You Can’t Make A Living As A Writer Because Being a Writer Isn’t a Job
Another day, another essay about the struggle of making ends meet while Doing What You Love
Merritt Tierce has a great name but it doesn’t begin with J, so I’m a little unclear as to why she assumed she could make a living out of writing.
Nonetheless, as she recounts, she wants — even maybe expects? — to make a living out of writing, so she is despondent that, despite some measure of literary success, she can’t.
My name is on the phone bill. The student loan bills, medical bills, internet service provider bills, car insurance bills, the lease. My name is on three bank accounts, the present combined balances of which are insufficient to pay any one of the aforementioned bills. My name is also on a book, my first novel, Love Me Back, which was published by Doubleday two years ago to what they call “wide acclaim.”
When the clamor fades, as clamor does, Tierce finds herself unprepared for the silence that follows.
two weeks before my book was published, I quit my day job. I was relieved to pass the mantle to someone I thought far more suited to the gig. And I was excited to ride the momentum of the first book — to do the tour and the interviews and then keep it all going forever somehow. I had also recently remarried, following a decade of being single. My new husband had a decent job, and we thought we’d try living on one income (his) while I worked on my next book. So when I said I quit my day job, it wasn’t because I could live on the publisher’s advance indefinitely. It was because I opted to become a financial dependent for the first time in my adult life, which has proven stressful for my relatively young marriage and even more stressful for my writing. I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book.
Tierce becomes a letter carrier, which pays well but leaves her exhausted and depleted, and she mourns, “The dangerous thing about a day job is that you can very quickly become suspicious that you are not a writer.”
I am trying to be sympathetic, because I’m sure I would like Tierce if I met her, and because I recognize her superiority as a published novelist, but come the fuck on. Kafka, Dickens, Nabokov — they all had day jobs. Novelists have day jobs! Roxane Gay, who is busy and accomplished enough to be several people, still has a day job. Writers have day jobs because being a writer isn’t a job. Writing is a thing you can do if you like it! It’s a thing you might get paid for, now and again, if you’re good at it! But it’s not a job.
You can write as part of your job, of course. Largely that will mean doing the kind of un-fun, unsexy kind of arranging words that pays the bills: content marketing, for example, or corporate communications. Nicole Dieker is an exemplar. With hard work, she has been supporting herself as a writer for years now.
Instead of focusing on the kinds of trade offs and compromises Nicole has described, though, Tierce says that, in exchange for being able to write, she’d be willing to make only $40,000 a year. Only!! Saying you would write in exchange for a flat salary of $40K, and acting like that’s some kind of noble sacrifice or proof of commitment is flat-out ridiculous. $40K is not that far below the median household income* for all working Americans right now. It would be like getting an incredibly generous grant every year for the rest of your life. You know how many people would take that deal? Virtually everyone who ever typed the words “Chapter One” and, later, “The End” into Microsoft Word.
Tierce’s essay is not titled “A CAUTIONARY TALE TO ALL YOUNG WRITERS,” but it could be, or maybe it should be, if it will keep one more person from falling prey to this delusion and/or then writing one more essay about it. Because you cannot make a living out of writing.
You cannot make a living out of writing!
Even if you get a $200,000 advance for your book, you still cannot make a living out of writing!!
This has been a public service announcement. Thank you for your attention.
ETA: If you’re interested, I’ve written a follow-up, which can be found here.
Support The Billfold on Patreon
The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by supporting us on Patreon.