How to make a living as a writer.
Mary Soderstrom is the author of over 15 books — some of which, such as Road through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move, looks at the deep aspects of why we travel, and I consider her writing essential for any traveler. Her next book is called Frenemy Nations: Love and Hate between Neighbo(u)ring States, which I’m currently reading a draft of to provide a cover blurb.
Mary is an example of a successful author; she is someone who lives and travels off of the written word. But when I recently checked out Mary Soderstrom’s Goodreads page I found something interesting that really hit home. It was a response to a question: “What’s your advice for aspiring writers?”
Mary laid it out plainly:
“Whenever a young person asks me for advice, I say ‘hook up with a partner with a good day job.’ Writers who can live from their writing are few and far between. A partner who believes in you is a wonderful thing–and it helps when it’s time to put food on the table or a roof over your head.”
Writing is a Babe Ruth kind of profession. You either hit it out of the park or you strike out. There are stretches where I make good money; there are other stretches where I make next to nothing. The tenuous part is that you never know when you are entering either. There are rarely any signposts that say, “You are going to make a lot of money this week” or “Next month you’re not going to make shit.” It’s a tumultuous, unpredictable profession, and this is part of what I love about it: you work hard, publish, and sit back and watch what comes of it. Writing has taken me places I’ve never imagined, but it’s also left me with on the edge of penniless wondering how I’m going to get money for my family. Contrary to the writer’s reputation, it is a hopeful profession. Like gambling, you need to have this unalterable belief that the next hand is going to come up aces.
But also like gambling, it’s not the wins or losses that really matter. That’s just the justification for the game. What it’s really about is the process — that’s what you get hooked on, that’s why you sit still in a little room all by yourself for hundreds of hours typing, typing, typing. You do it because you like it. Money is just something that you can use to make everybody leave you alone.
My wife is not a writer. She’s not an artist. She’s not an entrepreneur. She’s a worker-bee. She likes formal employment. And regular paychecks. And knowing how much money she makes. She likes the appearance of security from the 9-5. She doesn’t like informal work or hustling a living — that’s just not who she is.
And because that’s just not who she is we’re a good fiscal pair. I’ve brought in $11,000 in a day once. I regularly write articles for corporate publications that pay between $800 and $1,100 a pop. Every once in a while I hit it big on Forbes — one time making over $4,000 from one story. But sometimes my monthly take is rather adolescent. I vacillate between man-the-provider and deadbeat with the regularity of the seasons … and it’s just part of the game of writing.
For years my wife taught at Montessori schools in China, and this was the time that our financial strategy materialized. It worked well. She’d take care of the baseline earnings and I’d add in the spikes. As Mary pointed out, this is the arrangement that the writer needs.
These past few years my wife hasn’t worked and I’ve been faced with coming up with most of our earnings. A certain about of anxiety was infused into my work, and it started seeming … like work. I began craving new paths.
Now my wife took a job in NYC. It pays reasonably well. But compared to the cost of living there I’m not quite sure how well. The hope is that we can again gain an equilibrium in earnings and I can go back to swinging for the fences.