The writing online community has been abuzz with this recent article from Salon wherein the author discusses how a lot of writers are able to write full-time primarily because they have an outside source of financial assistance, whether that be from their spouses or their families. I love this article because I too have seen allusions to working hard and giving up other parts of your life is enough to make writing “just work.” I do think being realistic about what it takes to make a living as a writer is something we could use more of, and I think it’s harmful when young writers compare themselves with others without fully seeing their situation.
The Salon article prompted a significant number of responses, both on social media and in other venues. Two of the more interesting ones are over at Brevity.
The first, “A Word from My Sponsor” by Allison Williams (Brevity‘s social media editor) describes the author’s experiences with putting potential partners’ ability to financially support her at the top of her priorities in choosing. The article is a little unclear if she knew she was going to need that support or if it was in case of a difficult stretch. Unusual disclosure, but disclosure all the same, so I’m a fan. I was also a huge fan of a comment in response, wherein a reader remembers an “entire story collection I was directed to read in my program contained not one main character with a job.” Other comments discuss the guilt of not contributing equally financially in a relationship.
Brevity‘s managing editor then wrote a response to both pieces in which she generally agreed with the premise of disclosure but worried about the implied advice that writers should seek out partners who can financially support them. Despite being against seeking out financial support, she does make the case for at least ensuring your partner is going to able and willing to contribute equally. She cautions against sponsorship with strings and gives a success story of someone who is able to support themselves while writing. She also points out that she has only heard of women being sponsored by men – all commenters to both Brevity pieces at the moment are women, as well.
I’ll be an exception.
There’s a lot of different factors coming into play here: gender roles/dynamics, society’s ideas/images of writers/artists, guilt over uneven relationships versus not being able to pay the bills (and even more broadly emotional health versus meeting basic/nonbasic needs). It’s kind of weird that we’ve shifted to this mentality that hard work and the occasional corporate selling-out is enough; so many famous writers of history were sponsored or born into wealth (or maybe it’s not a shift at all, maybe public perception has always been at odds with the reality). I’ve openly disclosed the fact that my wife makes significantly more money than I do. We could get by if we both made my income, but our lives would be much, much different. I’ve written about overcoming the guilt of our uneven financial arrangement: part 1, part 2. Really, though, this question of finances touches way more than relationships. From here we can jump to the whole paying/nonpaying publication deal, the current nonpermanent faculty explosion, the expectation that being a good writer means that you’re also good at: teaching, editing, fundraising, and so on. It’s a tricky world out there to think about money and writing.
My two cents in the matter is that yes, we need more disclosure, because unrealistic expectations hurt everyone and only help a select few seem more sympathetic. But I also don’t think we should spend much time or energy looking at what the ideal situation/relationship for a writer should be. That doesn’t seem like a very useful discussion. Beyond that, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel guilty over publishing things I’m not paid for, because that perpetuates the practice. Sometimes I’m thankful my MFA program makes me teach. Sometimes I feel guilt over the summer writing programs I attended, and sometimes I feel guilt that I don’t feel like I can apply for them this year (this is like double guilt: I don’t feel like I can responsibly spend the money on them and I simultaneously don’t feel like I can responsibly apply for the financial aid to attend). Sometimes I wonder what would happen if my wife woke up one day and decided she hated her current career path and wanted to switch to something less lucrative and with a long start up time, just like I did six years ago.
Today is also Groundhog’s Day, which means we should celebrate that crossover of Borges-ish fiction with Bill Murray deadpan: Groundhog’s Day.
Finally, check out an essay I wrote that was born out of a frustration with the perpetual division between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction: “How to Write Like George R. R. Martin“