• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me But I Refuse To Let You Go

I was invited to participate on a publishing panel last week at NYU. The last time I saw that many eyes glazed over is when I was student there thirty years ago. The panel never really came together, and I think I alienated a fellow panelist right out of the gate. He was lamenting the fact that  writers couldn’t make a living just writing anymore. If five percent of writers make a living writing I would be surprised.  I said that no one invites you to write, no one cares if you do, and that it is against the world’s indifference that you create. If you are lucky enough that the world loves what you write, then perhaps you will be among the few who make their living writing. The rest of us get up at dawn or write all night, or write on vacations, or quit for years and hate ourselves in an even more special way. Is it fair that a thriller writer can make millions and poet basically nothing. Is it fair that a “popular” historian can make millions while a scholar puts twenty years into a book for which he will be paid $5,000? Fair? If my mother raised me on one consistent mantra it was this: who said life was fair? And she said it after I wailed about the great injustices of life: my sister getting a larger portion of mac and cheese, the fact that I had to wear her hand me downs, including a set of faded olive Danskins. Enough said.

Even though  I work every day to get money for writers, I still don’t think they are owed a living. They have to produce work that has popular appeal. And some have to work at it a very long time. The writer who comes out of the womb clutching a bestseller is rare, indeed. As far as I can tell, it’s a long distance race, it takes stamina and creative drive and fierce self-belief.

What say you?

67 Responses

  1. Did he mean book writers, or writers in general? Because if it’s the latter, well, freelancing is a lot more difficult than it used to be. Content farms have done for scribes what Monsanto has done for crops — created a system that values quantity over quality.

  2. “He was lamenting the fact that writers couldn’t make a living just writing anymore.” When exactly WAS that?

    I was just talking to a friend who sold his books(s) in the UK. Two books that took 7 years to write. He got, basically, $8K for them. I don’t know anyone who expects a living from this.

    I mean really, is there anything else like the jolt of joy you get from lack of sleep, anxiety, rejection, and smiling people constantly asking: (a) how’s your book coming?, or (b) when are you going to write that best seller?

  3. Getting money for writing feels like some sort of miracle. I always put the checks up on the refrigerator next to my son’s drawings and report cards for a while before cashing them.

    They are my A on a *really* harsh grading curve. And that thriller writer? I think he cheated on the final exam.

  4. Besides wholeheartedly agreeing with you about what writers are owed/deserve, I feel your pain re: hand-me-downs. I also wore my sister’s olive green Danskins, with a matching horizontally striped shirt (olive/navy). The pants were pilled on the ass. As a teenager I moved on to hand-me-down Huckapoo shirts over my sister’s old Gloria Vanderbilt jeans…

    • I’ll see you those Danskins and raise you several pairs of flared corduroys in assorted seventies colors from an older and much taller kid who belonged to a completely different family.

      The ridges were mostly worn off down the inseams and since my mother didn’t sew, I had to cuff a foot of fabric around my ankles.

      • Remember how the Danskins had a raised line down the front, simulating a pressed seam? Mine was usually worn off in places. Plus those foot strappy things which totally threw my slightly ocd 7 year old feet into conniptions. Does anyone still say conniption? I loved my hand-me-down cords though. Even worn away ones. They were very soft. Oh. Were we talking about writers and writing?

      • I say conniption at the time. 🙂

        Danskins were depressing, all right — those straps didn’t come close to working on me.

        My cords were super stiff—it was hard to bend over in them. I had one pair of soft ones, but they were gray and baggy, so I was “Elephant Girl” on the playground. Good times . . .

      • Conniption!!! I miss that word. Thanks for the memories.

      • “She’s having a conniption fit.” (one of my all-time faves) Right up there with, “that baby’s gaulded!”

      • Toughskins. Once those wear-proof knee pads got wet, they stayed wet.

  5. I agree as well. Any type of creative work – sculpting, dancing, songwriting – usually carries with it the expectation of something well below a living wage. There must be another reason besides money and success for writing – like loving it, like being unable to not write.

  6. “… and hate ourselves in an even more special way.” Word up, sistah.

  7. “or quit for years and hate ourselves in an even more special way” — Yes, I’m always looking for new and special ways to hate myself!

    I don’t think I’m owed the ability to earn my living through writing. But I do wish more people took the time to read and enjoy novels instead of solely watching TV, playing video games, texting, reading dumb websites, etc. I’m not against those things, but it does make me despair when they replace reading entirely. It’s a stupid and useless and at least partially self-serving wish, but I can’t help it.

