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I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, February 20, 2006

An Income of One's Own

My heart pounded the first time I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I was living with my parents at the time, in a room that didn't feel at all like my own, and commuting by train to Los Angeles to my job in the Dean's Office at a law school. I read Woolf's slim book on the train. I underlined fiercely half of almost every page and wrote nearly illegible notes in the margins; the motion of the train turned my minuscule writing into cuneiform. But oh, the notion that I had a right to a space where I could be completely by myself; and oh, that £500 a year left to me by parents long dead -- I dreamed of a life that contained these two things, about the freedom, of time and mind, they would afford me. I was nursing secret and naive ambitions to be a writer at that time, and couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than to be alone in the world, have no one but myself to be accountable to, and just turn out beautiful stories all day long in my sunlit room with built-in bookcases on all four walls.

I read, some years later, in Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf (a hefty, intimidating, but exceptional book) that Woolf kept careful track of her earnings as a writer and took pride in being able to support herself with the income from her novels, short stories, book reviews, and the small publishing business, Hogarth Press, that she and her husband ran together. Self-reliance meant a lot to her. It means a lot to writers, I think, to see that their writing is something that's needed in the world, that other people pay money for in the same way they do for practical things like bread or milk or a winter coat.

True, anything written with the sole intention of profit turns out pretty terrible most of the time. Yet there's always Dickens, astonishing Dickens. I realize that to define his motivations as entirely pecuniary is a simplistic judgment, but I wonder if his fear of being as poor as he was as a child, his terror of the debtor's prison, didn't give his writing its sometimes mad energy. I occurs to me that a very interesting book could be written -- if it hasn't been already -- about writers' relationship with money, with financial success or lack thereof.

This issue preoccupies me because my own relationship with money is troubled and, more often than I'd like to admit, agonizing. I don't work outside the home; I spend most of my day writing. My husband supports me. He doesn't begrudge me my staying at home; he loves his job and wants me love mine, even though it's not a paying job. And it isn't; I haven't made one cent from my writing. And, to tell the truth, I'm afraid that I never will. This makes me feel useless, humiliated, crippled in a fundamental way. Here I am, in the twenty-first century, a strong believer that women who are not financially independent are less, because in my head not making money is the same as not being able to make money -- here I am, dependent on my husband for food and shelter and money for books. It doesn't matter that he doesn't see it that way. I still think I'm less than what I ought to be.

Margaret Atwood talks about being financially independent as a writer in one of her interviews; she says that earning a decent living was one of her top priorities when she started out. She believes that a writer, especially a woman writer, who is not financially independent cannot be artistically independent. I try not to let Atwood get to me; her feminism bares its teeth every once in a while and turns into a rather frightening thing. But this comment of hers nags me. Is it true? Is it really true? I don't feel it in my writing; I don't feel obligated to write things that my husband likes, for example. But perhaps there's a hesitation, a lack of confidence, a flaccidity in my stories that comes from my inability to make money as a writer.

But I still have time. I know I still have time to become a better writer; there's time to earn some money for my work. It may be that I'll turn ninety one day and will still not have made a cent. I don't know if that's okay. But it doesn't scare me quite as much as the prospect of making lots of money but not writing does.

5 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I have much the same vexed relationship to money as you. The writing for which I get money -- writing catalog copy for faucets or freelance articles on computer security, for example -- doesn't really satisfy my needs as an author. Having just done my taxes, I can say that it doesn't really satisfy my needs for independence and survival, either.

A reasonably large advance for a first novel is $2,500. That's not much to hang your hat on. That's why many writers teach, and why the MFA exists largely as a teaching credential.

You're fortunate that you have a supportive husband, and can take the time you need to craft your writing. In the end, that writing is all the justification you need for your existence. Breaking even is lagniappe.

February 20, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Yes, I am lucky to have my husband's support, and I don't think I'm grateful enough for that.

It never occurred to me that MFA's are there largely to qualify writers for teaching, but it makes sense, or else why pay so much money to learn at school what you learn anyway by writing (A LOT) at home.

I love learning new words, so thank you for "lagniappe" (exiguous is another one I learned from you).

And it's a relief to hear that you think writing is a justification in itself. It makes me feel less discouraged about my accomplishments (or lack thereof).

February 21, 2006  
Blogger madness rivera said...

Writing is an art form, firstly, not a means to pay the rent. It's like expecting a painter to create a portrait that matches the drapes and then receive the check.

I find Atwood and some of her comments ferocious. Of course she's not right. She's right in her own mind/world/realm and the reason for much of her success (other than she's a great writer) is her confident ferocity. Screw her. Wolf lived in a time where no woman was expected to support herself and her triumph comes on uncharted waters. Great for her.

As a writer WHO WISHES HER HUSBAND WOULD SUPPORT HER I say, stop thinking about how you're failing in the financial arena and just write. A marriage is a partnership. Your husband said he has the money thing covered, and your end of the bargain/partnership is to write, be creative, be artistic. Yours and his life works and is better because of this arrangement. But if you keep traipsing into and worrying about his side of the partnership (the money), then you're not let loose enough on yours (the writing)

February 23, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Madness, again you have got to the heart of the matter. A light went on in my head. Thank you for your words. They give me so much courage. I hadn't thought of my worrying about money as encroaching on the side of our partnership that my husband chose to be responsible for. And I didn't consider that, as a result, I was neglecting what my job in our marriage really is.

February 23, 2006  
Blogger Michelle Fry said...

I'm with Madness. Your marriage is a partnership. Fullfill your part of the bargain by writing. An advance for a first book might not be much but there's always a chance you could write a screen play that would turn into a movie deal. God, who knows? Just go for it.

February 26, 2006  

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