Where Writers Get Their Money: A Brief History Of The Privileges I Have And Have Not Enjoyed Over The Course Of My Career
“Here’s my life,” writes Ann Bauer on Salon. “My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.” Bauer admits that this admission might be considered “crass,” but she’s calling for more honesty like this in her piece, entitled “‘Sponsored’ By My Husband: Why It’s A Problem That Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From.”
Bauer focuses on writers in her piece, but I would argue that the sentiment applies to anyone working in, to use her words, fields they enjoy which are not known for being particularly lucrative. That usually means the creative fields, where a select few genuinely hit pay dirt but the vast majority find a way to make ends meet while pursuing their passions. There are those who are able to make a decent living (I count myself among them), and those who are struggling or just scraping by. And then there is that mysterious group of people who you know can’t possibly be making enough to actually support themselves while they write their screenplays or novels or spends their days not at an office but in their painting studio, and yet they are doing just fine — more than fine sometimes — and you wonder HOW? Just … HOW?
That question becomes especially insistent whenever those same people start to reap the rewards of devoting their time to those creative pursuits; and if you’re someone who hasn’t had the time to focus on your novel or your painting because you’ve been stuck at work collecting a paycheck to cover the rent, that question can start to sound a little bitter too. How were you able to pay your bills and buy new clothes from Madewell and go on that bachelorette trip to St. Lucia when the novel you spent the last year writing has not even sold? I would be finished with my novel too … if I didn’t have to spend 50 hours a week at the office in order to make rent. So how did you do it? Just … how? You’d ask, but that would be rude.
Chances are, the how is similar to Bauer’s situation — the writer/painter/filmmaker/whatever has help, in the form of a spouse or significant other who makes a good enough living to support the household, or parents who are well-off and happy to provide financial support while their child pursues their dreams, or they’re living off a pile of money left to them by some deceased relative while they get what they hope will be a sustainable creative career going. All of these scenarios are nothing to be ashamed of; we play with the cards we’re dealt in life and only a fool would decline a pair of Aces. But what Bauer finds troublesome is how much those situations are kept a secret or are even downplayed or not acknowledged when addressed directly. She writes:
[In] this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.
I don’t know that the reasoning is always quite so snotty, but I do think that often those with privilege are wary of being upfront about their financial situations because they’re worried it will be used to diminish their achievements. But by keeping the full reality of their actual support system a secret, and pretending to be just like everyone else in their field, those who lack those privileges — who have less time to write their novels and paint their masterpieces and film their surrealist short films because, at the end of the day, making enough money to exist has to be the priority — are left unaware and thus in a position to compare themselves to people they don’t realize come from different means. And while talent is talent, and should not be diminished, those means matter. In her piece, Bauer references two examples of writers who have had success but downplayed the privilege that helped them get there — one came from a wealthy family, the other was born with major connections in the industry — writing:
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.
I personally really, really appreciate Bauer’s piece and appreciate that she starts off by being so candid about her own privileges. In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, let me do the same, as I recognize that I am enormously lucky to be making a living as a writer and editor. I am by no means wealthy, but I make more money than either of my parents ever did and I make more money than I thought I would when I decided I wanted to pursue writing. No one decides to be a writer because they want to make money, trust. The fact that I make enough money to live alone in New York City is a privilege that is relative, but it is a privilege nonetheless. And I recognize that while I do not come from a situation than even remotely resembles the wealth or connections or spousal support in Bauer’s piece, I have not gotten to where I am without help. But I also have found my ultimate creative desires — to write a book, to pursue a possible career as a weaver — are impacted by the reality of needing to spend most of my time making money to live. So, here is list of various privileges — both financial and non — that I have, have had or have not had during my career (not including the privileges associated with being white, cis and able-bodied):
• Family Support: Not everyone comes from a family that values the arts or creative expression, and I am very lucky to have been raised by two people who not only value/valued it, but also pursued their own creative passions even though it did not generate any sustainable income. My mom makes her living by teaching English as a second language to adults, but she is also an incredibly talented painter. My dad was a writer, but he made his living as an administrator at the writing program at UC San Diego. Both of them instilled in me the value of art and writing and expression and creativity and were enormously supportive of me pursuing writing as a career.
• School Loans: My in-state tuition at UC Santa Cruz was paid for mostly in school loans — which I have yet to entirely pay off — and some financial assistance from my parents, though I also worked two jobs in college, at a coffee shop and at the university’s theater box office. I’m unclear as to how much money my parents directly contributed during those four years because my mom managed doling out my school loans to me, so I don’t know how much “extra” she chipped in. Writing this piece has made me realize I should ask her, though, so I can thank her specifically.
(And yes, thank her. After my freshman year of college, my dad developed a drug problem which exacerbated his existing mental health issues and he was forced out of his job and into disability/early retirement, so his income went down and he wasn’t exactly spending it wisely. My parents got divorced and out of pure generosity, my mom let me dad keep the house they had bought together. He was definitely of no help — financially or otherwise — at that point, so my mom became the primary parent in my mind. While my parents were always pretty solidly middle class, though on the mid-lower end of the spectrum, the entire situation with my dad changed things quite a bit, especially for my mom, who will probably never be able to fully retire.)
