When I meet someone new, I know that one of the first questions out of his or her mouth is going to be, “What do you do?” And when I say, “I’m a writer,” he or she will ask, “What do you write?” And I will give the list–stories, novels, occasionally poems–and say, “Right now, I’m primarily working on a novel.” And then I will be asked the question I’ve always dreaded the most: “What’s your novel about?” At this point, I’ll have the impulse to quote Flannery O’Connor: “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” But since that will likely make me come off as a snot, instead, I’ll try to explain my book in the simplest terms possible, and after a few years, I more or less have this down. Or so I tell myself.
Sometimes, I’m not asked what my novel is about. Sometimes, I’m asked what kind of books I like to write. I almost dread this question more than “what’s your novel about?” Because in this second instance, I have to say, “Literary fiction,” and I’m then met with a blank stare, followed by some version of, “No, I mean, sci-fi or romance or…” And so the genre list goes on. And then, I become the life of the party by giving a mini lesson on what literary fiction is, which again, after a few years, I more or less have down: “The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is that genre fiction is plot-driven, and literary fiction is character-driven. The big joke about literary fiction is that nothing ever happens.” This seems to satisfy most people. Either that, or they just pretend it does so they can excuse themselves and go talk to someone interesting.
But none of that is what I want to discuss here. What I want to talk about is the question that comes after, either once I’ve gotten to know the person a bit better, or if he or she has little to no regard for social etiquette, about five minutes into the conversation. And that’s this: “How do make a living doing that?” I’ve been asked this more and more recently, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I look particularly poverty-stricken these days. My stock response is, “Well, right now, I don’t, but someday, I hope too.” And then, if this person is really, really nosy, I then get to explain how I’m currently unemployed, and boy, is that a fun thing to admit to a near-stranger (as opposed to the world wide web, but you know, so it goes).
It is (or should be) a well known fact, at least among writers, that unless you’re Stephen King or a typer of vampire stories who shall remain nameless because she’s not allowed on my blog, you aren’t going to be able to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills or build a pool lined in gold by writing novels. This past fall, I attended a writer’s circle with Annie Proulx. At one point, she talked about researching and writing her story, “Brokeback Mountain.” She said she’d spent six months on it because she wanted to get the details just right, and then she laughed and said it wasn’t very economical to spend six months working on a story that would earn her $10,000. Everyone just kind of looked at her and forgot how to blink. Then someone said, “I think you’re on a different pay scale than us.”
Most of us couldn’t get paid $10,000 for a story if we hand-delivered it to the editor, wearing nothing but a smile. Most literary journals–except the schmancy ones that don’t take your stories unless you’ve already published five books and campaigned to save the whales and had a library or two named after you–do not pay well. Many do not pay at all, but rather, give you contributor’s copies (which I have long joked that I’ll burn for heat once I can no longer pay my electric bill, and that’s seeming like it will become more of a reality by the minute). And as if that’s not good enough, it gets better–the journal that will be publishing a poem of mine in a few weeks is not paying me at all, but rather, giving me the opportunity to purchase journal copies at cost. Yes, my friends, this means I will actually be losing money if I want a copy of the journal I am published in. Welcome to the wonderful world of literature.
Which brings us back to the whole “how do you make a living?” thing. It’s looking pretty grim now, isn’t it? I think people are pretty willing to accept that writers and all artistic types are eccentric. We starve and suffer for our art. We scrape by on as little as possible to make sure we have maximum time to devote to the real work. I’ve always kind of waved off anyone who doesn’t seem to “get” why I do this. Not everyone does get it, and that’s okay. But because I have now been without a day job for so long, I feel like those people are starting to look at me funnier than normal. Like, “Okay, Jessica. I mean, I know that you want to write, but you have to eat, you know. You have to pay the bills.” As if I don’t know these things. As if I’m just traipsing around in la la land with my laptop and pretty words, thinking the food gods are going to rain Ramen down on me. I don’t think that. Let’s get that out of the way right now. But my aim here is not to get mad at the people who don’t understand why I have to write. My aim is to help them understand. So digress with me a moment, won’t you?
