Misfit Monday: Must I Suffer for my Art?

While I work on my book for NaNoWriMo, here’s another blast from the past… IOW, a post from way back when, in 2006, when publishing was a different world… yet it wasn’t.

This topic’s been brewing in my mind ever since the 2005 RWA National conference, and a young writer’s thoughtful post yesterday reminded me of it. At the 2005 conference, one of the keynote speakers was Debbie Macomber, who gave a poignant talk about her struggles to become a published writer. During the journey, she decided she’d never become a published author unless she took a chance and quit her day job to write full time. She gave herself a year (if I recall) and told her husband she’d go back to work if she hadn’t sold by then.

It wasn’t easy (is it ever?). She struggled to pay the bills. Right before she sold (which was also right before her self-imposed deadline), she struggled to come up with the postage to mail her submission to Silhouette. Though we are talking back in the eighties (again, I think), that couldn’t have been more than ten bucks. Can you imagine not being able to come up with ten bucks, with having to choose whether to eat lunch, or mail your manuscript? I can’t. Yet plenty of writers deal with this. Even more (published and not) have difficulty coming up with $75 for their RWA dues each year, or to fund attending National conference.

Do we have to struggle financially to sell? I don’t think so.

Perhaps the pressure gave Debbie Macomber that extra push to produce, to hone her craft, to excel. It would have the opposite effect on me. For me, this kind of stress is burdensome and stifling. I would not be able to produce. The quality of my work would suffer if I was worried about having the electricity shut off, or feeling guilty because we were eating ramen again instead of steak (or even chicken).

My late father in law was a gambler. My husband’s childhood memories include getting steak for dinner because the Lakers won – and eating macaroni and cheese (again) when they didn’t. My husband is never comfortable without having considerable savings. Many full-time authors still struggle to pay the bills, and live off of credit card debt. My husband would not be able to sleep at night if this were our case. Neither could I.

Granted, plenty of full-time writers are supported by a spouse or by retirement income, and while they may not have the standard of living they’d have with a regular paycheck, they don’t struggle financially. I was without a job for two years, thanks to the dot-com bust. We got by fine, but I always felt a cloud hovering over my head because we didn’t save anything during that time, much to my husband’s discomfort. Because I felt obligated to help in any way possible, I did all the child care and taxiing during that time, and often ran errands for my husband’s business. I ended up not producing any more writing than I did while working for a paycheck. I did freelance graphic design work to alleviate the burden somewhat, but the fact is, it was a huge relief when the current day job fell into my lap.

Many people posted blogs last week about what they are thankful for this Thanksgiving. Of course I’m thankful for family, friends, home, health and all that. I’m also thankful for my day job. It allows me to focus on my writing during my writing time, without worrying about credit card debt piling up or not being able to pay the mortgage. I’m fortunate that my day job is fairly low-stress, pays decently, and provides health insurance without requiring me to take work home. There are plenty of writers who work crappy-paying jobs to pay the bills while they try to sell, because they can’t get anything else that wouldn’t take too much time away from writing. These are the folks I really feel for. I have worked hard over many years to excel in my fields – graphic design and software development – but I still realize I’m very fortunate.

Each writer can only determine for her/himself which is the right path. The young woman linked above is smart to go to college and plan on a career where she can earn a good living. You can’t count on ever making a penny on writing. Sure, it would be great to get paid for the stuff I make up, and yes, I think my work is worth being paid for, but realistically, the odds are long. I don’t plan to quit the day job when I do sell (thinking positively), as I know how low the advances typically are for a first-time romance author. Plenty of successful authors continue to work a day job. For now, I consider my writing a second job. It works for me.

Without the suffering.

What do you think? Are writers with a hard luck story more deserving of success in their art? What is it about the whole “starving artist” thing that makes it seem so? How much are you willing to suffer for your art, whatever that may be? I’d love to hear from you!

Jennette Marie Powell writes stories about ordinary people in ordinary places, who do extraordinary things and learn that those ordinary places are anything but. In her Saturn Society novels, unwilling time travelers do what they must to make things right... and change more than they expect. You can find her books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, iTunes, and more.