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.