On the Art of Making a Living as a Writer

“I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money. There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million! We don’t have any standards in that way, and we probably never will. There will always be such a wide range of what writers are paid, but at least we could give each other information.” Cherryl Strayed in conversation with Manjula Martin, published in Scratch

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a LivingScratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin (founder of now-closed Scratch Magazine), presents a mix of interviews and essays on the act of trying (sometimes succeeding) to make money as a writer. These perspectives come from writers of varying backgrounds, from novelists and poets to news and creative nonfiction writers, to filmmakers. A number of writers I’m fond of are included in this book — such as Austin Kleon, Malinda Lo, Roxane Gay, and Daniel José Older — as well as many writers whose work is new to me.

Readers of Scratch will not find a step-by-step guide on how to “make it” as a writer. This collection of essays never reaches a consensus, except perhaps to say that the pathways to making a living as a writer are multitudinous and have not all been discovered yet. Lacking any one clear answer, the reader instead of directives, the reader is given personal journeys (sometimes deeply so). It’s not a matter of “this is how you should do it,” but rather “this is how I am doing it”.

In “Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist,” for example, Porochista Khakpour shares her experience of mixed emotions, when she joyfully received the news that her first book would be published at the same time she had to face personal tragedy and loss. There’s a lot of coping involved (sometimes by doing crank calls), coping with the loss and coping with the stress of her new book. Her success is not quite what she imagined, as she related being utterly dejected when she runs out of money while on her book tour. “I am learning everything over again,” she writes. “I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist — suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

Kiese Laymon’s essay “You are the Second Person” relates (in second-person POV) a harrowing experience of following an editor to a new publishing house, only to have the editor put him through revision after revision. It becomes clear they editor has no sense of Laymon’s vision, but that does stop the experience from pushing him into questioning himself as a writer. He pulls through the experience, though and ultimately publishes his YA novel, Long Division — “a post-Katrina, Afrofuturist, time-travelerish, black southern love story filled with metafiction, adventure, and mystery” which sounds like an awesome book to me.

Nabakov once said, “I write for my pleasure, but publish for money.” In “Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve,” J. Robert Lennon explores the meaning of “commerce” and parses out the concept behind the Nabakov quote, noting that writing is often neither pleasurable nor earns much money. He presents the idea that art and commerce are interconnected, “Our commerce with the world is not corollary to our art. It is, rather a vital component of our art, perhaps our art’s reason for being. If we regard writing as an act of empathy that presupposes and celebrates the existence of other people, then its commerce with humanity must represent its consummation.” In other words, he explains, while money provides us with food and shelter, it isn’t the only currency. Rather, “the real currency of literary commerce is love.”

In “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin looks at all the jobs she did while also writing, all the work she imagined she’ll leave behind when she became a full-time artist. “Did I really believe I would be a best-selling author with a sweet SoHo loft by age twenty-one? No, but I didn’t believe I wouldn’t be,” she writes (I feeling I fully relate, too). But most writers have to have day jobs, other work they do when they are not writing. She also explores the class issues involved in having a “day job”. Over time, she notes, her work at the day job became more valuable. She explains, “Work is work, even when we call it art, or love, or culture, and even when it’s not. I want my work to be valued, as much and as often as possible, regardless of which clock I’m punching.

Daniel José Older addresses “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing.” He explains that the publishing industry often blames the market for the lack of diversity, but fails to take responsibility for the ways it manipulates the market to its own ends, pouring money into already marketable authors. Addressing diversity needs to come not just from writers, but from every level of the business — agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, filmmakers (in adaptations) all need to participate in the process. Diversity provides new perspectives, writing that it not just geared toward one view point. He writes, “We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color: it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet or the majority-white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression, and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through.”

In “The If of It: Lunatic Independence in Nine Easy Steps,” writer and filmmaker Laura Goode presents a story about the audacity of assuming one can write and make a movie. Filmmaking is an especially challenging business in my mind, as it requires pulling together significant resources, in terms of money, people, locations, and all the details that go into making a film come together. She writes, “I feel compelled here to state the obvious: There is nothing about making an independent film that is sustainable financially or physically. Anyone possessed of logic or reason would wisely run in the opposite direction.” Goode partnered with Meera Menon to cowrite Farah Goes Bang. The movie (starring Nikohl Boosheri, who was amazing in the critically acclaimed movie Circumstance) is a road-trip comedy about Farah Mahtab, a woman in her twenties who tries to lose her virginity while campaigning across America for presidential candidate. (I will definitely be tracking this one down.) Goode acted as a producer on the film and Menon directed. Together, they drew from the resources they had available in terms of friend and community to make the movie possible — all of which takes a unique level of confidence in order to convince people you’re worth investing time and money in.

Farah Goes Bang
Still shot from Farah Goes Bang.

As a writer still in the “trying to make it” stage, it would be nice to know how to achieve the vision I have in my head of earning my living from the words I put on the page. The compilation of stories in this book show that “making it” changes definition based on the writer, and that the work of “making it” never seems to end. Even writers who achieve the kind of success others dream about find themselves reaching for new goal posts they may never reach in terms of respect and/or skill.

I enjoyed reading the vast majority of essays and interviews within this anthology. Only one (or maybe two) presented a perspective that I outright disagreed with, although that doesn’t mean their words might not be valuable to a different reader. In the end, I am neither encouraged nor discouraged by the stories presented. In a way, they reasserted what I knew, that being a writer takes continual persistence to continue moving forward, putting words on the page, and pursuing your dream.