Yesterday, I finished reading Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin. The book is essays, interviews and memoirs from successful writers. (Although the entire idea of what a “successful writer” is is a large part of the book’s message.) If I’m being honest, it’s the first book about writing that I’ve read in full. And I didn’t want to stop reading it. Once I finished the book I felt as though my friends were abandoning me as I connected to so many of the stories as an aspiring writer.
Here are some memorable quotes from the book, followed by lessons I learned.
“People wonder when you’re allowed to call yourself a writer. I think maybe the answer is when you recognize that it is work.” – Nina MacLaughlin
“Many young writers hold the conviction that a day will come when they don’t have to do anything but write. When we speak about our “Work,” we mean our writing. We treat this work with reverence and hold it up as the work that makes us who we are: artists. But beneath the surface of our art is a life largely spent doing other work: basement shifts, rent gigs and adjunct positions… I started to realize work wasn’t what was holding me back; the ideal of the Writer’s Life was. Once I let myself understand that statistically I would probably never – yes, never – be able to quit working, the hours I had spent agonizing over having a day job became hours in which I could write. I began to transfer the energy behind my fantasy into real ambition.” – Manjula Martin
“My book is on the New York Times bestseller list right now and we do not have any money in our checking account.” — Cheryl Strayed (See Lesson #3)
“‘If you’re not necessarily interested in having an audience, if you’re not interested in making a living off your art, then you don’t have to worry about self-promotion. Don’t self-promote.’ ‘Something I hear a lot is, I’m not interested in being on social media, or I’m not interested in being on the internet.’ ‘Right. Which is like saying I’m not interested in the printing press.'” – Austin Kleon (See Lesson #1).
“‘Do what you love’ implies that the only person you’re responsible for is yourself, but if you have children or a sick spouse or people to take care of… The other side of that kind of thinking is that it makes people with a good day job feel like shit, too. And then there’s the idea that you could make a living doing anything you love. Like, if you love avant-garde poetry… I mean, c’mon man.” – Austin Kleon (See Lesson #4).
“The thing that kept you spiritually alive now not only has to keep you spiritually alive, but also has to keep you financially alive.” – Austin Kleon
“Today my dream is front and center, but living the dream isn’t the happy ending I once imagined. The truth is, my dream has changed; it has become clearer to me, and more challenging. Your story doesn’t end when your dreams cone true, it changes.” – Malinda Lo
“Writers are encouraged to believe they are dispositionally opposed to careers in finance, transactions, or law. They are encouraged to self-mythologize as artsy and/or loner and/or incompetent folk. And whether that’s native or induced, writer-types tend to withdraw further and further from the world of math and science…” – Choire Sicha
“‘Disposable,’ say the critics, as if they can see into the future, and know what will be read and what will be ignored, as if they, and not future readers, get to decide ‘This means something, still. This is worth something to me.’ I know all this. Still, the compliments and accolades always fade into the background, the praise evaporated almost as soon as it’s been uttered. The bad reviews and criticism echo; they linger like scars or like brands. I hear them, over and over…” – Jennifer Weiner
Here is what I learned from the book.
- Self promote. I have never been a fan of Twitter, or hashtags. Ever. I’m still not. But as a writer, I know that language evolves, and if we don’t keep up, we will fade out. SO! Follow, like, etc.
- An MFA is nice, but maybe not necessary. Jennifer Weiner wrote that she got accepted to grad schools and then declined to attend because she didn’t want to take out more loans. And I swear she was telling me, “Don’t worry about not going to grad school.” I’ve thought about getting an MFA, but then I’d be overqualified for the job market I’m in, and of course in even more debt.
- The notion of success for a writer is vastly different from any other career. I often feel like people don’t take my writing seriously. Granted, it’s not “serious work” (whatever that means); it’s often “fluff” about love, life, and being in your twenties. (Jennifer Weiner also struggled with being rich vs. being respected). I hear, “When are you going to go to law school?” or “Maybe you should try this career path instead,” or my favorite, “Why don’t you just find a sponsor for your blog, and then you’ll quickly be ‘famous?'” Why isn’t being a writer enough for people? Being successful as a writer frequently is measured by whether or not you’re on the NYT Bestseller List, or how much money you’ve made in royalties. But is that success? When you rely on writing to pay the bills, will the passion fade? Is that success? Maybe success is just finishing your novel. (See Lesson 5) I don’t know what success looks like for me in terms of writing. But I’m sure hopeful that I’ll find out.
- Keep your day job. It may not thrill you, it may not be related to your degree, and we all know you probably don’t like it, but it pays the bills. Be a writer on your lunch hour, after work, and on weekends.
- I’m doing okay. I think the path I’m going down, is an okay path. I’m starting to see the footprints of many writers on this same path. I may not feel like I’m getting anywhere, but I have to just keep going. This is what writers do. They struggle, and they keep on trying. Most importantly they keep on writing. JK Rowling tweeted about just finishing whatever piece you’re working on, because what you learn in the process, and the discipline you gain is worth it in the end. Just because there may not be an audience yet, doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be one. Keep writing. Keep trying. Keep believing.