As for paying my school loans, my mom still manages that for me, but every few months I write her a check to cover whatever she’s paid on my behalf. The amount I still owe is actually at a point where I could just pay it off. I have chosen not to, as the interest is low and I would prefer to have money in savings.
• Family Financial Support: I don’t have a husband or a significant other, and while I could get a roommate to save money on rent, living alone is my preference and I am lucky to be able to afford to do so. Since graduating from college, I have been entirely responsible for my bills, including my rent. Overall, my family’s post-college financial support has been very minimal — my dad once loaned me $1000 to pay off my credit card in my early-20s, but I would say I more than paid him back for that during the last couple years of his life, when I “loaned” (i.e. gave) him over $10,000. And while losing a parent is never a privilege, when my father passed away two years ago, the financial impact was not in my favor — his “estate” was literally worthless and I had to spend my own money to cover the cost of his cremation and to fly out to Hawaii to deal with the aforementioned worthless estate. His retirement paid out a small sum to my brother and I; my portion helped to cover those expenses, but not in their entirety. To be clear, I’m not complaining about any of this, really, I’m just trying to be specific about how that cookie crumbled, so to speak, just as I would be honest if my dad had left me with a vault full of rare coins and diamonds. To be honest, I appreciate that he instilled me with a desire to write far more than money anyway.
• Other Financial Support: I haven’t gotten many gifts of sizable amounts of money in my life, but there was one such gift that genuinely had a major impact on my career. After my sophomore year in college, a friend of the family gifted me with $2000 so I could afford to go to New York City for the summer and be an unpaid intern at a magazine. That money, plus a good deal on rent to live with another friend of the family, allowed me to work for free at a magazine, where I met an editor who would go on, years later, to recommend me for a job at Rolling Stone. I am crystal clear on the chain of events that, in addition to my hard work and drive and passion, helped me get to where I am now. From a financial standpoint, that generous gift of $2000 was so essential and I am forever grateful for it. Oh, and I should probably mention that I was once engaged and then I got dumped and he told me to keep the ring and I finally sold it last year and basically all of that money went towards moving to Brooklyn. As a result, I didn’t have to dive into my savings, which was cool. I don’t recommend getting engaged and then dumped though. That still sucked.
• Connections: Internships do not always directly or indirectly lead to jobs. In fact, statistically speaking, they usually don’t. That editor I met at my first internship really went to bat for me; I know he wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t worth going to bat for, but he still did not have to do it. But if he hadn’t, I certainly would not have even known about that job at Rolling Stone, let alone applied for it, interviewed for it, and got hired for it. And frankly, I do not know what I would be doing if that had not happened. I like to think I would still be pursuing this career, but I am not as confident that I would be doing as well. My job at Rolling Stone led directly to my job at Maxim; at Maxim, I met John DeVore (who you probably remember as The Frisky’s Mind of Man) and John DeVore is who recommended me for the job to conceptualize and launch the site you now know as The Frisky. While I take some credit for the strong professional connections I have made, I recognize that I am privileged to have worked with people who saw my value and championed me to others. I know I will continue to benefit from such relationships in the future.
• Health: I am, knock on wood, very healthy. I have rarely needed to take sick days, let alone had to take significant time off because of health issues. I am able to afford to meditate and treat the relatively minor mental health issues I have (depression, anxiety, ADHD) that might otherwise majorly hinder my ability to function let alone create. The depression and the ADHD do sometimes stand in my way and it would be super fucking cool not to be depressive weirdo whose mind is always wandering down a million different paths at once, and I have no doubt I would be more productive in everything if I did not have those issues, but hey, it could DEFINITELY be worse.
• Financial Hardships/Obligations: Post college, I have had two brief periods of unemployment, and I consider myself lucky. My current work situation is arguably more stable than many people I know. Giving money to my dad was the biggest “hit” my finances took, but it’s something I chose to do and I consider myself lucky to have been ABLE to do that for him. But despite my solid and secure income and my relative lack of financial hardship and the various privileges I have been afforded, when I sit back and look at my future and what I would like to do with my career and my creative pursuits, those desires are majorly impacted by concerns about money. For example, I really, really want to have a baby. I am not in a relationship and I am not inclined to wait to meet a man to have a kid. Besides the fact that I’m 35 and time is a-tickin’, I am just ready and I intend on making motherhood happen for me in the next two years. Many of my career and financial decisions are now made from the perspective of being a single mom in the not-so-distant future. I know and accept the fact that raising a child alone will also impact the time I have to pursue my non-work related passions. Again, having a baby is a choice, though I would say my desire to be a mom is so strong that it almost doesn’t feel like one sometimes. Anyway, I mention all of this because, if all goes well and I do have a child alone, my time, money and ability/energy to pursue certain opportunities and passions will be spread a lot thinner in a few years, in a more significant way (generally speaking) than if I were to co-parent with a partner.
Phew. So yeah, now you know how your Amelia Sausage gets made. (Yes, I said Amelia Sausage. It’s delicious.) I hope by being open and honest about all of this I have, in some small way, demystified how I got to where I am, and that in turn, you will perhaps consider doing the same for those pursuing the similar passions. Let’s be honest about what the reality of our lives are, not to shame each other or deny each other our successes, but to better understand how they came to be.