourth, become a breatharian.


Jenn said...

I like this post. I've been thinking about a lot of these things myself recently. I am not too interested in buying things or having lots of money, and I am used to being skint. But I also work full time and have just applied to drop one of my working days so that I have time to write. I feel like the cut in income that I have taken is another bill now - something that 'buys time' that I will use to write in.

It took me a long time to make that decision - especially when I did the sums and realised how much that writing day was going to cost. My most expensive hobby, and one which doesn't bring in any income of its own.

I like my job very much, but it is demanding and doesn't leave much time for dreaming. Perhaps something monotonous would suit me better, but monotonous would pay less, and so I wouldn't be able to afford to do less than full time hours.

Taking a cut in income so I could write more was difficult, mainly because I felt I was shirking some kind of financial responsibility for my family. I think I have a balance now. I don't expect to ever make money from writing, and if I did, I am certain that it wouldn't be enough to write full-time on. So cutting my hours and learning to live happily on less is a good compromise for me.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jenn--

I think what the world needs is more decent half-time jobs.

The problem with half-time jobs, though, is that they tend to become three-quarter-time jobs at half-time pay...

David Isaak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

And apologies... Yes, I just threw in a challenge and then buggered off for a wee-while until the dust settled. In my defence I've been snowed under with writing-related work, but now I've had time to look at the answers that yourself, Tim, Alis, Len and co have written and it's pretty much a unified cry that writing doesn't pay, which is no new news at all I guess, but cements that experience for new writers out there who still reckon writing is a way to fame and fortune.

While I think the Cost of Letters is still a pertinent point of discussion, I think Waterstone's raison d'être on how much support new writers need, goes beyond financial aid. Maybe someone should commission a survey from new writers about how the publishing industry can attract and nurture new writing talent....

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