How to Live as a Writer (From Someone who Doesn’t Know How to Live as a Writer)

By Aaron Lawhon

I feel jealous when I read about the early Twentieth Century golden age of American fiction. Writers like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald just had to sell three or four short stories to Harpers, Vogue or to the hundreds of other magazines that published fiction, and they made enough money to keep boozing around Paris for another year. Back then, the short story was the money truck. The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises sold alright and received high acclaim, but the short stories paid the bills. It wasn’t just the big names cashing in, either. Pretty much anyone who published could expect a reasonable payment. Not so, anymore. The vast majority of journals pay their contributors nothing, and those that do pay don’t offer anything you could call a livable income. This isn’t exploitation. Most journals don’t have the money. As an editor, I’m not getting paid, either. We do this out of love and solidarity, to promote the work of authors we enjoy, in spite of an indifferent market. But how do you live as a writer and earn a paycheck?

I don’t know. You would think, in an age where more text is consumed and more words are read than at any other time in history, writers would be in demand. You would think there would be some online equivalent of the short story money truck, where a writer could sell a few articles to pay the bills while she works on her novel, short stories or poetry. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Unless you’re reading something from a major news outlet, the author who produced the article you are sharing, emailing and lol-ing over most likely received little or no payment for it. As writers, we’re the stepped-on proletariat of the information age, producing all of the content while others rake in the profit. I’m not sure what to make of all that, and there could be something I’m missing (if so, please tell me), but from where I stand—in my ignorance and limited experience—here are some of the options available to those who would like to live a life dedicated to writing.

Teach

You hear this one most frequently, especially for those of us who have decided to go the MFA route. Get yourself into a decent grad program, hone your craft, snag that terminal degree, and then impart your accumulated wisdom to future generations while pursuing your publishing career. It sounds like a straight shot. Reality is more complicated. To secure a tenure tracked faculty position—one that pays a decent income—you need to already have had some success in the field, e.g. a book deal with copies sold. The faculty position comes as an after dinner cocktail to compliment the rib eye of success. Without a book deal, you’ll be stuck adjuncting.

Most colleges and universities pay adjuncts around $3,000 per course. If you teach a full course load, four classes a semester, both Spring and Fall semesters, you can expect an annual income of $24,000, out of which you must pay down your student debt. Also, nothing guarantees you a full course load. You could teach four classes one semester, and then, due to budget cuts or lower enrolment, only be offered one or two classes the next. You’ll still have to wait tables or whatever, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write. On the up side, if you’re cool with your students, one of them might put in a good word for you with her hiring manager.

Sign a Major Book Deal

I know writers who have big-time book deals. They’ve got international distribution, translation rights—the whole shebang. I’ve tried to ask how all of that works. There seems to be some dark secret at the core of it. They’ll tell me all about writing routines and craft tips, and about book signings and reading tours, but when I press for information on finding an agent and getting a manuscript to a publisher, they trail off into a mysterious silence. I assume it works like this: due to some unknowable combination of factors, you catch the attention of The All-Seeing Eye. Once The Eye marks you as Chosen, two large men in suits apprehend you on the street, place a chloroform-soaked bag over your head, and abduct you into a black sedan. You wake up in a dark, damp basement in Manhattan, surrounded by the hooded priests of Random House, Knopf, Penguin…&c. After an initiation ritual of unspeakable horror and depravity, you go on NPR. From then on, it’s all wine bars and release parties. No one can know the will of The All-Seeing Eye, but it might help to make yourself as abductable as possible. I spend a lot of time walking alone at night.

Technical Writing

Earlier this year, I lived for a few months in San Francisco—the squirming heart of Silicon Valley and the driving engine behind the current startup/tech boom. Since startups don’t build or produce anything, these companies don’t have to deal with material or production costs, which leaves them with buckets of money to dump all over the crisp, crystal-eyed young men who swarm to the city from across the nation. They are, invariably, young men. The sexist and ageist stereotypes of tech culture hold true. These young men cause some problems for San Francisco. When you have an endless supply of twenty-four year olds who don’t blink at dropping $3k a month on a tiny, one bedroom apartment, everyone else gets priced out town. They’ve turned the city into a playground for money-covered boys, and no one else can afford to live there. But never mind all of that. I may not know anything about programming, but I am young. I am a boy. I’m educated, and can write clear, compelling prose. That ought to land me, at the very least, a back seat on the company hovercraft, right?

