The title appears in gold on a giant fountain pen: Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Floating around the pen on the pale green cover are a swath of handwritten names—Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, Susan Orlean, Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Yiyun Li, Austin Kleon, Leslie Jamison. I get excited. I love a good anthology of writers on writing—the insights, the examples, the advice, the sheer generosity of writers. Some writings on writing—Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, for example—even rise to the level of the art they describe.
As it happened, I was waiting to hear back from my agent about my novel manuscript—which is akin to small-scale torture—when Scratch arrived in the mail. Right away I realized I had made a mistake. This was not a book about writing. This was a book about writing… and money.
For whatever reason, “writing and money” feels like a taboo topic. I belong to a network of women writers in the greater Bay Area who have traditionally published at least one book. The group started a decade back, and over time we formed a single rule about our meetings: no talking about publishing or marketing. Business could not be our topic. We discuss it plenty in our group email conversations, but when we get together in person, nothing sinks an afternoon like the angst, jealousy, despair and sheer impenetrability of the publishing world. Instead, we focus on craft and creativity, on our own writing.
Is it writing or money that lies at the heart of what we do? That is one of the question that Scratch asks.
The first essay is by Julia Fierro, who somehow is a Facebook friend of mine, though I don’t know her at all. She tells a good story about a creepy house with a haunted history and a basement full of shelves of books. Her childhood was saved by books, and books carry her through graduate school at Iowa, all the way to New York, where the promise of signing with a literary agent and a shopping a manuscript wilts. The book fails to sell, adjunct teaching is a grind, and Fierro needs to sell those beloved savior books to pay the rent. She ends up teaching writing privately—as I do—and building the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, “today home to over three thousand writers.” My own Book Writing World is today home to about forty-five writers, dedicated souls who fill all my classes, but…three thousand? Flipping to her bio, I am reminded that her first novel was published in 2014 and she has another forthcoming this year. I’m comparing my life with hers. I’m no longer young enough for these stories to represent possible futures for me; they are, instead, alternate versions of my life, alternate versions of my own successes and failures, pressing on that particular American nerve, “making it”—and that doesn’t refer to art!
Nina MacLaughlin’s next, with a piece about desperately needing money when her seasonal carpentry work failed to resurface after a winter break. During this period, she wrote a book review for free. She grapples with the emotions, the politics, and the practice of writing for free, for exposure. The Rumpus has just started offering a nominal compensation to its reviewers, but I was in essence reading this book in order to write a free review. “Did I feel angry about it?” Nina MacLaughlin writes. “I did not. I justified it easily: it was purpose, focus, work… Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a funhouse mirror reflection. One crucial aspect was missing.” But! Miraculously, this review inspires an editor to contact her, to encourage her to write a book. Their lunch meeting leads to connections with agents and eventually the sale of her book on proposal.
And so there is the shimmery recommendation, within my rightful reach: Put yourself out there! Write widely! Write as much as you can for places you admire! Who cares if you don’t get paid!…With luck and effort who knows what will happen!
Wouldn’t we all love that simple summing up?
But of course she rejects that story, even though she’s lived it. “Sometimes it works out that way. Mostly it doesn’t. And of course it matters to be paid. It matters a great deal.” She refuses the idea that opportunity and audience are forms of currency. Her own “rush and hustle” continue, following the publication of her book. “Sometimes I write for free; mostly I try not to.”
That nerve is throbbing now. I put the book down and read others and come back to it. The third piece is an interview with Cheryl Strayed. She talks numbers. It’s a little dirty and thrilling, reminds me of the time one of my teenaged friend asked another’s parents how much their fancy hotel room cost, as we stood admiring the view; a small uproar and dismissal ensued. Strayed’s is a pleasurable success story. She worked hard, she gave back before she had been given, she had her kids about the same age I had mine, and her husband, like my partner, makes films. I’m happy for her. I always appreciate her take-no-prisoners wisdom.
