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The Problem of Writing and Money

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 15, 2019

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Now this is a lede:

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s dictum that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” I was homeless.

It follows through on that first punch:

I know half a dozen published authors who’ve had to rely on food stamps. The seedy poverty of the author has been a cliche for centuries. We find the figure of the poor writer already in the medieval era, in the form of poet-clerics called “goliards,” who begged and sang ribald songs in taverns as they wandered from monastery to monastery. Hundreds of years later, in the Beat Generation, the type survived with no essential change. Now a new generation of writers are confronting ever lower and less reliable payment for articles, stingier advances for books, fewer jobs, and smaller royalty checks. A host of new threats to writers’ livelihoods, from internet piracy to the slow-motion collapse of the academic job market, means ever fewer writers are making a middle-class wage.

So, full-disclosure time! I have been on food stamps, as recently as a couple of years ago. I am currently on Medicaid, and thank god for that, because the open market for health care is terrible, and Medicaid is great. (Freelancers, stop paying COBRA or Obamacare and get yourself on Medicaid if you can.)

I have been a professional writer for almost ten years and have only been employed at a full-time job with benefits for (counts fingers) let’s say three of them. The rest of the time, I’ve been on the 1099 economy, piecing together pieces of living from freelance gigs. I have been homeless, and I have lived with family who’ve been much more stable than I have been. My health has never been good, which has made it difficult for me to maintain full-time work when I’ve had it. I have been behind on my child support, but am currently (thank God) current.

I would not say I am devoted to writing, with my poverty a consequence of that devotion. This entire time, I have simply not known what else to do. I have been writing for my life.

There are a lot of us. We don’t always show it.

Most writers I know who’ve been really poor practice similar forms of self-censorship. Sometimes the reasons are obvious even to someone who’s never had money problems. One writer I know went through a patch where he had to report to a subway cleaning crew to keep getting his welfare checks. He talked about this openly to friends, but went through extreme contortions to hide it from a publisher who was considering hiring him. When I was first profiled for a women’s magazine, I had their photographer come to my apartment, only to have her look around and instantly suggest we go out to a park. After that, I had photographers meet me at a richer person’s apartment to save everyone time and embarrassment.

But often the decisions are less clear-cut. Social media, for instance, can be the ideal forum for openly discussing social class—but it’s also notoriously a place where going too far can damage your career. Most of us filter what we say. This affects how we talk about being broke. A post about student debt is safe, but one about living in your car risks losing face and professional standing. It can even come across as a passive-aggressive jab at more affluent people. One writer friend of mine commented: “On Twitter, we make jokes about being poor. We don’t talk about the fucking dread eating through us because we’ll never be stable. We don’t talk about what it means, that we’re on Twitter because we can’t afford therapy or social lives.”

I don’t know what to do about any of this. I can’t promise that I’ll be more forthcoming about this on Twitter, or here on Kottke.org, or anywhere else I write. I do know that my life is changing again, thanks in part to The Amazon Chronicles, and other opportunities coming into my life. I hope it continues to change. I hope it changes for all of us.

I can only testify, right here and now, that poverty and authorship coincide, including authorship that comes with a kind of modest fame. I can testify that there is nothing romantic about it, only the very real life of compromises that Sandra Newman documents so well in this essay. I can testify that talking about and not talking about it can both eat away at you. There is no cure; only doing better and doing worse, only new wounds and a moderate form of relief.

I disagree with Newman on one point. I think there is no real market for stories about poverty, first-person or otherwise. Not really. Maybe in fiction, maybe as a one-off. But one cannot be a writer about poverty in the same way that one can become a writer about technology; and in most cases, being a writer about technology is extremely difficult when one is poor. (You can track my poverty level through my writing subjects: when I’ve done better, I write about gadgets and the business of technology. When I’ve done worse, I write about memoir or pop culture: music, movies, television, comics, the internet. Things accessible from my memory or on my computer for free or cheap.)

People may want to read about what it’s like to be poor, but they don’t want to pay for it. Paying for things is a rich person’s privilege, and people pay for access to material wealth and things that get them closer to it. And in the free economy, people like the lingua franca of pop culture. Simple stories about heroes and villains, that when you scratch them open, tell them bigger stories about themselves and the worlds they live in.

That’s not to say that people can’t be brought to hear a different kind of story, but they do have to be brought there. How to bring them there? That’s what we’re all trying to figure out.