‘Like most other American systems and professions, delusions around meritocracy continue to pervade the writing world. ‘ Illustration: Julien Posture/The Guardian
There is nothing more sustaining to long-term creative work than time and space – and these things cost money
Let’s start with me: I’m not sure how or if I’d still be a writer without the help of other people’s money. I have zero undergrad debt. Of my three years of grad school, two of them were funded through a teaching fellowship; my parents helped pay for the first. The last two years my stipend barely covered the childcare I needed to travel uptown three days a week to teach and go to class and my husband’s job is what kept us afloat.
I got connections from that program. I got my agent through the recommendation of a professor. Nearly every year since I graduated from that program, I have been employed by them. The thing I’m most sure I had though, that was a direct result of my extraordinary privilege, is the blindness with which I bounded toward this profession, the not knowing, because I had never felt, until I was a grownup, the very real and bone-deep fear of not knowing how you’ll live from month to month. Other versions of this story that I know from other people: a down payment from a grandpa on a brownstone; monthly parental stipends; a partner who works at a startup; a partner who’s a corporate lawyer; a wealthy former boss who got attached and agreed to pay their grad school off.
Once, before a debut novelist panel geared specifically to aspiring writers, one of the novelists with whom I was set to speak mentioned to me that they’d hired a private publicist to promote their book. They told me it cost nearly their whole advance but was worth it, they said, because this private publicist got them on a widely watched talkshow. During this panel, this writer mentioned to the crowd at one point that they “wrote and taught exclusively”, and I kept my eyes on my hands folded in my lap. I knew this writer did much of the same teaching I did, gig work, often for between $1,500-$3,000 for a six to eight-week course; nowhere near enough to sustain one’s self in New York. I knew their whole advance was gone, and that, if the publicist did pay off, it would be months before they might accrue returns.
I did not know what this writer, who I thought was single, paid in rent, or all the other ways that they might have been able to cut corners, that I, a mother of two, could not cut, but even then, it felt impossible to me that this writer was sustaining themselves in any legitimate way without some outside help. I thought, maybe, when they said “write” they might be including copywriting or tech, as some others that I know support themselves.
I knew all these aspiring writers, though, heard this person say this and assumed that there was a way to make a living as a writer, that they thought this person was “making it” in ways they hoped one day to be. I don’t know this writer and don’t know how, actually, they lived. What I do know is, when the panel was over, I wanted to take the microphone back and say loudly to the students that what this writer said was, at least in part, a lie.
On Instagram and Twitter there are writers who “write full time” also. They post pictures of their desk or their pens and talk about “process”. Maybe, two years ago, they sold a quiet literary novel to an independent press. For my students, for all the people I see out there, trying to break in or through and watching, envious, I want to attach to these statements and these Instagram posts, a caveat that says the writing isn’t what is keeping this person safe and clothed and fed.
According to a 2018 Author’s Guild Study the median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017, down from $10,500 in 2009; while the median income for all published authors based solely on book-related activities went from $3,900 to $3,100, down 21%. Roughly 25% of authors earned $0 in income in 2017.
I would argue that there is nothing more sustaining to long-term creative work than time and space – these things cost money – and the fact that some people have access to it for reasons that are often outside of their control continues to create an ecosystem in which the tenor of the voices that we hear from most often remains similar. It is no wonder, I say often to students, that so much of the canon is about rich white people. Who else, after all, has the time and space to finish a book. Who else, after all, as the book is coming out, has the time and space and money to promote and publicize that book?The median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017
There are ramifications, I think, of no one mentioning the source of this freedom when they have it. There is the perpetuation of an illusion that makes an unsustainable life choice appear sustainable, that makes the specific achievements of particular individuals seem more remunerative than they actually are. There is the feeling that the choices that we’ve made outside of writing: who we married, whether or not we had children, the families we were born to, will forever hinder our ability to make good work.
When students ask me for advice with regard to how to “make it as a writer”, I tell them to get a job that also gives them time and space somehow to write; I tell them find a job that, if they still have it 10 years from now, it wouldn’t make them sad. I worry often that they think this means I don’t think their work is worthy; that I don’t believe they’ll make it in the way that they imagine making it, but this advice is me trying help them sustain themselves enough to make the work I know they can.
Like most other American systems and professions, delusions around meritocracy continue to pervade the writing world. Those of us who are not bolstered by outside sources, those of us who are but still struggle, and say it out loud, often run the risk of seeming whiny or ungrateful; maybe we worry we will just be thought not good enough. To be a writer is a choice, after all, and I continue to make it. But perpetuating the delusion that the choice is not impossibly risky, precarity-inducing, only hurts the participants’ ability to reconsider the various shapes their lives might take in service of sustaining it and them.
It allows a system that cannot sustain most of the producers of its products to continue to pretend it can.
- Lynn Steger Strong is the author of the novel Want, to be released in July 2020