Talking to Nicole Eiden About Writing Poetry and Baking Pies
While waiting tables two nights a week.
Nicole Eiden is a poet, baker, and filmmaker. Her first book of poems, I Am One of You, was released in 2016. She opened a pie company, Windowsill Pies, with her co-owner, Marielle Dupré, in 2011.
How Nicole found the time to write is a mystery, because since opening Windowsill Pies, she and Dupre have received the Woman Entrepreneur Fellowship at the 2016 New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, were Sugar Showdown champions on the Cooking Channel, and were named “People to Watch” by New Orleans Magazine. In 2017, they will open a European-style coffee shop focused on sweet and savory pies.
Although Nicole writes and bakes her way through life now, she was once-upon-a-time a graduate student in film production. Her short films won multiple first place prizes at several prestigious festivals, yet she hasn’t found a way to continue her filmmaking and pursue pies and poetry. She lives in New Orleans with her husband, a self-employed musician, and their daughter.
Even in the chaos of being a business owner, artist, wife and mother, Nicole continues to wait tables two days a week. I talked with her about managing finances across many avenues.
Your first book of poems was published this year. Are you making any money from it?
My bookstore and Amazon sales go directly to the publisher. When she recoups her investment, I will make money from sales. However, at readings, I sell books directly that I bought at cost.
I did get $100 from reading at a university.
Did you make money when you signed the contract?
Are you making anything from individual sales?
At readings, I sell books directly for $15 that I bought at cost for $5. I will earn 8 percent royalties on the net of the first 5,000 books sold after the publisher’s initial investment.
How did the book come about?
The book came about through a relationship that I had with a valued member of my writing group. I was working on my screenplay in this group and the others were working on novels. I asked my small group to help me decide which poems to submit to the Tennessee Williams Festival poetry competition. One of the members passed them on to his wife and then to his daughter. They all really loved them. Unbeknownst to me, his daughter had a small publishing company and was looking for the right work for the next publication. I was shocked when she approached me. It was such a non-traditional way to get a first book published. I couldn’t believe she wanted to invest in me. Our relationship has been a gift.
Are you still making films?
I am still working on my screenplay but not on a daily basis, which is what I want to be doing. I want to be in my screenplay wholeheartedly. Because of a death and some life changes, my writing group disbanded. I have been so occupied with the book, the growing pie company and my daughter, that I haven’t been working on my screenplay. I am still involved with a local chapter of Women in Film and Video (WIFT) but I feel estranged from film, in a way. But my goal is to get my screenplay made.
Approximately how much do you make a year baking pies?
We still don’t take a regular salary, but pay ourselves intermittently when we can. Our business plan and our projections for our shop have both of us making $800/week built into the budget. When that is a reality, I will be elated. Last year we drew about $3,000. This year, we are trying to save for our business loan.
We do pay ourselves between $200–$600 here and there. We take just enough to financially survive personally during our own lean times. We want to get the shop open so we don’t rely on outside jobs for income.
How many hours a week do you work in the pie company?
Depends. Between 20 and 80 hours a week. We keep getting more weddings, which is a wonderful new opportunity for us. This year most of our Thanksgiving customers were people we didn’t know! We made 250 pies for T-day!!
You continue to wait tables even though you have these other responsibilities. Why?
Financial and emotional reasons. I’m really about to be done. I need to take the plunge.
Mike, my husband, is a self-employed audio engineer and violinist. He owns a recording studio. He is Grammy-nominated and is always working, working, working. Since he doesn’t get a salary or a predictable wage, budgeting is hard for us. Like most artistic jobs outside of teaching, we have no benefits and buy our own health insurance. We have benefited tremendously from the Affordable Care Act even though our state hasn’t supported it or created their own exchange. Furthermore, some aspects of the work are very seasonal.
Even though I feel spread very thin, I’m holding onto my two days at the restaurant for logistical and emotional reasons. Before my parents moved to New Orleans, we were paying a babysitter on my work nights, which cut into the earned amount even more. But the cash really has helped out. We do need the money. If that wasn’t the case, I would quit even though I like the work, because I like my own creative work better.
However, part of the reason I’m still there is emotional. Not working at a restaurant means I can’t go back. I’ve waited tables in many different kinds of environments since I was 16. For the last four years, I’ve worked at a great restaurant, which can be challenging to find, and I know when I quit, I quit for good. At that point, there will be even that much more pressure on me to make the pie shop a success. My gut knows that this is necessary.
