Monday, January 13, 2020

Working for a Living, Living Like a Writer, Working with Writing: Not the same as making a living AS a writer. And that's OK.

“I admire that you make a living as a writer.”

A young woman writer said this to me at an event recently.

I’m quick to correct her: No, I don’t.

Because it’s the truth.

I make a living, I tell her, because I’m a writer.

Each January I calculate how much I earned from each of the activities I get paid for and in which percentages in the previous year. I want to understand where the money comes from, where the time goes. (I hate math and I'm bad at it; my husband cannot understand how I was once the statistician for the men's ice hockey team at Syracuse University, but I digress: check out the Percentage Calculator.)

In 2019, some 33 percent of my income came from editing book manuscripts, essays, and book proposals, and acting as a writing coach. The largest amount, 40 percent, was earned by teaching in an online MFA program, and about 23 percent from teaching other writing classes and speaking and leading workshops at conferences, retreats, and libraries. That leaves just 2 percent from book sales and royalties and another 3 percent from paid freelance writing.

That’s it. That last figure is how I did not even get close to making a living as a writer. My income right now comes mostly from helping others with their writing, their writing life. 

This is fine with me, for now. Many years ago, I did in fact make a full time living as a full-time freelance writer—back when there were scads of print magazines and newspapers doling out living wages for articles. But now, my husband (also self-employed) and I have two kids in college, live in one of the most expensive areas of the country (northern NJ, 10 miles from NYC), fund our own health insurance and retirement.

I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this. Although often it feels like I’m cobbling things together with whatever comes my way, I’m also fairly methodical about seeking opportunities, proposing things, applying for gigs. It’s good that people notice I’m busy, that I work a lot—mostly because that often leads to future work.

I guess that’s what the young woman above was reacting to—my busyness, perhaps combined with getting published enough (in short forms, though often in unpaid literary journals) so that it appears I spend a lot of my time on my own writing. I don’t.

Depending on the cycle of the academic semester, and how much freelance editing/coaching work I have in the house at any one time, my own writing gets done—much like most writers on the planet, I suspect—in between. When there’s a lull, some breathing space. Over holiday breaks and on Sundays and very late at night and occasionally when I need a respite from others’ words and writing problems and editing needs. I like to think this reality helps make me more understanding of the time management, energy, and brain-drain challenges my writing clients and adult MFA students deal with daily.

So, to the dear lovely young writer above—who I might add said this to me at a reading/speaking engagement for my memoir where I was (a) getting paid; (b) trolling for prospective clients; and (c) hopefully selling books: No, I don’t make a living as a writer. But thanks. Right now, it’s enough that I make a living among writers.

Now then. It’s Sunday morning and I have my (abbreviated) work day mapped out: edit four more essays in the manuscript of a client’s essay collection; finish the schedule for the three-day memoir workshop I’m teaching next weekend about 130 miles from home.

Then, maybe, if I’m not too tired, and if my husband is still mainlining playoff football, and if I have anything left in the tank, I want to work on an essay of my own I’ve been tinkering with for three months…

Image, top: Flickr/CreativeCommons - Trending Topics 2019

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