The Struggle Is Real; Or, False Author Narratives
By Michael Nye
Recently, writer Ann Bauer published an essay on Salon that caught the attention of the literary world. In her piece, Bauer discussed one of the elements of being a writer that is often underreported: how a writer makes enough money in order to write and, specifically, being a writer who is financially supported by a wealthy spouse, family, or trust fund. Bauer writes about two specific instances where a writer, in front of a wide audience, spouts the oft-told tale that to be a writer one has to work really hard in Dickensian poverty before making it big time through sheer drive and determination.
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed. I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.
One of my friends who posted this essay on Facebook, the writer Victoria Barrett, asked other writers to post their How in a public forum. She asked a series of questions: “how do you fund your writing life? Do you struggle and make it look easy? Is it fairly easy, financially? Did your parents pay for your Ivy education, your car, the down payment on your house? What’s your writerly money story, crass or not?” She poster her own answer here.
So here goes:
I fund my writing life by working full-time, which, if you’re reading this on the Missouri Review website, you probably already know. My position is nine-to-five, and mostly administrative; I’m in front of a computer most of the day and there is no free time to pull up a Word.doc of my novel and work on it. For the past ten years, I’ve worked in academia, first as an adjunct, earning anywhere from $2500 to $4000 per class at various universities in St. Louis (Lindenwood, Missouri-St. Louis, and Washington University). During this time, I also tended bar and worked twelve (official) hours at River Styx, the latter of which is where I was able to get health insurance. Also, during the summer, I was the director of the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University. All told, this combination of jobs earned me around 35K per year.
I don’t think I give the impression that my life is easy, nor do I think I give the impression that life is overly hard. That’s something that would best be asked of my students, the people that see me day-to-day these last five years since I’ve joined the Missouri Review. I wear a suit to work; I drive a 2002 Civic. Everyone has complaints about their monthly finances, but it’s accurate to say that, no, I don’t have serious money problems. I graduated from a state university through a combination of academic scholarships and my grandfather’s support. I paid my own way through graduate school. I’m unmarried and don’t have children. There is more to it than this, and even writing this paragraph, I have to resist the urge to through in caveats – wait, it was really hard because of This and This and This and That! –but it should be pretty clear: while every individual has a tale of woe somewhere in his/her past, I was a white middle class boy who is now a white middle-class man.
Thinking about Victoria’s post, I think back to a couple of years ago when I ruptured my Achilles. This was 2011. I was on crutches for months, went through rehab, and was unable to run for almost six months. All of it was pretty awful. But, I had health insurance. I paid almost nothing out of pocket for the diagnosis, surgery, and rehabilitation. That’s a privilege most Americans, let alone writers, don’t have.
I am very, very fortunate.
Last weekend, writer Fred Venturini discussed how he got published in an essay on Medium. His response? Luck. But, when he wrote about it in more detail, it was a bit more complicated. He explained how he had been writing for years, and that he found time around his life – Fred works full-time, and he and his wife have a toddler – to get the work done.
I have been asked in interviews before how I find the time to write. I always found that question strange, simply because to me, it sounds like you’re asking someone “How do you find the time to play video games? Or hunt? Or scrapbook? Or shop?” We make time for the things we love to do; we have to find time for the stuff we don’t.
Ann Bauer and Victoria Barrett are right: the story of being up before dawn is the story I prefer to tell. It’s a true story, just as Fred’s story is a true story … but it’s an incomplete story. And when we intentionally misrepresent our writer income, when we buy into this “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative, we end up putting a generation of writers and artists into a spiral of debt and servitude. With transparency, with honesty about who we are and how we work, that is something we should be able to help our students, our readers, and our audience avoid for themselves and understand all the better.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye