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The Job of the Writer

Absent a trust fund or lottery ticket success of an international best seller, how do writers make a living?

By Literature

Brandy Wilson, Ashley Jones, Jill Riddell, how to make money as a writer

Illustration by Anna Cai

“You’ll never make a living as a writer.”

“How will you support yourself?”

“Good luck making money.”

Sound familiar? Writers are well-accustomed to questions and warnings of a life of destitution, no insurance, no retirement, and always starving. But perhaps these tales of economic doom and gloom are simply another verse in Chicken Little’s overly dramatic proclamation that the sky is falling. Absent a trust fund or lottery ticket success of an international best seller, how do writers make a living? What ways have writers found to support themselves financially while also pursuing their craft? We spoke to three different writers to ask them how to nurture a practice while also being able to pay the bills.

Brandy Wilson 

Wilson teaches at The Mississippi University for Women (“The W”) and juggles life as a newly single parent. Wilson’s 2014 novel “The Palace Blues,” from Spinsters Ink, was named a Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Lesbian Fiction.

I chose university teaching for two reasons: 1. the flexible schedule would, in theory, allow me time to write, and 2. teaching craft and literature fuels my writing and creativity. I really enjoy artists and intellectuals, as well as art and knowledge or the search for knowledge. I love delving into literature, exploring what is possible, from a craft and analytical standpoint. All of this fuels my creativity, my zest for life, you might even say.

While the second reason is still true, I’ve often been in positions in academia that place more demands on my time and energy, particularly my creative energy, than I anticipated and leave little room for writing, or at least writing while also creating a work/life balance. Life wins. Work wins. I need to change this and am exploring how. In the last few years, I’ve struggled with attempts to carve out space for my writing. As a recently single mother, coming out of a pandemic (hopefully), and a commuter faculty member, there is only so much of me to go around.

Very few tenure-track positions offer the coveted 2/2 load (2 classes per semester), especially to beginning writers who need it most. There are writers out there who still manage to write with 4/4 or even 5/5 loads (plus all of the other academic duties). I am not one of them.

When I think I don’t have enough time, I am reminded of Frank O’Hara who jotted down poems on napkins in any spare moment he had while working full time at MoMA. As one critic noted, he turned the necessity of his job into a poetic experience because he was compelled to write. I aspire to this practice. Every piece starts somewhere.

Ashley M. Jones 

Jones teaches at the Alabama School of the Arts and is the youngest and first black Poet Laureate of Alabama. Jones’s third book “Reparations Now!” — a collection of poetry published by HubCity Writers Project — was released in 2021.

I was always told that I can’t make money as a poet. I CAN: I just had to figure out how. Everything I do as a writer (even my nonprofit work) can lead to a paid opportunity. One of my MFA professors advised us to always say yes first; I can always say no later. I don’t know where it will lead, who will be in the audience, or what results it may have. Initially, I’d prepared myself to adjunct like my classmates, but an opportunity arose to work in a public, grant-funded, magnet specialty school. My other career is being a writer. Initially, that didn’t pay much although now it’s a viable second job. 

Sometimes it feels weird to attach a monetary value to something like art. Some of what I do [as a writer] is free, because it turns into something else. Although I was paid a small amount to read at the Decatur Book Festival, I didn’t know that the poetry editor from Oxford American was in the audience. After that reading, they solicited my poems and paid to publish four. What I eventually learned is to charge a speaking fee. People were never really forthcoming when I was emerging: it’s like a big secret. 

I started to use a rubric based upon the number of published books and ask for travel and lodging. So, for example, if I use $1,000 per book and have three published books, then my base fee would be $3,000 plus travel and lodging. In comparison to bigger authors, that’s actually a low figure: some are charging $10,000 to speak one hour at universities. Still, I can’t do stuff for free if I’m not also getting paid — it has to balance. Trusting my gut is important.

My advice? I wish people had told me there is a place for me in writing, especially as a person from a marginalized group. Keep being yourself, even if it’s not reflected out there. BELIEVE IN YOUR OWN VOICE. What you have to say has value if you are coming from an authentic place. Don’t let all your hopes live in the book and don’t take a job that will kill your writing spirit. Don’t force yourself into teaching. Don’t be ashamed of having a job instead of just being an artist. These things take time.

Jill Riddell (Shape of the World Show)

Riddell writes about nature and science and has been teaching part-time at SAIC for 20 years.

If you love to teach, pursue it. If you think, as a writer, that is the standard way to go, throw that idea out the window.  Some people get into a little bit of trouble with adjunct teaching because they want it to be permanent. The truth is a lot of people can step into that job as easily. That will always be a bit tenuous. 

Teaching 1-2 classes/semester at SAIC has been great for me. But I don’t make a high percentage of my income from teaching: I earn a living through my writing and other ways. I have an expertise in nature, having spent 10 years at the Nature Conservancy, and I do a lot of consulting work. My path consists of having an expertise in writing (and constantly working on craft) plus another set of skills as an expert in another subject. 

The truth is simple: if you want to write, you need TIME. Even just two hours is a lot of uninterrupted time to focus. Time lets you show up to the page 5 days/week, just like it’s a job. You don’t need big chunks, but consistency. If you work a job that uses your writing energy, then all that energy you’d put in your work is going to someone else. It’s tiring. A lot of writers will pour their heart into nonprofit or communications work, and then years later look around and ask … where’s that novel? That short story?

People often confuse status and money. I firmly believe that the creative who wants to write for a living should not focus on status. If your sense of self is writing, then focus on it.

Protect your time. Find a job that pays well and does not deplete your creative energy. The worst jobs are often prestigious to talk about, have the best working conditions, and often pay poorly compared to trade jobs, which can pay as much as $60/hour. For example, arborists are often well paid because not many want to do the manual labor involved, despite growing demand by cities to hire them. Even electricians, plumbers, and contractors can offer higher pay [for work] that doesn’t use the same part of the brain used in writing. So, instead of taking that job that sounds great, why not take a job making $60/hour and work less? 

Ask yourself: how can I be selfish to protect my health, my well-being, and my writing time? When interviewing for jobs, ask for alternatives: can you work 40 hours in four days instead of five? Start late and work 10-6? Can you work 80% of the time? That means less pay but a lot of companies are willing to consider it. Can you work as a night security officer that gives you time to write at work? There are so many ways to play the game, but consider the common goal: maximize your time to write two hours/day by maximizing your income and minimizing your expenses.

Lower family expectations of what your job will be. It’s a long game. Create time so that you can write better sentences and build your network of writing colleagues. If we think of money as fuel to provide food, clothing, and shelter, then it becomes easier to look at jobs solely as a means to live and write. Be flexible, and don’t put all of the emphasis on the first job. Figure out what works for you. Adjust your life and keep your perspective: are you in the job for status, or because you want a creative life and freedom? 

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