Writers Don’t Make Much Money: The Struggle Continues

“Poverty is the great reality. That is why the artist seeks it.” I read that Anaïs Nin quote on a bathroom wall that I was supposed to scrub clean at the coffee shop I worked at after I decided to be one of those would-be writers that picked New York in the MFA vs. NYC battle. I had a bucket filled with chemicals and water that chapped my hands, and a terrifying boss who screamed and swore at me any chance he got. I hated my job. I hated the customers who yelled at me when the coffee wasn’t hot enough, and I hated the one who told me the iced coffee wasn’t cold enough. “How could an iced coffee not be cold enough?” I asked. “It’s filled with ice, just wait an extra few seconds,” I told them. The person yelled “Fuck you” at me and stormed out, leaving the drink behind, probably on his way to terrorize some other poor barista somewhere else. I just smiled and went about my day at the job I worked two days a week because I needed extra money, because a job is a job, and although it wasn’t the job I wanted, it was still money in my pocket.

That was the way I looked at things — that is, until I had to scrub that stupid Nin quote off the wall. After that moment, as I felt the bleach eating away at my skin, I began to realize that the bohemian writer life in the big city that I had dreamed of as a kid was really all just a big pile of malarkey. I wasn’t seeking poverty, but there I was, making squat for pay from my various freelance writing jobs, and even less working in the coffee shop. And as my bank account dwindled, so did my ability to concentrate on my work. That wasn’t what I signed up for, and I really wanted something more. I just wanted to write, and make enough to sustain myself and be happy. Is that so much to ask?

I moved to New York because it is still one of the best places to go if you want to live that writer’s life without enrolling in a graduate program, but I also moved here because I love the city more than any other place I can think of. It’s why I stand firmly on the side of writers who have no intention of leaving the city limits like some of the authors in the Goodbye to All That anthology, but it’s also why I agree with a lot of the writers who decided they needed to get away from this place that basically charges you 20 dollars every time you step out the front door. Yet I’m of the mind that no matter where you live, you’re going to find struggle if you’re a writer. It isn’t an easy job, but it is one that you’ll be more successful at if you can strike a balance between your dreams and the reality that is the money-mad world we live in.

“I went home and sat at the kitchen table and drew up a balance-sheet. I thought: I’m going to have to change the way I live.” That’s what Rupert Thompson, a British author with nine novels under his belt, told The Guardian for an article about writers’ financial struggles. Although the piece’s author, Robert McCrum, acknowledges that “writers are now being confronted with the hardship of literary artists through the ages,” there has also never been more opportunity for them to publicly kvetch about how little they’re making, how much they’re spending, or how much they spent after receiving their first advance or publishing their biggest article.

While many writers, from classic Russians to Lost Generation types, came from money and even sometimes aristocracy, choosing to be a writer has always been a gamble in some way, shape, or form. But the lack of money being made is also a conversation that artists are having these days on a larger scale, whether it be an indie band talking about the measly few bucks they make from streaming their songs on Spotify or the graphic artist who can’t find steady work (which leaves her confined to a desk job she hates). The difference is that writers write; we explain things, it’s what we’re supposed to do. The reality is that we live in a world where Nin’s idea that artists actively seek poverty is not only outdated, but has never been totally true. James Joyce had to find side gigs like selling tweed to make ends meet, and Mark Twain lectured to pay for his lifestyle; the idea that you can just write for a living and do absolutely nothing else is a nice one, but it isn’t always doable. What’s important is to realize that you can make your art and be content, but you’ve also got to eat.