Well, it's happened again. An article on another blog has annoyed me, and I've just got to respond to it. This time, not surprisingly, the annoying article was on Salon, which is basically the wellspring of annoying articles about writers, books, publishing... even about the act of writing itself.
This time the author of the article is Ann Bauer. And I have to say, I don't disagree with everything Ann said. I agree with her that conversations about class and income are awkward, but that they're important for writers to have, because writing is a profession that's been dogged by some pernicious and potentially destructive mythologies for a very long time.
Somebody is wrong on the internet!
Virtually everybody who first sets out to make a career as a writer does so under some form of delusion--take your pick: that it's easy, that it'll make you rich, that once you have a book deal your problems will be solved, that all you'll ever have to do is write, that all good books get published. I found the process of snapping out of these various delusions rather painful--what do you mean, the career I've wanted since I was eight years old isn't anything like the media and other writers and the whole damn world have led me to think?--and I'd rather not see more writers hurt by the same uncomfortable wake-up calls. So I think it's important to disseminate the truth about writing--about what it means to be a working novelist. Writers are, after all, my people, and nobody wants to see a member of their own tribe suffer.
So while I applaud and agree with Ms. Bauer's statement that we need to talk about what it's really like to be a writer, I am rather offended by the way she went about it. Mostly because her assertions are entirely wrong, and nothing offends the modern sensibility (or fuels my extempore blog posts) quite like somebody being wrong on the internet.
In the Salon piece, Bauer asserts that "full-time authors" are putting on a certain masquerade. She uses her own life as the ultimate example--
Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.
--to assert that all full-time writers a) live a privileged life (not true) and that b) they couldn't possibly get there or stay there on their own. They must have outside support in order to obtain the privilege we associate with "the writer's life."
She then goes on to provide two examples of independently wealthy people who later became writers, thus proving for all time, I guess, that there are no other sorts of full-time writers out there. Each and every person who writes full-time is either "from money" or has a wealthy husband who supports her. (Of course, nobody ever claims that men who write full-time are sponsored by their wives, but this is by far not the first time I've seen somebody claim that female writers must be supported by a male spouse.)
Bauer then wraps up her point by telling us that she used to live in poverty and struggle mightily, and was only able to achieve full-time-writer status with the financial support of other people (first her mother, then her rich husband.)
Ta-daaa! That proves it, I suppose: Bauer is right, and everybody who writes full-time does so at the indulgence of somebody else--either a husband, or the generations of wealthy people who gave rise to you, O Privileged Writer. You can't get there on your own, and if you aren't already a socialite with double MFAs in creative writing (one of Bauer's examples), don't quit your day job. Ever.
Except that Bauer isn't right. She's dead wrong. I agree with her that it's both important and rather creepy-feeling to talk about one's class and one's income, but I also think it's important that the truth gets out there. The whole truth, not the "truth" as distorted by Bauer's privileged perspective.
I know, because I skimmed through some of the predictably obnoxious, preciously posing comments (par for the course on Salon) that some people who read Bauer's article felt discouraged. They felt the article confirmed some of their deepest fears, that they'd never be able to achieve the full-time career they want because they don't have the leisure or the connections required.
I don't like seeing other writers discouraged, so I'm about to introduce you to a full-time novelist who earns more than her husband does. I'm about to introduce you to a working writer who has no other job, no family connections, and no education--no privilege or advantage of any kind, in fact, unless you count general societal white privilege, which is probably counter-balanced by the very real bias in this industry against female authors and also by the fact that I grew up poor as hell.
Yep, that working novelist is me.
Libbie Hawker at her crassest
I’m going to tell you where I came from, how I got here, and (roughly) how much money I earn from my books. You might find this crass, and it is, because discussions about one’s class and income are always crass. You might find it to be humblebragging. I don’t care. I’m not disclosing this for head-pats or to make you think I’m cool. I’m disclosing it to comfort those who were discouraged by Ann Bauer’s skewed ideas about what is required in order to write full-time. I’m trying to undo some of the damage this vicious myth does to aspiring writers—that you have to be rich to begin with, or marry into money, or else your dream will never become a reality.
