When I was 16 years old, I won first place in the short fiction category of a very small, very local writing contest targeted at teenagers. The prize was $50. This was the first and last time I received payment of any kind for writing fiction.
I figure I’m up by $50 on a lot of writers out there.
Many writers never make a penny off of their work. And those who do often supplement this income with day jobs or less fulfilling freelance work. Some rely on their spouse’s or partner’s income to pay the bills.
A small number of writers were born into wealth and can dedicate their every waking moment to crafting their novels.
Life is unfair. The end.
But of course this isn’t the end.
Last week, Salon.com ran an article by Ann Bauer titled “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. And like any thing on the Internet that features a comments section, the response was immediate and fierce.
Some commenters applauded Bauer for coming clean that – although she is a published writer with a decent list of credits to her name – her income from writing alone doesn’t come close to a living wage. Others raged against her for calling out two unnamed writers for what she saw as a lack of disclosure regarding their inherited wealth and connections. One example: An aspiring writer asked one author how he had paid the bills during the 10 years he spent writing his latest novel. The author – who comes from a very wealthy family – responded that it had been difficult, but that he’d also written a number of magazine articles during that time. The implication was that 1) he was struggling to get by, just like the rest of us, and 2) writing a few magazine articles will pay enough to support your family while you craft your masterpiece.
The commenters’ vitriol ranged from Fuck the 1%! to How dare you point fingers at the “privileged” when your writing is largely funded by your husband? But I didn’t feel that Bauer was suggesting the author was obligated to discuss his personal financial information, or that she was simply bitter he was born into money. Rather, I felt that she was calling him out for being disingenuous, for suggesting to the aspiring writer that his success was based almost purely on drive and determination.
But whether the author has billions in real estate or $37 in his checking account, he has to write. A lot. He has to work damn hard to develop his craft. Just like the rest of us.
Writers, like any artists, create because it is in our blood. It is a compulsion. It is part of who we are, whether we write late at night in our pajamas while the rest of the family sleeps or once the nanny ushers the kids off to school. The vast majority of us would continue to write even if we were 100% sure that we’d never earn a cent from it.
Does the billionaire have a distinct advantage over the working mom? Hell yes, he does. But like I said, life is unfair. There is no bliss, no inspiration in resenting someone for having more time, more money, or more connections than you do. And at the same time, there is no value in feeling guilty for having money, or because your spouse or partner brings home the bulk of the income, so long as the two of you made this career/lifestyle choice together.
What troubles me is seeing writers turn on one another (and at times, themselves) rather than coming together to call out the increasingly flighty publishing industry, as well as the general lack of value our culture places on creative professions. Writing is hard work, much harder than most of the paying jobs I’ve held in my life.
And after all, we are all in this together.
PS. For the record, I strongly dislike the term “sponsored” as it suggests that the writer is being supported by a parent or a Sugar Daddy/Mama, not his or her spouse or partner. And I find that not only condescending but also sorta icky.
PPS. I was not born into wealth and I am my only source of income. One could argue that I was born into privilege because I grew up in a middle class suburb and had parental support through college. Then again, one could argue just about anything if one sets his or her mind to it, which is evidenced by the comments section on just about any thing posted on the internet.