In response to Ann Bauer’s Salon article, ” ‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from,” for which I am deeply grateful, what follows is a loose accounting of my life as a writer, with all the editorializing you’d expect.
The short answer is, I don’t. Writing, when I find time to do it, is auxiliary to the rest of my life. That’s to be expected, you might think, considering my (lack of) publication history. You’re right, generally, but I think you’ve got the horse before the cart. Were I able to afford more writing time and to have been born with more connections, publication might not have eluded me to date.
I started the novel I’m shopping now on a yellow pad on a clipboard in an armchair in a Starbucks in the lobby of a hotel in the fall of 2002. I had moved (back) across the country to take a job in arts admin that sounded fabulous, but, arts admin being what it is, was actually nightmarishly terrible. (I’m not kidding: the first pay period of my employment we were told that our checks might be a couple of days late because the company didn’t have the cash to make payroll.) The job required evenings and weekends with little to no comp time, and came with the expectation that you’ll martyr yourself to the cause that’s common in nonprofit work. So I took my clipboard to the nearest coffee shop on my lunch hour and wrote my ass off.
You’ve perhaps noticed that I’m not linking to the book’s Amazon listing or whatever. That’s because, despite writing my ass off, it’s not published. Some lunch hours I would just walk around the city and cry, feeling hopelessly trapped in a dead-end life. When I finally quit, I hustled to freelance to the best of my ability, working even longer hours to pay my rent. That summer, I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, cramming all my shit into a garage we rented at his apartment complex, to get by. In August, I started teaching full-time.
I started teaching full-time for less than $30K/year. The job entailed teaching at least 100 freshmen a semester how to write; because the institution where I teach has neither the most nor the least demanding admission standards, many of these students cannot complete a proper sentence, yet we’re expected to indoctrinate them into the fundamentals of rhetorical theory and teach them best research and research-writing practices. Including rough and final drafts, I read and respond in writing to around 3,000-5,000 pages of student writing per semester. Once, when I kept track of the word count of my responses, I cried all day, knowing how much that many words could accomplish in my foundering novel draft, and knowing that far fewer than half of my students would even read what I’d written to them. Universities being what they are, eleven years later, I still make less than $37K to do the same job, and do it very, very well. Combine that with the fact that our insurance coverage has doubled in premium cost and increased by a factor of 6.5 in deductible, and the salary starts to look pretty bad in the face of increased costs of living.
Unlike Bauer, I have a husband who’s neither a drag on my resources nor a wealthy sponsor. He has the same job as me. We’ve set ourselves up with a basic household budget that’s totally manageable if we didn’t have a lot of debt.
We have a lot of debt. It’s certainly true that I could have skipped the student loans for grad school and found a way to live on my incredibly meager stipend ($11K before tuition and insurance costs, which were not covered; partway through we got a raise. To $13K/year). This is the kind of shit decision you make when you were raised poor by a single parent who still, at nearly 70, doesn’t know how to manage money and you never learned the basics of financial literacy. You see a source of funds, you take it. I’ve made some less-than-ideal choices about credit cards, as well, though I’ve also used them to supplement that unincreasing salary on many, many occasions—for gas, groceries, you name it at the end of the month when the money runs out.
But the loans for undergrad weren’t avoidable unless I wanted to skip an education all together. As the first in my family to go to college, with no meaningful preparation or realistic expectations about how to live on my own or finance a college life, the student loans are substantial. (And yes, I’m too old for any of the student loan relief packages that have become available in recent years.)
Still, I wouldn’t trade my education, which cannot be valued in dollars and cents, no matter what the politicians say, for all the debt relief in the world. Without those loans for undergrad, I’d likely still be waiting tables sixty hours a week with no prospects of any kind. And yet, some days, I don’t think that would be so bad. I think about quitting teaching to find some supposedly less prestigious job all the time, since my demanding and unpleasant work load pays about the same as any number of supposedly less prestigious jobs without much by the way of additional benefit except that I get to do a good bit of my work from home.
The space I imagined I’d use for my writing life is devoted, during an active semester, to prep and grading. The brain space, too. I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time in the classroom at present, but the amount of time I devote to student work and communication outside the classroom dwarfs that waitressing schedule. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do all of it with this baby on my lap once my maternity leave ends.
You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned Engine Books yet. Thus far, Engine Books is funded in part by income generated from book sales and in part by personal investments from our family accounts, which, as you see above, aren’t exactly bottomless—the editors don’t get paid for our work. My current goal for Engine Books is simply for it to fund itself. Any kind of salary or profit for that editing work is far in the future. I’m taking certain steps to make that easier: shopping around for a new printer, getting better as time passes at predicting print runs, etc. But Engine Books certainly isn’t going to sponsor even the work I do for Engine Books, much less my writing life, any time soon.
What’s left, then? What’s left is that I could probably work 8-5, year-round, for a better salary than the one I make now, but I “buy” my summers off teaching with that insufficient salary. I don’t take those summers off from Engine Books, but without the teaching, I can grab a few hours on the porch every day with a notepad and some good ideas. I don’t have the kind of background or connections that pave an easy path to publication for those ideas, though, so I’m slogging along through the slushpiles.
With no debt, we could come close to being a single-income family; one of us could, at minimum, reduce our teaching load to half-time. I seem to know so many writers who’ve never needed to accrue mountains of debt to get educated, or to get by in the world. I’ll admit it plainly: I resent those people. They make the writing life look so simple, so straightforward. They give shitty advice like what Bauer reported witnessing in her article, or they condescend to you by saying things like “If you were more committed you’d make the time to write.” (Note to anyone who’s ever said that to another writer, especially if you’re a man and you were talking to a woman: please fuck off into eternity. You are a clueless idiot.)
At the same time, I know that my life has never been simple or easy, and that if it was, I probably wouldn’t be compelled to write, or worse, I would be writing boring fiction about vapid people spending money on stupid shit. I keep seeing books of that kind, or that don’t deal in any meaningful way with how people acquire the money they use to get by, on the primary displays at Barnes & Noble, reviewed in the Times, celebrated all over the place. This represents an impoverishment of our literature and, by extension, of our culture. This is a New York problem. As it becomes increasingly impossible to work in publishing without a trust fund to pay your rent, more and more of the books selected for publication by those trust funders either seem to avoid dealing with those ugly, proletariat issues of living expenses, or they grossly fetishize lives unlike their own (Midwestern, addicted, for example). I’m sad about that, and I keep hoping that it’s going to change, but it seems that the only site of change here is going to be the small press world, where people are paying out of their own pockets to publish books that mean something to them. It’s awfully hard to pay for plum shelf space for another writer’s book on a teaching salary, you know?