My background is not unlike Ann’s. I was born in rural Idaho to a family of middling but unspectacular means—by rural Idaho standards. In Seattle, where I live now, my family’s comfortable income wouldn’t pay for rent in a shoebox, as we found out when my parents divorced and my mother moved us to Seattle to be close to her family.
My now-single mom worked two jobs at once, enrolled in community college, got accepted into the University of Washington, and completed her bachelor’s degree. While working. Multiple jobs. She busted her butt to support my sister and me—and not without the help of my grandma, who busted her butt just as much.
With both our “parents” constantly busting their butts, my sister and I essentially raised ourselves—or each other—for much of our childhood. It was an uphill struggle for all of us. We sometimes had to turn to the welfare dole just to keep food on the table, and I quietly went without the things my friends had—the things I desperately longed to have, too, like summer camp and horse-riding lessons. I know my mom and granny would have given me those childhood experiences if they could. But I also knew, as young as I was, that my family just couldn’t afford it.
Doesn’t sound like the sort of privileged family, rubbing elbows with social movers and shakers, that Ann Bauer claims one needs in order to have a career as a writer, does it?
In my early life, fate shot my chance at Writerly Privilege in one foot by sticking me in a decidedly non-privileged family. (That’s irony, in case it doesn’t come across. My family is awesome and I wouldn’t change my past even if I could. Okay, maybe I’d spend one summer at camp.)
I shot my potential privilege’s other foot, though, by deciding not to go to college.
I knew I wanted to be a writer someday—all that time my sister and I spent as latchkey kids while Mom and Granny worked, we mostly spent reading, and I knew from the first time I cruised through Watership Down in the second grade that I would accept no career other than writing. I quickly reasoned that nobody needed to go to college to learn how to write well—I was right about that, by the way, so the example-author in Bauer’s article can put both her MFAs in her pipe and smoke ‘em—and figured my efforts would be better spent practicing my fledgling craft and reading everything I could get my hands on.
I took this outlook to such extremes that except for arts classes and time with my friends, high school meant nothing to me, and all the time I should have spent applying myself, I used for reading and writing instead. Consequently, I do not have a high-school diploma, either, nor do I have a GED—though I did finish all four years of high school. (It provided me with ample opportunity to read books, so of course I went to school every day for four years!)
To recap, let’s tally up the strikes against my Writer Privilege: not from old money; not a socialite; did not go to college; doesn’t even have a valid high-school diploma.
Libbie Hawker at her poorest
Bauer’s mention of her first husband certainly struck a familiar chord with me. I don’t like to disparage my ex-husband, who is generally a pretty good guy, so suffice it to say that I found reason to sympathize with Bauer’s description of her first marriage and the struggles she experienced. I don’t have any kids, so at least I didn’t have to worry about providing for anybody other than myself, but going through a difficult marriage and then a divorce were the hardest things I’ve faced so far—so hard that they made the extreme poverty I lived in afterward feel like a vacation.
And in many ways, those years were a vacation—they were freeing. My richest year post-divorce and prior to marrying my second husband (who, like Bauer’s second hubby, is a real partner and adds immeasurably to my life) I earned a whopping $11,000. For the entire year. Even in rural Idaho, it would be difficult to stretch $11,000 over one year. How I managed to pull this off in Seattle still boggles my mind. I literally have no idea how I did it.
But as dirt-poor as I was, I still look on that time as one of the best points in my life. It’s not enough to say that my writing flowed. It ripped out of me; I was so unable to not write that I carried a little pocket-sized notebook and a pen with me all the time, and whenever a compelling thought or a lovely sentence would pop into my head, I’d stop what I was doing and write it down.
For all the time I’d spent reading and writing, those mid- and post-divorce times were the most instructive and constructive of my entire budding career. Nothing makes a good writer write gooder than feeling, feeling, feeling, and dear God, was I ever feeling it all. If ever I could have said that I was “led by the Muse” (a concept I do not believe in), it was during those obsessive notebook days.