Right now I have no down time. I can’t seem to create the solitude I need to get more writing work done. In the past, I’ve never made excuses about why I’m not writing, and I was always able to prioritize “coming to the table” no matter what else was happening in my life. I don’t believe in waiting for the “right moment” to write. I know it is a practice and my past work exemplifies this mindset.
But right now, with all I’m doing, I’m struggling to carve the time. I’m struggling to be with my daughter in the way that I want to be, because the nights I’m not at work, it seems like there are other things I need to do, whether it’s a once a month WIFT meeting, or a WIFT event, or attending a reading, or doing a pie event. I feel an intense pressure to be part of the three professional worlds that I inhabit. The pie work keeps demanding more but I’m am not letting go of the restaurant hours. So many people, including my husband, my parents, and my in-laws, have been so helpful over the years, I feel like I need to keep doing EVERYTHING I can to make money even though it might be penny wise/pound short.
Also, both of us are always working/moving so we don’t take the time to really organize a lot of our finances, etc. We do have some systems in place, but the maintenance of these systems is really hard to prioritize when there is more paid work to do. Crazy-making. Every artist/business workshop I have ever taken has discussed this issue but still I can’t break the pattern. With the pie company, it’s so much more of a business that I come to with a different mindset. Plus, Marielle is great with QuickBooks and orders.
How do you make time for all of your jobs?
I’m struggling. I’m up late waiting tables or spending time with my husband when he comes home from a late gig. Elwyn’s school is early. We all get up at 7 a.m. to get ready. Ideally, I would love to be up earlier than the family to write. But getting less than 6 hours of sleep hurts my creativity, too.
I usually block out my pie responsibilities on my calendar first and then work in my other book work around that. With book logistics, promotion, and readings going on, I am definitely not creating writing time like I have always done in the past. Also, I am constantly working on our old house in one capacity or another. And, most importantly, doing all the things that raising a child requires. The obvious things like trying to make a meal and not live in a sty. But the subtler things too — just being together as a family, having adventures, birthday parties, etc. It adds up to a lot of physical time and brain bandwidth. When she is home on the weekends or the nights I am home, I rarely do any other work and definitely no creative work. After she goes to bed, I am spent. My brain can only handle cleaning up and watching a show.
Do you see any cohesion among your jobs?
I certainly take risks and start without fully understanding the path or process. I learn with each step.
I do create my own life by making things that were not there before. The pie company started when I was in a dark place. I felt like my education and past work opportunities were rich and I could get “a job” with them but it would mean putting in a lot of energy in an area that I wasn’t interested in putting a lot of energy into. How successful can you really be doing that? I felt like I had a better chance of financial freedom by starting something myself.
However, making pies is one thing. Learning about business has been humbling. We have been working with the Louisiana Small Business Development Center for a few years. They have helped us really delve into the details of our business plan and projections. I want to really know what is going on with the business and be more in control. Having some successes has meant that people with business knowledge have been interested in mentoring us. Once again, it’s hard to learn and grow while keeping up with the daily work. But I know it’s crucial.
With the pie company, I was really trusting that my enthusiasm and my passion for quality would guide me from one successful small step to the next. I really tried to believe in myself and educate myself at the same time. Also, having a terrific partner has been a real key to the success of Windowsill Pies. There is no way I could have had the necessary stamina to keep going at the level we are going if I was doing it alone. Furthermore, because there are two of us, we can share the workload while working other places and earning enough to live. Working together makes maintaining our side gig while growing the company possible. The slow and steady approach has been good for us.
Which do you wish would make you the most money?
I would love to be able to make direct money as a writer. I thrive in the world of ideas and language. It is my natural home. Making food is certainly as second art form. But it is not the my truest expression of self.
Do you have any other sources of income?
MY HUSBAND! Having a supportive partner has been essential. Financially, I couldn’t have done it without him. But additionally, he has always helped me focus on the big picture of where I’m headed with Windowsill Pies.
One of the poems in your book won an award. It happens to be “Mortgage,” your poem about money. What inspired it?
Gosh, I wrote that poem when we were mid-renovation of our 1920s New Orleans shotgun and were out of money. I was waiting tables and working as a documentary film assistant editor. I was worn out and frustrated. So much seemed out of reach.
It seems that real art can come from money struggles, and a fulfilling life can be created across multiple industries. Thanks for sharing your story, Nicole. Best of luck in all endeavors!
Amanda Page writes mostly about place and personal finance on amanda-page.com. You can follow her on Twitter: @amandadashpage
Support The Billfold