Email Conversations with a Writer Friend
New York, NY
I’d noticed one writer friend constantly complaining about money. On stage, in private, whenever conversations about her work came up, one of her responses would be “Yeah, well, I ain’t got no money.” Her disgruntledness made me uncomfortable. I’ll have to excavate (as another friend says when she has an unwarranted reaction to something) why someone else’s complaint about money would become a concern for me. Perhaps part of my excavation is having a discussion with her about it. We started a conversation about (not) making money from your art over email. It’s kind of funny how strongly I feel about the issue because I’m NOT making a living from my work. I have enough experience to have an opinion, but not enough to say, “It worked for me!” I think I’ll call my missives, “Preaching from the Middle.”
On the Money Conversation
I’ve been all over the place on the money conversation. I’ve been a whiner: “Why can’t I make money from my work?” I’ve been a bitter complainer: “My work is good. She got her first book at 23, why doesn’t anybody want to take my book.” I’ve been jealous of others. But one day I stopped and realized: I don’t have a book. My writing might be “better,” my ideas might be “stronger,” but do I have a finished product? Do I have a strong product? Do I have a pathway for money to flow in?
We all know the saying: “Do what you love and the money will come.” I believe in that saying, but not blindly. Do what you love in your basement and the money will come? No. [Actually there is probably at least one artist who was “discovered” in her basement, but hey that’s not me.] Do anything you love, anything at all, and the money will show up, magically in your bank account without any participation from you? No. [Again, I bet there’s at least one artist somewhere, who was minding his business, when someone said, I heard from a friend of a friend that you have an amazing novel and I want to buy it and give you an advance on your next three books, but…] I believe in order to make money I have to have a pathway for the money to come in.
What is a pathway for income?
Any way that people can get to your product AND the money can get to you.
For example, I have a 400-page novel on my harddrive. That is NOT a pathway to income, because no one can get to it.
I have sent out this novel to a number of editors and agents, and they all say the structure doesn’t work for them and they tell me in detail why. I do NOT have a pathway to income.
My agent-person at the time told me I probably could get the book published at a small academic press because the writing is strong, but it wouldn’t serve my career. What would serve my career is to fix the structure and get it published by someone with a proven pathway to income.
What if I didn’t want to go the mainstream publisher route? Quite a few writers whose craft you may or may not respect, published their own work, but just having the books printed wasn’t enough. They put the books in the car and found their readers. They went out and searched for direct connections between themselves and people’s wallets.
I think one of the biggest realizations I had when I went to the Clarion West Writers Workshop is the distinction of developing readership. So you write an amazing book. So it’s on the shelves with a million other books. Who is going to buy it? Why are they going to buy it? How are you going to turn that product into a pathway for income? These practical, pointed questions can get you thinking clearly about how the money is going to get to you. I don’t doubt that the money is out there. I fully believe that we can all live off our art, but I believe it is up to us to find out how the money is going to get to us.
And it may be a lot of trail and error. I read somewhere that most millionaires have approximately three failed businesses in their past, many of them have filed for bankruptcy at least once. Do you know what that means? Earning money, like anything else is a process. Discovering how the funds are going to flow into your life is a process. It’s a process that everyone—artist or not—has to discover for themselves.
People who work a nine to five are trading their time for money. Some of us are blessed enough to love their work, so that earning a living becomes secondary. They are seriously committed to the tasks their jobs require them to do. But for most of us, we spend the majority of our waking hours doing something we don’t love to make money. In this society, we need the money to eat and drink and live.
Artists who refuse to work a conventional job are saying: “I am unwilling to trade my time for money. I want to make art. And I want to make a living from my art.” Cool. Sometimes it works quickly, very few times does it work without focused and protracted struggle. As a 9-5er, you know exactly what kind of salary you need to maintain your work. As an artist, if you are interested in actually making a living off of your work, you should know exactly how many articles you need to write, paintings you need to sell, poetry performances you need to do per month to make a living off of your work. You need to have a quantifiable goal for self support. Every human being does. I just got an email from a fellow writer he said: “Well, I’ve just decided I’m going to be living off my writing by the time I’m 40. I put together a schedule and worked backwards from there. That means I need to have a novel by August. Yikes.” Knowing this writer, I’m sure he factored in the possibility of sluggish response to his work, and factored in a slow-to-moderate build to prominence and more money for himself over time. He took his desire to make a living from his writing and made clear steps for himself so that he could make the commitments and work he needs to make sure that his goal can be met.