  8. When I taught second grade, I was owed a living. Anyone who doesn’t think so should spend fifteen minutes behind a closed door with twenty-five seven-year-olds. You don’t even have to teach them anything, just be there. (I wonder how many Waiting for Superman bigshots have done that?)

    Now I’m a writer. Nobody owes me anything. I can do it or not. I consider the money I’ve made a bonus.

  9. Love your blog, Betsy. About being owed a living: This is what children believe. Children of the rich. Most work-a-day writers humble themselves constantly to keep the dream alive. And they do it gladly, because being a writer, no matter how cash-strapped and grasping, is better than anything else. Jealousy and resentment are part of the deal.

  10. You CAN make a living at writing although it may not be what your panel-mate would want to write. Business writing, freelance journalism, investor relations, PR, marketing, (shudder) direct mail. Admittedly harder than it used to be but it can be done. Now to make a living at writing what you WANT to write? When has that ever been possible? If I ever earn a buck from my novel, I’d be thrilled if it was enough for a really nice vacation. But I have your “fierce self-belief” and I am delighted every time I can work on it, for however short a time. No angst here, thank you very much.

  11. I think the envy is more based on what sells for millions (celeb memoirs, celeb self-help books, etc) and which most people really prefer to read. Nothing to be done about that if that’s not what you write, or read, but keep doing your best and hope to find your own readers.

    It is dispiriting; we all know that many publishers lavish their budgets on….material…from people most of us wouldn’t pay to read with a gun held to our heads.

  12. Amen.

  13. I had to laugh when I read the part about your mother’s one consistent mantra because my stepfather raised me on exactly the same one. I agree with you completely. Sure, I secretly fantasize about being a bestselling novelist but in no universe do I expect that to happen. I write because I want to, because I love it. If my writing gets published and people like it, fabulous. If somewhere down the road I make a few bucks from it, that’s icing on the cake. After I’d had a few publishers request my full manuscript, I asked my agent what would happen next (i.e. if they happened to like it) and she said, “Don’t quit your day job”. Well, no shit. I’ve never had any intentions of quitting my day job. (I love my day job and it’s got awesome benefits.) I didn’t ask because I had expectations, I asked because I didn’t know what to expect although enough money to make a living on–I knew not to expect THAT. But I’m going to write no matter what happens. I just think writers need to be realistic about what happens once you’ve written a book. There are no guarantees–even if you have talent.

  14. I’m too fond of health insurance to quit the library for full-time writing.

    Well, that and the undeniable fact that my annual income from my writing wouldn’t keep me in Kwik Mart coffee . . .

  15. I don’t get this I’d just be thrilled if my book was published stuff. When I received a paltry advance for my first novel, I was put out. The larger advance for my second still didn’t seem enough. Books three and four were cushy, but I better get a ton for book 5. Writing is not publishing. Publishing is a business that turns my heart and soul into a product that I expect to get paid handsomely for.

  16. Former foster kid mentality applied to my creative efforts from the get go. Hand me downs? Don’t get me started. Life is a hand me down and I am glad of it. I owe myself a writing life and that is the gift I’m giving.

  17. Argh. I know this is true but I squirm every time I hear it. I need to get a more rewarding, long-term day job.

  18. Write on.
    Recently I applied for a job at the post office, part time, filling in on weekends, a way to make a little extra dough for gas, guitar strings, groceries, etc. Job is so easy a monkey could do it, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble–sorting mail, some paperwork, dealing with the public and handing back a buck twenty when someone hands me a 10 spot for 20 stamps. But here’s the rub: drug test. Now, I’m pretty clean, no longer do what I used to do, but occasionally a friend will stop by with guitar and doobie and we’ll play some music and I’ll have a hit (that’s all it takes with today’s high potency weed) and soon the playing is more fluid, fun and crazy. Or late at night when everyone’s asleep and I feel like kicking back before going to bed… You get the picture; a weekend warrior am I. Now I’m being asked to give up that little bit of freedom for 9 bucks an hour. Bullshit is the word that comes to mind. What doesn’t castrate me could still give me an unnecessary trim. I’ll keep writing and probably never make much money, strumming the chords to “Illegal Smile” every now and then.

    • And yet people STILL ask me why I never go anywhere without a small flask of clean urine!

      • I’d get a larger flask if I were you.

      • Tara, that’s kinda funny.

        Your comment that I should get a larger flask, reminded me of one of my ex-wife’s most common post-coital laments.

        I’m trying to think of the exact words that she’d use. What were they?

        Oh yeah, now I remember….

        “Don’t get just a quart of milk, get a half gallon.”

        She did drink a lot of milk. Absolutely loved it.