I met with Spencer, a techie friend from college, who had recently moved to town. He assured me that I could get in as a technical writer, no problem, and that the job was “super easy.” I showed him my resume. He took out a red pen. There was no reason to list my years of restaurant management. Didn’t that show leadership? No, it did not. I also shouldn’t mention the theater company I’d co-founded. That didn’t attest to my creativity and organizational skills? Nope. Didn’t the bedroom record label I helped start demonstrate my independent, entrepreneurial spirit? Uh-uh. But my list of literary publications and awards—I should leave that in, to show that I can write, shouldn’t I? Unimportant. Soon, my resume was nothing but a piece of paper with my name on it.

That was okay, Spencer insisted. All I needed to know was html, xtml, and several other four consonant combinations. I sat and blinked. He said it would take me an hour to learn. “Nesting” was all I really needed to know. I took it that “nesting,” in this context, was not a phase in a long-term lesbian relationship. I sat and blinked some more. I thanked him and headed back to the hostel. I looked up some programing tutorials on the web. After staring at the screen for four hours, my eyes glazed over. I wrote “nesting” across the blank page that had been my resume, and threw it away.

Play Young Bohemian

If you happen to be young, I highly recommend playing Young Bohemian. Move to a hip city, like Brooklyn, Portland or Austin, where lack of professional ambition is not only acceptable, but sexy. Stay in cheap punk squats and co-ops to reduce your cost of living. Work as few hours a week as you can. You still won’t be paid to write, but you will have time to do it. Go to parties and shows with other people who play Young Bohemian. Share your work with them, and live the romance of youth.

Of course, Young Bohemian has an expiration date. You can only play for fifteen years or so, before you become a Middle-Aged Bohemian. However hip, with-it and legit someone might be, a Middle-Aged Bohemian always comes across as somewhat sad, desperate and grasping. The forty year old at the loft party makes folks uncomfortable. Younger people imagine their parents hanging out and getting stoned with twenty year olds, and that’s just weird. Those who persist at playing Middle-Aged Bohemian can still find redemption in old age. The thought of Grandma hanging out and partying with youngsters isn’t creepy—it’s fun and adorable. Everybody loves an Old Bohemian, but you have to endure thirty years of middle-aged wasteland to get there.

Sell Lifesaving Plasma

Did you know you have liquid gold flowing through your veins? Right there, between all the cells, platelets and red stuff, you’ve got golden, lifesaving plasma. If you donate twice a week, you can make up to $270 a month. If you’re playing Young Bohemian and living in a squat, that could cover your rent and your bills. It’s a pretty good deal, if you don’t mind having track marks and looking like a junky. The plasma bank pays according to your weight, but at the place I go, they don’t make you take off your shoes or coat before you step on the scale. If you’re just below the cusp of a higher paying weight class, you could probably load your coat pockets with heavy rocks or something to make that extra dough.

Marry Well

All things considered, marrying well is probably the best way to live as a writer. To pull this one off, you’ll need to play the genius card. Remember, in spite of what anyone says, whatever failures and rejections you endure, you are a genius. By supporting a bona fide, uncompromised genius such as yourself, your spouse is providing an immeasurable service to the world. You may want to act a little aloof, mysterious or moody. Really play up the genius thing. If you are a straight woman or a gay man, try roping one of those Silicon Valley boys. A funny thing about tech boys—even though they live for their jobs and make more money than they know how to spend, they still like to think of themselves as Young Bohemians. Marrying and supporting an actual struggling writer will help legitimize those Bohemian fantasies. Everybody wins. But in any case, keep looking. I like to believe that well connected, financially strong true love exists for everyone who keeps an open heart. And to any well-to-do ladies out there looking to make a major contribution to American letters—I am single and available.

***

A. D. Lawhon studied English at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was awarded a few nifty prizes and fellowships for his fiction. He’s also, occasionally, an actor and a musician. He’s a pretty good chef, too. He doesn’t want to be a chef, but a boy has to make a living somehow.

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