How to Survive as a Writer

A post is brewing in my mind that would develop my last post about intuition and craft (or should that be intuition v. craft?) I need another few days to gestate it, so for now I’ll just direct you to this essay about writing and money by Keith Gessen from n+1 magazine, the literary publication where he is an editor and co-founder. These are uncertain economic times, and Gesson has some clear-eyed and sobering observations on the compromises that writers have to make to get by. He says:

There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth. I have tried the first three. Each has its costs.

I think this is as true in 2008 (year of posting) as it was in 2006. Hell, I think it was true in 1906 too, and is likely to hold in the future, indefinitely.

A lot of the people I work with, either as a coach, editor or teacher, state that it is their aim to make a living as a writer.

It’s not my job to squash anybody’s dream, or state in any definitive way what is or is not possible, but I also know what it looks like out there for us creative types. Sometimes I try to gently manage people’s expectations. I guess it all depends on what you mean: the broader your definitions of “making a living” and “writing,” the more success you are likely to have. One of my coaching clients had just such an aspiration, and it turns out that her definitions were pretty broad. Soon after we started working together she landed a high-paying corporate job which uses her writing skills about 80 per cent of the time and allowed her to pay off her debt, accumulated through the years of following the “starving artists” model. A double whammy, which was exactly what she needed.

That wouldn’t satisfy everyone, of course. The tighter your definition of writing, the tougher it is to make a living at it. There are a few lucky souls in this world who write only what they want to write and nothing else, and they still earn enough money to get by. That’s the dream for most people — but I think it probably carries it’s own burden. All that pressure on the art, all those expectations, the business machine that would inevitably grow up around you and need managing.

It’s perhaps best, as my husband says, to just grow to love rice and beans.

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