        As for me … well, let’s just say that I like a bit of half n half in my coffee, but, other than that, I can pretty much take it or leave it.

        Oh, I’ll have the occasional bowl of cereal — it’s not that I’m lactose intolerant. Me? Are you kiddin’? No way!

        It’s just that I’m not one of those guys who can’t pass the dairy section without pausing and gazing longingly at the bottles and cartons. I feel sorry those bastards. I really do. Unfortunately, for them, nobody else seems to care or even notice.

        But, hey! I don’t owe them milk!

      • Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?

  19. I’m going to just take your word for it on this one. I have no idea, but so far it sounds like you know what you’re talking about. I like the fierce self-belief part. I actually feel a little better having read those two words, or three words made into two. Strange how it works, the reading that is.

  20. I couldn’t write if I ‘had’ to. Maybe I can’t anyway, but at least now it is fun. And, nowadays, faded olive danskins would be super cool.

  21. Yup, you’re (I’m?) turning into your (my?) mother when you hear yourself saying ,

    “Yeah, well guess what, life isn’t fair – get used to it..”


    • My mother always said to me “Life is full of inequities” and I said the same to my kids. My daughter was in junior high before someone finally asked “what’s an inequity?”

  22. As the former wearer of the budget garment known as GarAnimals, I would have loved olive Danskins.

    My thing with clothes is my think with books. Anachronistic. Wrong time, wrong place, ergo, lack of any deal that registers higher on the PW scale than “nice.” Oh, and speaking of that, wtf? Give us the inside scoop, Betsy, when someone actually reports “nice” as a deal, isn’t there a lot of snickering that goes on? I mean, nice could be $5.00, right?

  23. I considered myself lucky to find a publisher – not because there would be money involved, but because I’d have the opportunity to work with a professional editor. That was the draw.

    Little did I know I’d be assigned a copy editor who kept trying to insert a comma between non-coordinate adjectives, refused to accept the word past as a preposition, and feared any use of “that” with near-phobic intensity. The senior editor hacked through my manuscript at the last moment, making changes “for me” about which I was not consulted and with which I do not agree. I feel sick, impotent and furious. Today is publication day. I will spend it with a bottle of Immodium and a voice grown hoarse from screaming “Stet!” into the void.

    Will I stop writing? Hell no. Will I seek publication in the future? I’d need an answer: What’s in it for me?

  24. Apparently, any pursuit that does not involve banking, law and the internet has a high chance of low pay. Throw in all the DIY shows and it’s a wonder anyone takes the creative process seriously! Even the NEA published a report on the issue of artists (and that term included writers, too) holding multiple, low-paying jobs in order to Create (I think the average was 3 PT jobs). A sobering dose of reality that never-the-less won’t deter me – nor all the other people replying – from the written word.

    Oh and thanks for the hand-me-down flash back! In the mid 1960s, I wore 1950s-era dresses until I finally grew taller than my older cousin. It’s a wonder I had any childhood friends!

  25. I entered an MFA program because I thought it’d give me the structure to crank out that literary bestseller I was put on the planet to write. I could do it myself but throwing money at the goal would motivate me to follow through. I came out three years later clutching a 70-page thesis which contained six short stories, not one of which was worth the postage it would take to send them to the dinkiest of literary journals. What the MFA bought me was a reality check. Hemingway was right. You’re not even writing until you’ve put a million words on the page. And even then, chances are you’re still way off the mark. Eight years after graduating and six years into a novel I slog at more days than not, I have the simplest of goals, to finish the book. Don’t even allow myself to think past reaching The End.

    • You are my new Hero.

      It takes a lot of guts to admit that an MFA isn’t worth the breathe it takes to enunciate “MFA”.

      And I type that as someone who had to go look up “enunciate” in the dictionary.

  26. Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand him? I can think of several writers who made a living writing — P. G. Wodehouse comes immediately to mind, Donald Westlake, Agatha Christie. Sue Grafton puts out a book a year almost; I don’t think she has a “job.” Not to mention loads of writers who used to sell short stories to the pulps and all those wonderful ladies’ magazines that used to regularly publish short stories. The more prolific ones made a decent living doing that. When I was younger, it seemed that most of the writers I liked made a living writing. Rex Stout, for pete’s sakes!

    Most of these writers didn’t have to waste a lot of time with blogs or Twitters or going on talk shows pumping up books to people who hadn’t really heard of them. They stayed home and wrote their stuff, and got royalty checks in the mail.

    “He was lamenting the fact that writers couldn’t make a living just writing anymore. ”

    I don’t see anything in that sentence that says he thinks writers today are owed a living or don’t have to work hard at their writing. He was referring to a time in the past when writers COULD make a living just writing. Hell, I lament it too!

