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Talking About Money: Why Writers Need to Be More Honest About How We Earn

by | Feb 10, 2015

We don’t talk about money. For all the social advancements I’ve experienced in my brief lifetime, we still don’t talk about money. It’s our everlasting taboo.

For the independently employed, that taboo is almost more severe. We juggle clients and assignments and projects, but we only speak in ranges.

There is something to be said for being polite, yes. But in this new normal of freelance-as-full-time (which often exhibits as piecing-together-enough-part-time-gigs-to-make-it-work), we need to talk about money.

Sponsorship: For better or for worse

Ann Bauer’s recent essay on Salon, “Sponsored by My Husband,” finally started the conversation, but the truth was harsh. Some writers, she illustrates through a series of examples, have connections or family ties that allow them to work as a writer even when they don’t earn much money.

She explains her own path: that she published her first novel at the age of 39. She was a single mother who spent three months under her parents’ roof while she finished her first draft. She fought tooth and nail, and her gratefulness for the marriage she’s in now — a partnership, to be sure — is clear. “I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job,” she admits.

The responses to Bauer’s piece have been varied and at times even heated. Brevity’s social media editor, Allison K. Williams, shared that she tailored her online dating preferences hoping to find a mate who could take care of her financially… and it worked.

“Not paying my own rent is weird,” she writes. “Letting him hand me money for groceries and taxis is weird. But it’s better than not writing.”

Bay-Area freelancer Stephanie Lucianovic explores the idea that it takes more than a breadwinning partner to be a successful writer. She shared a string of tweets that she later expanded in a post on Medium, and which I have compiled here:

My last book was sponsored by my husband. My advance was eaten by the daycare needed to write it in the first place. My next book will be sponsored by my husband, the editing jobs I cram into every nook and cranny, the tears of my children, and my ego.

My writing has been sponsored by: no vacations in almost six years, on a single family car, and library books only. No glamor. Reality. My last book was also sponsored by my MIL who came out to help during the writing and again when I toured. Tour 100 percent sponsored by my husband.

All of these conversations bring up something many of us already knew: we’re grasping at straws. In the dark. While wearing mittens.

Some of us get help, by chance or by choice. Some find other ways to endure the battle to practice our craft. Laura Bogart, who writes for sites like Dame and The Rumpus, offered powerful declaration of independence.

“I will never be beholden to any man, however loving and supportive he may be,” she writes. “Having a husband as a patron is just as intangible as lighting out for the coast with only moxie and a moleskin. I don’t have a way out; I only have a way though.”

Her call to action is one that we share here at The Write Life: “We need more stories of women artists finding their way through… Marrying well, or leaving life behind altogether, cannot be the only answer.”

We need stories from men, too. Because surely some men face the same challenges, making choices around independence and how we cobble together our writing careers. This is more than a conversation about gender. It’s a conversation about craft.

A new normal for writers

The stories are starting to appear. But for the most part, they are disheartening at best.

In these essays by women with two, three or four books under their belts, we find having your name on the shelf doesn’t necessarily make life as a writer easier or even sustainable. In Facebook groups and discussion boards, we hesitate to share what we made for a piece that (after much hand-wringing, usually) landed at a major publication.

But we are talking about the publications that pay very little. Directories by Scratch magazine and The Freelancer have sprung up to help writers estimate what they might be paid by a variety of publications.

We have to remember that people pitch and publish their writing for various reasons; some are dead-set on the career track, while others like to dabble, with the occasional financial reward. If we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that it takes a lot of writing for $25 or $50 per piece to build a career and/or nest egg.

Our own Nicole Dieker is a great example of kicking up the conversation about money. She just brought her freelance income column to The Write Life, where she’s publicly tracking her to-the-penny income each and every month. She also shares how many pieces she writes each month. And that’s where it gets scary.

Dieker wrote 65 pieces in December (a slow month, she notes). She wrote 102 pieces in November. Sure, some of those pieces were likely short — she’s not writing long-form magazine-style — but that’s more than three pieces every day of the week. All seven days.

I am convinced that Dieker doesn’t sleep. I don’t know her personally, but I know she’s working hard. So are the rest of the women who have responded to Bauer’s initial piece. It’s time we all follow their lead and admit that the market for freelance writers is terrifying.

Kelly Sundberg’s response to Bauer’s post on Brevity struck me most. “I don’t have sponsorships,” she writes from her perspective as Brevity’s managing editor, “I have jobs. The only person sponsoring me is me, and for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

So, let’s talk

This is our fight as writers, and for most of us, it’s not going to be pretty. With that in mind, I invite you to start your own conversation about money. Do it with your writer friends, or do it in a trusted online circle. Maybe even start with your family. Start talking about why you write, and what sacrifices you’ve had to make to lead this life and this career.

I, for one, am ready to take off these mittens and turn on the light.

What do you think about the sponsorship debate?