The first time I walked into my agent’s office at John Hawkins & Associates in New York, I noticed a framed letter from turn-of-the-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on the wall. The letter is dated Dec. 31, 1901, addressed to the agency founder.
Dear Mr. Reynolds,
A merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Both should be abolished. I am broke!
Once the thrill of seeing a century-old letter from Dunbar wore off, its message was ominous. I had the security of being a novelist (not a poet, for Pete’s sake!), but I never forgot the cautionary tale framed on my agent’s wall.
That was in about 2001, and I was riding high in my fledgling career. The advance for my first novel, The Between, had been slightly higher than my annual salary as a reporter for The Miami Herald. My next, for My Soul to Keep, was higher still. In both black fiction and horror fiction, the book circuit was a thriving village of new writers, ambitious editors, courageous booksellers and readers starved for more. Terry McMillan had taught publishers that black folks did read, and we were stoking their appetite.
I left my job at the Miami Herald after a decade in 1998, when I married fellow novelist Steven Barnes. We had met at a 1997 conference at Clark Atlanta University entitled “The African-American Fantastic Imagination: Explorations in Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror,” alongside Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez and Samuel R. Delany.
But if I had sat Octavia down for a frank conversation about writing and finances, she could have told me a grim tale of struggle. “Celebrated author” and “rich author” are not synonymous—and never have been. (Octavia achieved a level of financial security she’d never known when she was awarded her MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995.)
Steve supplemented his income as a novelist with television writing on “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone”…even “Baywatch.” More recently, he has written for Cartoon Network and BET, and launched a life coaching and internet sales business. Most novelists you read and admire have day jobs, often as college English or writing professors. I have been teaching part-time in an M.F.A. program at Antioch University Los Angeles since 2007, and I have private writing clients. Writers also earn income through speaking engagements and writing workshops.
But it’s a piecemeal and unpredictable living.
The only writers I know who get health care strictly through their writing are those who earn the qualifying minimum of more than $30,000 a year through Hollywood’s Writers’ Guild of America (WGA)—but it’s not easy to earn, especially year after year. Screenplays are tough to sell. Television jobs come and go—one year you’re the story editor on a hit series, and the next year you could be unemployed. C’est la vie.
When I quit my day job in 1998, I couldn’t imagine a better existence than setting my own hours and spinning fiction all day. I still sometimes feel guilty when I’m writing in the middle of the day, as if there’s something else I should be doing. (Well, nowadays that something is called “grading papers.”) Liberation never gets old.
But unpredictability gets old. Fast.
In my novel Joplin’s Ghost, an up-and-coming R&B singer who fears she is “selling out” has ghost encounters with the spirit of turn-of-the-century ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who died virtually penniless and bitter trying to mount an opera. That novel’s conversation about art and commerce was a message to me, and to all artists.
Often, art and commerce must take divergent paths, one setting the other free.
I’m proud of everything I’ve published that bears my name, but I’m not happy with lashing a whip over my muse. I was trained on deadlines as a journalist, but rushing to finish a project because of financial need feels like sending my inner child out to work while I sit at home eating Bon Bons, yelling, “Faster, faster!”
I wrote both The Between (1995) and My Soul to Keep (1997) as an unpublished fiction writer holding down a full-time newspaper job. Neither book was under contract; I wrote them strictly because they were stories I wanted to tell, even if no one else ever read them. Most writers I know juggle fiction, their day jobs and their families.
Can my outer grownup relieve my inner child?
I’ve been blessed so far to feel like I’m writing exactly what I want to be writing—except for that short story collection I’ve dreamed of, perhaps—but one question now nags me: What would I be writing if I didn’t support myself with my fiction?
What would my muse give me if I let her run outside and play?
TIPS FOR BALANCING ART & COMMERCE:
1.) So you’d like to leave your job to concentrate on your fiction! Great, but be realistic. Unless a supportive partner/family with a steady job is there to help your dream come true, you should have two years’ worth of savings first. You might spend your first year of freedom writing—and your second year looking for a new job. Don’t wait until your money runs out to figure out where you will land next. If your employer offers a leave of absence, that’s probably better than starting fresh. This is a tough economy to leave a job without careful planning.
2.) Even if you have what seems like a secure respite from the workplace, remember that you can’t predict the future. Circumstances change. Keep your job skills current in case a partner’s job loss or family member’s illness force you back to work sooner than expected. When I left journalism in 1998, there were few blogs, no Blackberrys, no Facebook, no Twitter. Google was a start-up. If I hadn’t learned internet marketing through my books and my husband’s internet sales business, I would be a complete dinosaur in the job market today. If you’re a lawyer, pay your Bar dues. If you were in medicine, keep up with advances. Don’t assume you’ll be writing at home forever.
3.) If you can’t afford to leave your job, don’t despair: You CAN find the time to write. Gather tools to help you create laser-like concentration so you can dive into flow state if you only have 30 minutes instead of four hours. Write on your lunch break. Turn off the TV at night and hide in the bathroom, if you must. (I’ve written in hotel bathrooms many times to avoid disturbing a sleeping family.) Even if you don’t have time to write temporarily, read over the last pages you wrote on a regular basis to keep characters fresh in your mind—that way, when you DO get unexpected writing time, you don’t have to waste your hour refreshing yourself. If you don’t have a fiction project underway, journal or blog to keep your writing mind sharp.
4.) Choose your projects carefully. When I talk to my film agent, he cautions me not to even try writing certain scripts because the marketplace won’t support them. That attitude can be taken to extremes. Most bestselling writers you know are writing exactly what they darn well please. E. Lynn Harris didn’t gain fame jumping into the thriving bisexual black fiction market—he created his own market. You’ll produce your best work if you’re writing your bliss.
While you should listen to advice about what sells and what doesn’t with a grain of salt…DO listen. Write your bliss…but see if you can steer your bliss. Steve uses a great Venn Diagram (intersecting circles) to help students and clients determine what they should write. One circle represents your dream projects. The other represents projects you think you could actually sell. Shade in the portion in the middle where those circles intersect, try to write THAT. If you’re only imitating a successful writer or trying to follow a trend, beware: by the time your book is published or your screenplay is produced, readers and audiences will have moved on.
5.) Don’t expect your writing to support you. Even if you finally land that great contract, don’t expect a similar income flow next year, or the year after. It’s better to be surprised by an income that’s higher than expected than disappointed by inevitable ebbs and flows. If you somehow get rich through your writing—congratulations! But baby, it ain’t the way to bet. (See Paul Laurence Dunbar letter above.)