When we artists complain about not making money from our art, I think we are getting two things twisted.
1. Making money.
2. Making art.
Ideally, we as artists would like those two things to go together. And because we’d LIKE those two things to go together SO BADLY, we start confusing the two. We think the quality of our work should correspond with the quantity of our income. “My work is good, I should be getting paid,” I’ve thought bitterly. But skimming the bestseller lists will tell you immediately that making amazing art and making money do not necessarily go together. Money does not validate art. [In the mainstream mind it does, but really, there are many unpaid geniuses and many overpaid amateurs.] You have to decide for yourself what you’re about. Are you interested in using your craft to make money? Or art? Or both?
If you are a writer and you’re really committed to making money through writing, you’ll write what makes money. Thrillers dominate the bestseller lists, and romances are quiet income earners. Also nonfiction books can be a surer shot than fiction or poetry. There are many books that will tell you exactly what to write to make money, but every time I sit down to try and make myself write a “quick romance,” I stop. I can’t do it. I’d rather spend my time working on my own stuff, than writing romance novels. And I have to be honest with myself. I want to make money from my work, but not at any cost. I am not interested in USING my talents as a writer to make money. I am interested in making art, then I am interested in making money from that art.
I think a lot of artists who complain about making money, aren’t simply interested in making money, they’re interested in making art that makes money. So admit that. Understand that is your own criteria, accept that as your path, take responsibility for that choice. If you are an artist and you are about making art, you will be making art regardless of your income level. That’s exactly what I told my friend:
Whether or not you’re making money, THE ART HAS TO BE MADE. If you’re an artist THE ART HAS TO BE MADE. So it’s no use pouting about money every time you have a conversation about art. Because if you are about the art, that’s going to take precedence over the money. And if you’re about the money, that’s going to take precedence over the art. And no one way is RIGHT or BETTER or TRUER. But you need to know yourself. Know what you’re committed to. Know what you’re working towards. Make sure your actions are in line with your goals. Make sure the steps you are taking are conscious steps that will lead you to your desired outcome. When you sit down in front of that computer or canvas or piano, what are you committed to creating: money or art? Don’t get it twisted. Can art make money? Of course, all the time. Are you focused on making money? If you are, your actions and your creative process should be attuned to that. Are you focused on making art? If you are, your actions and your creative process should be attuned to that.
I’ve never tried to live off of my art full-time. Every day it gets harder and harder for me to commit to a 9-to-5. I had a period of time when I called myself “freelancing”. Most of the time, I was hanging out in my apartment, working on my own writing and visiting editors who didn’t have any work for me. In those few months I spent most of my savings. The income I earned from the few freelance jobs I did get was eaten up quickly because I wasn’t getting enough work. That was my first foray in supporting myself with my art. I now have a better idea of what it would take for me to hustle up enough writing assignments for me to support myself. If I tried to work as a full-time freelance writer again, I think I’d be a bit more successful, but I have no assurances that I could actually cover my expenses. Each time I engage in the hustle, I believe I’ll be sharper, meaner, more aggressive.
Trying to make a living from your work is like having your own small business. It’s HARD, but the rewards are infinite. What’s the word on small business? That most of them fail. That it is normal for them to take FIVE YEARS to start to turn a significant profit. You are a small business. You might have to take out loans. You might have to work consistently at building an audience for five years. You might have to try more than one pathway for income. You might have to fail a few times. You might have to face bankruptcy. You might have to be hungry. Is it worth it to you? My father would say: how bad you want it? How bad to you want to buck the system? The system defines the norms for gaining income. When we decide to swim against the stream, we have to develop muscles for a counter-mainstream lifestyle. I ask myself all the time: how bad do you want it?
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
No acceptances, no rejections this week.