    There are lots of reasons why we can’t/don’t make a living at it now, but that doesn’t mean we think we’re owed anything.

  27. My great-grandmother was a scrappy old bird who, while living to the age of 101, attended the funerals of all of her 14 children and her grandson (my father), all of whom died of natural causes.

    I didn’t think she would ever die, but one bright October afternoon, she was picking apples in her back yard, fell out of the tree, and broke her scrawny little neck.

    One of her favorite expressions was: “The older I get, the more everyone else can kiss my sweet ass.”

    • Was your great-grandmother the Queen Mother?

      Wait. Shouldn’t you be concentrating on your up-coming wedding??

      • She had slightly better teeth than the Queen Mum.

        But that isn’t saying much.

        Whatever help the apples provided her in the way of dental hygiene, the snuff snuffed out. It was a filthy habit she picked up in her contortionist days.

  28. I just finished writing page 178 of my third and final draft of my first novel. When it’s complete in June, I’ll have spent three-and-half years working on it for a minimum of six hours a day. When it sells, I expect to quit my day job. Then I’m going to pay the dentist to fill the cavity in my molar. In fact, I’m going to take my dog to the dog dentist and get her teeth cleaned.

  29. No one is ‘owed’ a living

  30. Sorry, Betsy. I’m with the other guy on this one. It was an innocent, plaintive lament. Why launch into him? You’re the bitter one here, not him.

  31. Yup, it takes a L – O – N – G time. I just wrote on my
    blog about that. For me, it was finding the story that
    is good for me, and good for you, too. 28 years later,
    I do believe I’ve got it.

    I don’t think you’re owed anything for anything. Work hard, do what you’ve come to do, and please, please, please STOP FUCKING COMPLAINING.


  32. I say Jonathan Saffron Five.

    You want to take away our resentment too? Haven’t we given the industry enough already? Go away. Think about the pieties you’re pronouncing: we just have to lick ourselves up by the bootheels etc etc. Screw that. Money falls into certain people’s laps. It doesn’t others. There is no greater moral accomplishment by the people in the first group. This is the American myth: hard work. Hard work has nothing to do with it. The people who work hardest in this country have the least: twas ever thus. You think Mr. Saffron Quintet worked harder on his first novel than fifteen other authors I could name? I don’t think so. Hard work my ass.

  33. i say…

    you can make a living putting words behind one another. they may not be the words you want to play with at the time; but, whatever words they are, they will be more fun to mine than coal.

    and fair is an adjective for skin, not work, and especially not life.

    besides, i dismiss anyone who says somebody can’t do something. self-defeatism is boring.

  34. “As far as I can tell, it’s a long distance race, it takes stamina and creative drive and fierce self-belief.”

    That’s it.

  35. This is what I say while still feeling the heartburn from your last post: how can you possibly talk about fierce self-belief when just a few days ago you sword licked an entire GENRE of writing with a slash of your pen?
    Fierce self-belief and stamina coincide with sitting down at the writing desk with (gasp!) earnestness, the very thing that many of you took pleasure in mocking just a few days ago. Besty says “Writers need fierce self-belief” and you agree. Betsy says “Poetry sucks” and you agree. There is a point where these two statements contradict each other- do you see it?
    I used to believe that writers are some of the more open minded members of society. Thanks for the education.

  36. This is embarrassing.

    How white am I?

    I thought “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” was a Rolling Stones song.

    I’ve gotta get out more.

  37. A whining writer at a university panel. Wow. Cry me a river, I live in the desert, we could use the water. And I’ve done my share and more of the wishing that won’t make it so, so my slate, she ain’t so clean. All of us who want to write are lucky if and when we get to.

    OT, but Betsy, I was on my honeymoon last week and had brought along a couple books to while away the spare odd hours that could be spent a-reading (my new wife and me, well, we been together nine years now, so it’s not like we don’t know how we one another cook, and we went by train, halfway across the land and back again, taking our time). One of the books was immaterial in this context, while the other was Animals Make Us Human, which I was pleased to find you had helped midwife into this world. Congratulations on assisting in that writerly project, and you got paid for your labors, too!

  38. ah. writerly complaints are never ending. you know what gets on my tits? complacency. sitting in a writer group and reading that same fucking chapter from last year with no changes incorporated from previous critique(s). reading a piece of writing in which the writer expressly asked “is this POV working or should I tell the story from the secondary character’s POV?” and then acting pissed off when 9 out of 9 readers responded with “use the secondary character”. ffs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: