Writing and Money, Part 2
Today’s post is a follow-up to last week’s Is Money Necessary?, which was inspired by Charles Rosasco’s recent note to me:
I’m really sick of hearing famous actors/writers/musicians talk about how unimportant money and success are (that it is “just the work” that fulfills them). How do we keep expecting to get paid/make a living?
Again, what I have to say here is not intended as “wisdom” or as any definitive statement. It’s just my own take on the subject.
To me, the most valuable capital a writer has is time. Time to write, time to learn his craft, time to get better.
Money exists to protect that time. That’s all money is to me. I couldn’t care less about cars or houses or first-class excursions to Zamboanga. My luxury is to be able to work and to keep working.
When I was teaching myself to write, in my twenties and thirties, here’s what I used to do. I’d work at a real job (usually in advertising in New York) and save my money till I had enough to last me about two years. Then I’d quit, move someplace really cheap, rent a place, and write full-time. I did this three times between 1967 and 1980.
I never sold anything. Never got anything published. Never made a penny.
During this time I never thought about money, except as a means by which I could keep trying to write. I love reading novels like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger about writers starving in garrets because that was exactly my world. I remember renting a little house in Carmel Valley, California for a hundred bucks a month. The elderly couple who owned the place wanted to be sure I could pay the rent over two years. I had to show them my bankbook, which had $2700 in it. Somehow they accepted it.
I could live on unbelievably small amounts of money. I didn’t mind starving because every dollar I saved bought me more time to keep working.
When I finally did sell a novel in 1994, the advance was $25K. The check vanished in about twenty minutes to pay debts.
But back to Charles’ original question. Was I toiling during those years with a view to one day selling a Big Book and striking it rich? Such a prospect never crossed my mind. If I had a dream, it was just to make enough money so that I could keep writing and not have to work a real job.
There’s a famous story about Harvey Penick, the 88-year-old Austin, Texas golf pro whose Little Red Book became a giant best-seller in 1992. The manuscript (which was just Mr. Penick’s thoughts and observations scribbled in pencil into a notebook over more than 60 years of teaching golf) was submitted to a publisher. The publisher read it and told Harvey that the offer was $5000. “I’ll have to talk this over with my wife,” said Harvey. He went home, mulled the figure for a couple of days, then called the publisher back. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” he said. “We can’t afford it.”
“Wait, Harvey, you don’t understand!” the publisher is supposed to have exclaimed. “You don’t pay us. We pay you!”
I was just like Harvey. The idea that someone would pay actual cash money to publish something I had written was pure icing on the cake. I just wanted the validation. I wanted someone whose field of expertise was fiction, who didn’t know me from Adam, and whose only interest was in making money to say to me, “Yeah, your stuff is worthy.”
Pretty dumb, huh? Not very professional. But I swear that was how I felt for all those years and, truth to tell, it’s how I feel now.
Today I live in a house that’s a little nicer than the one in Carmel Valley. But I live in it the same way I did then. I still keep my expenses down. I’m still mentally prepared for famine or failure at all times.
My inner world has not altered. I get up every morning ready to face my own Resistance, my own fear, and my own tendencies to self-sabotage. My goal is still the same: to follow my Muse and to do what I love.
Money serves the same function for me now as it did then. It buys time. Time for me to work.
And my object is still the same. To keep working.
Did your ever see the movie Save the Tiger? Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his performance as Harry Stoner, an L.A. garment manufacturer who over a 24-hour-period goes to every extreme imaginable, including committing arson, in an attempt to keep his business afloat. A friend (Jack Gilford, I think) watching Harry descend Breaking Bad-style into the depths of his dark side finally asks in exasperation and horror, “For God’s sake, Harry, what do you want?”
The screenwriter was Steve Shagan. Here’s the line he gives Jack Lemmon:
I want another season.
That’s me too. Money exists, in my world, to buy me another season.
So, Charles, I guess I come out saying the same thing that those guys you’re so pissed off at are saying. I wasn’t sure that was how I felt till you asked the question.
I hope my answer helps you. Your question has definitely helped me. Thanks.
Living what you believe in order to work? Not even close to “pretty dumb” – press on, Pressfield, and thanks for another great Writing Wednesday!
Can you square your position in this post this with your exhortations that a professional gets paid for their work? I do understand the difference—because I think you are talking about different phases of professional life—but am curious for your take on it.
Doug, I address that in next week’s post. Hang in there!
My brother who is a partner in an Engineering firm told me on Monday, “Write for 6 more months or a year, then if you don’t make any money, quit and get a real job.”
Resistance from a family member who doesn’t understand a writers heart. I will not quit. Right now I make enough money to pay for kitty litter. With seven litter boxes and four cats, everything helps.
Your answer has helped me to see what I want from my writing. I just want to keep writing.
That’s wonderful Steven and I relate to it so well. Every job is a means to afford more time to write. Plus the stuff that happens at the job is always just more material to be milked or turned or churned into another story, another song.
And keeping expenses down, oh brother. My wife is always like “Where did you get the money for that?”
and I’m like: “I have some money cos I didn’t it spend since I got it.”
I think about money when the car has to go to the shop, though. But I also think, “We could move to some place where everything is within bicycle-riding distance.”
Yeah, move to Vancouver BC or a village in Ireland. That’s my plan. Walk everywhere. Grow our own veg.
My wife adores our simple life (one reason we’re married.) She loves my writing and supports me gloriously.
Keep it simple and write more. (I don’t spend as much time on my songwriting as I’d like, but I’ve started doing monthly concerts in our living room once again and it’s pulling hard at me.)
Can we go back to Aristotle for a moment? Writing is rhetoric – it must be. Writing is, after all, an act of communication and persuasion.
Rhetoric requires three elements:
ethos, the speaker: Who is he? What are his values? What wisdom and experience does he offer.
pathos, the audience: What are their feelings? What do they want? What do they need? What moves them? (And let us remember, that we writers are our own first and most immediate audience.)
logos, the ideas, arguments – literally, – the word: What is being expressed? How is it being expressed? Is it valid? Is it useful? Does it give us insight or help solve a problem?
I’d think that’s enough for anyone. Money? If money enables us to do that, as you said Steven, then well and good. But if not, what use it? Money can’t buy me love (not sung like Paul McCartney.:)
Thanks, as always.
Money may not buy us love but is sure is handy when the rent is due or groceries need buying. “I’ll trade you a poem for a meal” is a lovely sentiment in a story (and you can bet I’ll be using it soon) but it just don’t cut it out in the world.
Paul Graham has an excellent short article “Persuade xor Discover” about why persuasion is not necessarily the most important aspect of writing. In fact, writing to persuade can be utterly counterproductive. His reasoning is that “the idea” is often not really clear even to you as an author before you put it in writing. So instead, he says, he writes to “discover,” because writing allows him to take a thought much further.
In some ways I’ve followed a path similar to the one described here. I’ve worked, saved money, and then taken time off to do my own work. To this day I spend very little money. We don’t need even a 10th of the things we think we do. I love a minimalist lifestyle, especially because it buys me time to do my work.
I’m not surprised at the full dumpster. Seem to me every one I meet wants to be a writer. I do phone tech support for a big (think fruit) computer company.
I can’t count the number of calls I get from people explaining to me that they are ‘writers’.
One really was a well known pro. I resisted badgering him with questions but did tell him my favorite of his, which was not the mass favorite. It was his favorite too. Very cool.
I paraphrased you at the end of the call saying, “Keep that good stuff coming. We need it!”.
Blew me away. Anyway, It’s the latest wannabe fashion, I think. A good market.
A couple questions:
Were all those screenplays in the dumpster at least looked at? How quickly and by what means/criteria/whim/flaw were they eliminated most likely?
I remember Ian Anderson, the standing on one leg flute player/composer once said in an interview that his goal was simply to make a living playing his music. Not riches.
That’s reasonable. The point is, most of us are not even doing that. The question is how to even do that. Just keep submitting and let the fates decide?
I have nothing published, but like the guy who begged his god the question: “Why can’t I win the Lottery?” The reply came in a booming voice, “First you have to buy a ticket!” (submit).
I feel exactly the same way, although my revelation about money came later than sooner.
Money used to be for buying luxury items, and living “well,” now all I see it for is the ability to give me more time–time to write, dream and work. Because of this shift, I now view and spend it differently too.
Thank you Steven for putting into words what I’ve also learned since I’ve turned pro and continue to fight my daily battle with Resistance.
Money is so there’s time to write.
I’ve been trying to come up with that sentence for a good long time.
It is so hard for people to understand that I don’t care about money. Do I like nice clothes, eating out, a better car, a warmer house?
Yup. Sure do.
Do I want them more than I want time to write?
Not on your life. Or mine.
One more question:
Before the taxi driving you did write for an advertising company, I think?
Many times when I wiki a writer I see they majored in English or one of it’s branches in college.
So wouldn’t you say, for we non-college folk, we should study our grammar butts off.
Like NOT starting a sentence with ‘Before’?
Any book suggestion in that area?
John, an excellent book that’ll answer both your questions is “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman. Yeah, those screenplays were probably all read — but only the first five pages.
Good post. I always felt that the best thing about art school was it gave me time. The instruction was great, too, but having a few years of not worrying about anything else was really helpful . . . while it lasted.
This is up the War Of Art Ally:
Yea, time. I remember Joseph Campbell said when the depression hit (the one before this one) he retreated to his Uncle’s or Father’s cabin located in the woods of upstate NY and read and read and read.
Steve, please write a memoir. Thanks for all the great advice and encouragement.
Money as a resource, exchanged for another resource, time, even more easily wasted than money. Thank you for the perspective.
I’m guessing you’re not married with children?
There is no conflict here, actually. If you have kids, money serves the same purpose: it buys you time. You can have a babysitter, pay for preschool, eat out with them, pay for their music lessons, send them to a summer camp etc. Instead of worrying about how to pay for college for them, you can focus on your work. It is harder to make a living for a family through writing, but the main idea is the same.
It’s hard to describe how much The War of Art and Turning Pro have meant to me the past few weeks. THANK YOU for doing the Oprah interview, or I may not have found you! You’ve given words to the process I’ve been in this past year…leaving my tribe and staking my territory. I love the thought that money just buys me time. It reduces my anxiety about making money. I have enough to write. That’s enough.
But Steve, wait a second….your inner world did alter because all that magic happened 🙂
Only in superficial ways, Tine. The real inner world didn’t alter at all.
Great piece! It seems that for many, money holds the prospect of affording you the time and freedom to eventually discover/uncover what it is you want or what will make you happy. You already know what that is, so your relationship with it is healthy and sane. I always appreciate your musings.
I think a lot of the confusion on this subject comes down to a fundamental disconnect on the word “work.”
For the last few hundred years at least, work has meant the toil required to earn our daily bread; this is the accepted view. For those of us who share Pressfield’s point of view, work is a not the job but the calling.
That is hitting the nail quite solidly on the head!
Steven, I discovered “The War for Ar” a couple of years ago as I began my journey to leave my old profession and to make my living as an artist. It was then, and continues to be food for my soul and my journey. Your posts and your world view are always a great source of energy for me, especially when resistance is beating me down. Thank you my friend.
Steven, I can relate to this as this is what I did around 18 months ago. Its amazing what you can give up when you want to. Have I had any work published or screenplays purchased, no not yet but I know that will happen. Paul W
I’ve gone back and forth with my views on money for a long time. I don’t really care about money per se but I certainly am not opposed to it and what it buys. I try not to be attached to money, but having started a family so young and so broke, I’ve been chasing it in a way my whole adult life. So here’s the thing I’ve come to figure, now with three grown kids and still a lot of debt and thus still chasing money but always working, and working on art, too (and still in love mind you)–
It’s not that important as a result. It can’t be! We worked so hard doing any job to get by and to take care of these kids, give them a safe middle class lifestyle and enjoy some luxuries… a little Disney, vodka, few bonfires in the backyard, cable for Breaking Bad, I mean what the heck?
Money buys experiences. It’s energy. You trade yours and get money–what you will do for money and what you can do for how much is quite an individual decision as you create your life. And I suppose some people are given money by the universe, but they’re not me. So who cares?
So yes. I agree. Money buys writing, if you can afford the time and energy. It’s all a matter of priorities!
Having no money is the story of my life. I am not a materialistic person (thankfully) so earning tons and becoming a famous writer is not on my list of things I hope to accomplish (although it would be nice, someday).
I just want to have my basic needs met, and write. Now I blog, too, so that’s great!
I love your Writing Wednesdays series. It’s delicious, thank you.
I’ve just published my second novel with Simon & Schuster and I know I can’t be in it for the money. I never could explain to others, especially family, how I felt. You give voice to my passion and concerns. I passing this link around to other author friends. Ann
This morning I went to the local library to return some books and was wondering what am I going to get now. Eenie meenie — it was The Profession I walked out with.
I never heard about you, did not know what you write about. Opened the cover read the prologue checked the book out, it was 1 pm. It is 11:10 pm and I just finished it.
The first half was amazing—the human factor the mindset—just the fact that the americans know so much about the opponent but the opponent has no clue that the americans know them so well.
I love how you making an article about writing and a money at the same time!
Money “exists like a very small moon orbiting a very far planet” in my mind. The best summary of my own mentality I’ve ever read. Wikiparagon