But why the notebook? Why didn’t I stop what I was doing and go work on my actual novel?
BECAUSE I WAS WORKING. All the time. I had two jobs, each about 37 hours per week, one of which required me to commute 114 miles round-trip each day. (The economy then was even worse than it is now, so one took whatever one could find.) It was the busiest I’d ever been, and it was unfortnate that the demands of my “muse” didn’t correspond neatly with my free time—not that I really had a lot of free time.
But I didn’t let that stop me. During this insanity, I wrote Baptism for the Dead, which stood as my best novel ever until Tidewater came along, and depending on your tastes, you might still find Baptism to be the superior book.
What I learned, and where that lesson got me
I realized that the intense feelings that allowed me to produce high-caliber art wouldn’t be with me forever. I found out during those strange, poignant, intensely beautiful days what it means to be a real writer: that you do it—you do the task, you complete the chapter, you work with discipline and focus—even if you have to juggle a divorce and two jobs and a 114-mile-a-day commute. You write, no matter what else is happening around you, including the necessities of your day-to-day life, or you don’t write. You are a writer, or you are not a writer, regardless of whether the timing is perfect, regardless of whether you have a desk to sit at, regardless of whether you can make your mid-day yoga class that your husband’s insurance pays for.
In those difficult days, I learned that the timing might never be perfect—ever. I learned to listen to my senses and my emotions as I worked at my day jobs, so that I could tap that well of words when it was time to write. I learned to make time to write, every single day. I learned that being a writer doesn’t mean living a certain lifestyle. It means dedication and drive. It meant, for me, not waiting for my career to land in my lap due to circumstances or privilege. It meant grabbing hold of the identity I’d always sensed was mine, from the first time I’d read Watership Down as a latchkey kid, and making it my reality in spite of my stunning lack of just the right set of privileges.
Eventually I started dating my second husband. By now my resolve to have my writing career no matter what was so strong that I asked him, on an early date, whether he’d ever feel threatened by being with a woman who earned more money than he did. Lots of men do feel threatened by that scenario—men are just as susceptible to pernicious societal expectations as women are. To my pleasure, Paul laughed and said, “I think it’d be awesome if you earned more money than I do.” A good thing, because if he’d given any other answer, I would have broken up with him on the spot. I’d already dealt with one relationship that hobbled my personality and therefore my creativity. I wasn’t going to do it again.
Only a few months after we married, Paul proved as good as his word, when the income from my self-published books first eclipsed my day-job income, then his. He was unfailing in his enthusiasm and support, and was wholly behind me when I quit my day job to write full-time.
In that sense—in the incredible amount of pride Paul has in my career—I am absolutely supported by my husband, and happy to be. Just like Ann Bauer, I can say that every morning, my husband and I get up, shower, and make coffee. I, too, am already at my desk by the time Paul is dressed in his Carhartts and his steel-toed boots. He kisses me good-bye and leaves for his job—unclogging toilets, hanging shelves, and fixing squeaky doors at a ritzy apartment building downtown. My husband is a maintenance worker, as blue-collar as can be, and I am, if anything, even more proud of him than he is of me.
While I will admit that we get pretty good health insurance from his once-monthly weekend gig as a military reservist (he is the hardest-working man I’ve ever met), it’s not Paul’s “dirty job” which earns most of the money in our household. It’s my job—writing. Sure, he could find work that pays better, but he loves what he does. Fixing what’s broken, problem-solving, and slinging tools all day makes him happy. He gets fulfillment from helping the residents of his building, and he loves the fact that maintenance gives him variety each day and a daily sense of real accomplishment. There is never an overlfowing inbox or loose ends left dangling. He’s happy—he likes going to work in the morning. And I’m so glad that we both get to do what we love for a living.