Then Manjula Martin, editor of the collection and interviewer of some of the better-known authors who appear on the cover but did not contribute essays, asks Strayed about “the press and stories about your life and career [that] seemed to imply you’re a late bloomer.” Strayed thinks that’s “hilarious.” She defends her “very smooth trajectory” from early desire to write, through majoring in English, through writing, graduate school, revision, and selling two books (the novel Torch and the runaway best-seller Wild). My own trajectory does not feel smooth and is missing the grand finale of hers.
Panic kicks in as I move on to Rachel Maddux rejecting the idea of “staying hungry”:
For the first time, I began to ask myself what I was writing toward. It’s a question I’m still trying to answer.
This first section of the book is called “Early Days.” Kiese Laymon’s piece is written with a short story’s flow and interpersonal conflict (between a writer and an editor). I’m excited to read Alexander Chee’s description of his writing career because I admire the way he’s created a platform via his non-fiction. But in each piece, there seems to be little generalizable advice. You say yes to some things and no to others, and if one of the yesses catches someone’s eye, another opportunity may arise. It’s pinball—with lights and bells, with an emphasis on timing over skill, on having access to the next ball when the one you’re playing disappears.
I do glean some ideas. Cari Luna talks about her first agent breaking up with her, and finding an agent who was a partner, a “good fit.” She shifts the terms of what one should consider paramount in such a relationship.
Caille Millner’s conversation with Richard Rodriguez offers the kinds of nuggets that keep a writer going: “The world opens itself up to those who are willing to be lonely… Neglect gave me the sense that the world was mine, because no one knew who I was or what I was doing. I felt the freedom to take risks.” And advice: “Here are a few other things younger writers don’t hear about this career: If you’re going to become a writer, you have to start introducing yourself to people. You have to know how to talk. People need to like you in this business, to remember you well.” Rodriguez also makes the stunning comment, “I believe that race is an erotic category; it’s the record of our parents’ lovemaking.”
Yiyun Li inspires because she’s hardworking and shuns social media. Talking to a young writer who tells her, “I just really want to get published,” she asks, “Why? Writing is not a race. What’s the hurry? And he said, You don’t understand. Young people have ambition. And I thought, That’s the wrong ambition. If you get there first, it doesn’t mean you’re the best.” As for her own goals, she brings up Chekhov, Graham Greene. “[M]y ambition is to always measure myself against these dead people. And that solves all my problems about money and fame, because they’re all dead!”
This section ends with J. Robert Lennon’s grappling with the role of commerce in art. He quotes Nabokov—“I write for pleasure, but I publish for money”—and then takes apart this philosophy, the suggestion that, “[T]here is writing, and there is commerce, and between them stands an impenetrable wall of inestimably thick bulletproof glass.”
By now I have gotten my manuscript back from my agent with “notes.” She loves the writing but the plot needs work, and the publishing world is such that everyone is looking for the big book, not nurturing talent. I long for that inestimably thick glass, but it feels fragile or non-existent. So it is a relief when Lennon admits he’s “wary of discouraging students, or any writer, really, from developing a relationship with the idea of commerce,” and goes on to argue that “[o]ur commerce with the world is not corollary to our art. It is, rather, a vital component of our art, perhaps our art’s reason for being.”
Lennon allows that thinking about publishing is a part of the writing process itself. “A literary work unconcerned with the desires of its audience is like a thoughtless gift…. You aren’t going to change the world without loving it first.” There is much to grapple with, but it’s hard going, forcing me to swing between noble ambitions and base desires. Which is best, which is right, which is possible?
The second section of Scratch, The Daily Grind, begins with Manjula Martin’s essay, “The Best Work in Literature.” She tells her own story of working to write while questioning the worth of such work, concluding, “The only clear truth each of my jobs has taught me is that the working life—real life—is just as important as the writing life. Here’s why: they’re the same thing.”
Our non-writing work matters as much as, and is a part of, the writing itself. Family, jobs, all our other duties force us to interact with our great subject: the world. At this point in my reading, I was on a beach in Mexico, watching, at a distance, while my partner played with my children. I have long requested this precise vacation—both the presence and the distance of my children, the book from which my gaze now and then lifts to take in the view, of which my family is a part. Normally they are so close up.