When I was two, I was diagnosed with asthma. My parents had to take me to the emergency room quite frequently, until one day, my doctor gave me a breathing machine to have at home. Twice a day, my mom would put the medicine into this box-like apparatus, and I would have to strap a mask over my face and sit there breathing vapors while the machine hummed, which made it very difficult to hear the cartoons that were supposed to be distracting me. I can’t remember how long this took. Probably not as long as I’m thinking because when you’re a kid, sitting still is agony. But I had to do this every day for years, even once I started school. Don’t want to get out of bed yet? Tough. You have to use your breathing machine. Don’t want to take a break from playing? Sorry. Breathing machine. I have a vivid memory of using the machine while I had the chicken pox, attempting to keep the mask on my face while sobbing hysterically because I was itchy and in pain (and granted, the hysterical sobbing probably didn’t do much to help my breathing, but there you go).
Now, imagine you were born with lungs that can’t take in a full gulp of air. Ever. No matter what you do, you never feel like you can get in a good, deep breath. Imagine that you live breathing like that for years, until one day, someone hands you a breathing machine and says, “Here. Take this into a room and use it for four hours every day. Afterwards, you’ll be able to breathe right until your next session, but it’ll only work if you use it on a daily basis.” Would you do it? Of course, you would. Unless you happen to enjoy not being able to catch your breath, and if that’s the case, you can stop reading this because there’s not much point in me trying to talk to you anymore.
Now, maybe it’s obvious that you won’t get paid to use your breathing machine. Fine. And you can’t talk to anyone while you’re using it. Okay. And it’s going to interfere with your life and keep you from some other things you might want to do–would you still use it? Probably. What if it cut into your sleep or your ability to earn a living? Would you use it then? I think you would. Because when you can’t breathe, it makes everything else so much more difficult, and practically all you can think about is how you can’t catch your breath. I know because I’ve had asthma all my life. I know because that’s what not writing is for me–asthma. And writing is my breathing machine. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it doesn’t make it any less true. And so when people suggest, or at least imply, that I might want to rethink this whole writing endeavor, I can’t do anything but smile and shake my head. Because asking me to stop writing, even asking me to cut down, is asking me to stop fully breathing.
Now, there are many writers who are only able to use their metaphorical breathing machines intermittently. They have families to take care of or full-time jobs or both. I am privileged to know many of them, and they are my heroes. I only have to support myself, and right now, I’m not even doing that. So let me ask you something–those people who have the families or the full-time jobs or both, why do you think they get up at 5 a.m. to write? Why do you think they’re typing away at midnight while the kids are in bed and their spouses are asleep in the other room? Because it’s fun? Because we get some kind of sick pleasure out of being sleep-deprived and neglecting our loved ones? No (not for most of us, anyway). Because writing is breathing, and once you know what you have to do to be able to fill your lungs, you will do anything necessary to make that happen.
It may be that one day, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, I will have to take a full-time job. I will continue to pray for another option, but I acknowledge that there might not be one, at least not right now. But if I don’t say much when you suggest that I work at Powell’s or become an office wench, it’s not because I’m ignoring your advice or because I think I’m too good to be a bookstore genie or a filing maven. It’s because my mind immediately begins to calculate how many hours I’d need to work at a job like that in order to pay my bills, and how many hours that would then leave for writing, and how much less sleep I will have to learn to live on. So you’ll please pardon me if I don’t jump on those options. If that is truly what’s waiting for me, know that I’m going to push it to the limit before I take the plunge. I’m going to take in every full breath that I can before I have to go back to being asthmatic. You may think this makes me an idiot, and that’s fine. Because I’m breathing, and that’s everything.
How do you make a living as a writer? You don’t always get to. But you do get to make a life. And call me crazy, but I’d argue that’s something you can’t put a price on.