Art vs. Money? Thoughts on Manjula Martin’s Scratch

I know I promised this weeks ago, but as I’ve said before, sometimes life interferes.

scratch-9781501134579_hr.jpgIn fact, that’s a pretty great segue into this book – a collection of personal essays and
interviews from writers – which documents the struggles, conflicting advice, stigma and strategy of making money as a writer. When life, a “real” job, family or countless other things interfere, how can you successfully  and financially make it as an author and an author alone?

How do you sell a thing like love?

This is what Manjula Martin seeks to answer.

Because writing isn’t treated like any other job. Creativity isn’t traded equally like any other commodity.

Now I’ll admit it took me a while to get through this collection. Some of the essays were vastly more interesting than others, some just droned on and on, and some were downright depressing (I’m looking at you Kiese Laymon).

But there were plenty nuggets of wisdom that – as an author who also works a full-time job and makes no money at all from her creative pursuits – I found more than useful.

On Struggles, Stigmas, and Sacrifice

“There’s no other job in the world and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million!” – Cheryl Strayed

“Pay the fucking journalists! We should put an end to the expectation that stuff be free.”
– Jonathan Franzen

“I’m not putting all my hopes and dreams on my agent’s shoulders. What I’ve actually done is outsourced the business-negotiation aspects… That feels a hell of a lot better than clinging to the idea that someone else has the power to make or break my career.”
– Cari Luna

“Oprah only deals with real writers.” – Kiese Laymon’s rude agent

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“While I was waiting for the light to change I watched a very comfortable-looking man about my age pull up to the corner in a nice car to pick somebody up. I thought, That’s my generation in that car. And I’m on this bicycle.” – Richard Rodriguez

“When you go into something so blindly, you don’t know what will happen; you just work at it. Now I always think my students know too much about the business.” – Yiyun Li

“At the end of the day, if I had really needed to get a job that paid the bills, I could have. And I always chose not to, because I wanted to write. So I didn’t feel entitled to public assistance.” – Cheryl Strayed

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“Strip everything away and you find the equivalent of an over-indulged kid — Look at me! Listen to me! I’m special! I have something to say! And you have to pay me for it!”
– Nick Hornby

“It is a fact that even a NYTBR-approved novelist can still find herself in highly undignified positions at certain times…I haven’t had money for weeks.” – Porochista Khakpour

“Too bad compliments [on your writing] don’t pay the rent.” – Nina MacLaughlin’s dick of a boyfriend

On Day Jobs

“What happens when the thing that kept you… spiritually alive now not only has to keep you spiritually alive but also has to keep you financially alive. Like,  literally alive. It gets complicated very quickly, and it can really turn into a drag.” – Austin Kleo

“Day jobs are a mechanism beneath the business of literature. As such, they don’t just pay our bills; they’re what we do with most of our lives. Is there value to be found in a day job beyond its paycheck?” – Manjula Martin

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“Being writers and only writers, [Adam Zagajeski] said, meant you would be stuck in the corral, communing only with the other ponies, when you should be exploring the world beyond the enclosure.” – Nell Boeschenstein

On Not Thinking about Money

“You’re a writer. You’re supposed to flap your hands and make girly gestures when confronted with money.” – Choire Sicha

“Money taints everything, why not writing too? Once its value is determined by the marketplace rather than the writer or the reader, our relationship to literature becomes estranged. But this romantic picture of a writer, toiling without regard to money, is itself a fiction.” – Colin Dickey

“Art and commerce are not separate. They are not even different. Write to suffer, publish to starve. And have the courage to give your work a purpose, to want a future for it, however painful it may be to hope.” – J. Robert Lennon

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“Some people say that writers shouldn’t think about money. That’s bullshit. Not thinking about money wastes my time… Thinking about money has saved me from writing another novel that probably won’t sell.” – Kate McKean

“What if we stopped thinking of money as the dirty secret of creative pursuit and instead recognized money as one of its constituent threads? It’s always already there anyway.”
– Leslie Jamison

On The Dream

“Being a writer is running a small business.” – Susan Orlean

“Selling fiction feels like I’ve cast a spell on the world and made it give me something that didn’t exist before. It’s the closest thing to actual magic I can think of.” – Alexander Chee

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“I think too many people try to discourage the dream…” – Roxane Gay


Final thoughts…

Let’s take an average Monday morning. I walk into the office and sit at my desk. Coworkers drop by and friends text me to ask “What did you do this weekend?”

My typical response: I worked mostly.

They’re always confused. “Worked? Like you had to go into the office?”

“No,” I explain. “I worked. Wrote a few chapters of my new novel, knocked out a new blog post, reviewed a book and did some promotion on Twitter.”

“Ohhhh,” they say in that moment of condescending clarity. “So it wasn’t really work.”

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Excuse me, but writing a 80K word novel, building an author platform, and promoting my brand is a job for me. Yes, it’s a job where I don’t get paid. It’s a job that requires a lot of upfront work without much initial success. But it is my business, and I take it very seriously – sacrifice, stigma and struggles in hand.

Now I don’t intend to give up my day job anytime soon. I’m lucky enough to work in a position where I can continue to hone my writing skills and experience all sorts of new situations and different types of people. While staying home in my pajamas everyday and doing nothing but writing sounds appealing, it also sounds constricting.

But no one in a creative profession thinks to themselves, “Oh I’ll just pour my soul into a novel, a record, a poem, whatever and then be perfectly happy locking it in a drawer where no one can ever see it, where it makes no money and doesn’t get any recognition.”

Except maybe J.D. Salinger but we all know he had issues.

These days, the image of the struggling author is one mostly of fiction. No more self-important torment. We choose to be creative people, and therefore, we commit to the possibility of struggling. But should we have to?

Yes, I write because it’s my passion. But I also write to make a contribution to society. No other professional in any other field would be expected to contribute their work for no compensation. So just like a doctor, a financial analyst, a professional athlete, or someone with a “real job,” writers also work for money. Why is that so taboo to say?

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Back to Scratch, Martin certainly does her job of shining a light on “the debate around writing and commerce.”

If you are writing because it’s your passion, read on. If, however, you are writing to become rich and famous… This book will definitely have you reconsidering. The J.K. Rowling’s and Stephen King’s of the world are few and far between. Sometimes the struggle never ends. But as any author – financially successful or not – will tell you…

To be a writer you must, first, write. You may just need to alter your definition of success and seek for internal fulfillment instead of relying on the mysterious connection between making money and writing books.

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