And here, with Leslie Jamison’s article, I hit the inspiration I’d been seeking. Like Lennon and Martin, Jamison challenges that glass wall, albeit with a different metaphor: “What if we stopped thinking of money as the dirty secret of creative pursuit and instead recognized money as one of its constituent threads?” She invokes Raymond Carver: “Fuck the cannon, he says. I was influenced by having to pay the bills, for myself and for my family.”
There is a lot of honesty in this middle section, a lot of details we don’t request in polite company. “For the novel, I got a $12,500 advance. And for Bad Feminist, I got $15,000,” Roxane Gay announces forthrightly. When asked what she aspires to next in her career, Gay answers, “I would like to win a Pulitzer. But more importantly, I would like to write something worthy of a Pulitzer.” Bald ambition is rarely owned. People who have won the Pulitzer and similarly grand, prestigious prizes frequently claim that such recognition was a dream they’d never dared dream. It’s enough to make you suspect that it’s best to remain ignorant of your own ambitions. Gay’s direct ambition is refreshing.
The daily grind narrows both the breadth and the terror of those early, anything-is-possible days. Harmony Holiday frames Amiri Baraka’s commerce and poetry in the context of his grandfather’s lynching, talking taxes and reparations. Emily Gould presses on a sore point, especially for women in publishing: likeability. Sari Botton gives us the blow-by-blow of ghostwriting other people’s stories. Choire Sicha takes us through the vocabulary of advertising writing, convincing us that it’s a mundane, boring world. Nell Boeschenstein becomes willing to take a teaching job when she swore she’d never hole herself up inside academia, and Sarah Smarsh quits her tenured professorship without a net. Money—survival, success, making a living—is the external plot to the deep interiority of a writing life.
The final section is called “Someday.” This section is a bit of an amalgamation, as if the anthology did not quite know what “someday” might look like, now that we’ve acknowledged that commerce is part of art. YA author Malinda Lo admits: “Plenty of authors who appear to be successful in public are, in private, struggling to get by on dwindling royalty payments, or working an unglamorous day job, or are married to someone with a much more reliable income. That last one is me.” This section includes interviews with Austin Kleon (whose books Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work are wonderful contributions to the larger conversation of surviving as an artist), Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen, as well as an essay by Jennifer Weiner about the downside of her success—not being taken seriously by critics—and, oddly, an FAQ on how to buy a home.
For some of these successful writers, the possibility, however slim, of writing for a living became a specific goal before they reached it. As Nick Hornby puts it: “Lots of artistic work is very highly valued in the marketplace, and I could see that many artists I admired seemed to be making a living, and I wanted to make my living that way too. And I have done, and I know lots of other people that have done too.” Likewise, Jennifer Weiner notes, “You don’t become a writer to get rich. Still, people got rich doing it…. I knew it was possible to do the thing I loved and get paid, a lot, if you were good at it, if you wrote something wonderful, something that people wanted to read.”
It may be that we live in a different time, or it may be—like The Secret claims—that I simply don’t believe in this abundance enough. Franzen admits to a similar ambition but acknowledges that “life has gotten harder for the so-called midlist writer, because people reach for star writers when their reading time is limited, and when conventional media coverage of novels is shrinking.”
The book ends, unexpectedly, with an essay by Laura Goode about producing an indie film “in Nine Easy Steps.” Crowdfunding, direct distribution… It made me realize that there’d been not one mention of self-publishing in the whole collection. Indie film seems a scrappier, more artistic undertaking than self-publishing. Perhaps because it requires collective buy-in, the curation of other people’s efforts makes super-indie film more like small press publishing than like self-publishing.
But why is this the final essay in the book? Does it mean to suggest that for all our struggles and ambition, another medium will win out? Or that writing and getting our voices out into the world can take many forms? Perhaps it’s just Goode’s high-energy optimism that sounded the note Martin wanted to resonate with us after we turned the last page:
If I choke a little reading these lines [of Kipling’s poem “If—”]…, it’s not because they make me bitter, or sad, or regretful. It’s because they fill me with such joy and gratitude that Meera and I dug up the grit to live them; it’s because we’ll never have to wonder what might have happened if we had risked everything to tell the story we most needed to tell.