the economics of writing

i haven’t read stephen elliot (whose memoir-ish latest is the much-praised THE ADDERALL DIARIES) though i just might after stumbling on this essay about why he writes. in it, he discusses MFA programs, publishing, process, and the economics of being a writer:

I realized that to continue as a writer I had to adjust certain expectations. My books have never sold in huge numbers and probably never will. But I can make enough while only writing what I want to write… I’m 37 years old and I can live off $30,000 a year, which is about what I make. It’s not a lot for San Francisco, but it’s enough. I try to do the best work I’m capable of, which is not the same as making the most money.

I’m at an age where my nonwriter friends are buying property, having babies, and moving ahead in their careers, while I live in a rent-controlled apartment with my young hipster roommate. I still go through heavy bouts of depression; it’s my nature. But I wouldn’t choose a different life. Time spent focusing on art is a privilege and a gift. The writing doesn’t make me happy, but it makes me happier, and it makes everything else easier to take.

…It sounds spoiled, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with considering yourself an artist. There are sacrifices as well as payoffs. When I was discussing my new book with two married writers, they kept asking how I could work without an advance. I didn’t see how they could work with one. They said they needed a certain amount of money and that they had children. They made their children sound like a tremendous burden, and I felt they were using the word need when they should have said want. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing something higher than writing. The husband has sold a lot more books than I do and has plenty more money than I have, but being a writer seems to make him unhappy. One day, when he was telling me how easy I have it and about the kind of advance he needed, I snapped. I said his book wasn’t worth more than my book just because he has kids. We’re lucky to be writers. Nobody owes us anything.

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