How much do I earn? Giving you exact nubmers right here on my blog is really a little too crass, even for me. I will say that I make significantly more than the median income for Seattle, while not yet crossing the six-figures barrier. Not bad, for a kid from Potatoville who’s never rubbed elbows with any New York socialites.
Unfit, and yet here I am.
So there you have it: my complete dossier proving that I am unfit in every conceivable way to be a full-time, professional novelist. From rural Idaho to poverty to having neither a high-school diploma nor a college education, through a wringer of a divorce and into poverty again, all the way up to marrying a man whose income does not support my writing, but whose enjoyable job is in fact subsidized by my books, I am the very photo negative of what a working novelist must be, if you are to believe Ann Bauer.
Ann certainly has my enormous respect for working two jobs to support her kids without the involvement of their dad. I know how difficult that is—I watched my mom do it. But I reject her assertion that people can’t write when they are in crisis mode, whether that crisis is single motherhood, health issues, a hellish divorce, or simply the very real exhaustion that comes from working all damn day at an emotionally draining desk job. On the contrary, if you can establish the discipline to write through a crisis, even if it’s just 500 words a day, you are already halfway down the path to the writing career you want.
The discipline I learned during my gloriously hellish months, when so much in my life was utter chaos (but when my writing was so, so good) served me well later on. For two years prior to quitting my day job, I did nothing with my free time other than write. I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t pursue any hobbies. I got rid of my TV. Paul and I didn’t take any vacations, not even weekend trips. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I built up a backlist, I learned how to self-publish so I could bypass the decades-long waiting line and start building my audience now, and then I wrote some more.
As Ann found out, the more you write, the easier it becomes. She completed her third novel in eight months—an achievement worthy of real pride. I’ve spent so much time writing with dedication—not waiting for the time to do it, regardless of what else is going on in my life—that I’ve condensed the process of writing a full-size novel into about three or four weeks.
Ann’s fans in the Salon comments section were predictably dismissive of anybody else who showed up to defend the interests of working writers. It’s Salon, after all. The general consensus among Salon readers is that Oh, sure, maybe cranking out crappy ‘pop fiction’ is all right for some writers, but real writers…
Please, spare me. Do you want to be a full-time novelist? Then you need to write what sells. Wish for a world in which the population at large will throw Fifty Shades of Grey money at Lolita-quality writing all you like. It won’t change the reality of the market. If you truly want to write for a living, then write for a living, and pursue what is likely to sell.
Believe me, taking an intelligent approach to your business can still leave you with plenty of time to write the books of your heart. (And writing is a business, not a sacred calling like some of these “but real writers…” types believe.) In 2015, I will finally be able to complete three literary novels I’ve been tinkering with in my free time for years now. I couldn’t justify pouring more time into them because I know they won’t earn me any money—literary fiction doesn’t sell well, period. But now that I’ve got a robust backlist of the “pop fiction” that Salon readers so despise, I’ll be able to spend the latter half of 2015 glutting on self-indulgence.
I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to all that navel-gazing. Although I know what it takes to sustain a career as a novelist—and that’s a lively schedule of publishing “pop fiction”—I can sling a memorable phrase and a compelling image alongside the best of ‘em. Literary fiction is what I do best. You won’t ever catch me weeping into my tea over the fact that I can’t make a living writing nothing but lit-fic, though. Who can? I’m earning good money writing what sells. I get to pay all my bills by writing books, and except for the love and enthusiasm that my husband doles out freely, nobody supports me but me.
I agree, Ann Bauer, that we do all aspiring writers a disservice when we don't discuss what it truly means to be a full-time novelist. I agree that it's a huge problem, that the world has a skewed vision of what it really means, and what it really takes, to be a career writer.
So there you have it: I've discussed.
To those who read Ann's article and were discouraged, thinking the deck is insurmountably stacked against you becasue you don't have the right kind of privilege, I hope you find your way to my blog post. I wrote it for you.
Because this is my sole gig, and I've got bills to pay like everybody else, I hope you'll consider supporting my career by purchasing a book. You can find buy links to all my books at http://libbiehawker.com , or on Amazon.