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, andย a young writer’s thoughtful postย 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.

17 Responses to \

  1. It’s funny that you would post about this today. Just yesterday I had a conversation with the other half about this. I told him pretty much what your post says. He told me I didn’t believe in myself enough. I don’t think that’s it at all. That would be amazing if I or anyone I know hit it big, but I like to go in with a safe or realistic view. Better to be prepared than with visions of grander. I grew up with a father that was always looking for that next big thing that was going to make us rich. None of them ever did. As a result, I believe in the here and now. Great post, Jennette.

  2. You and I are very much on the same page here, Jennette. I downgraded my stressful day job to an easy one which pays the bills and insurance, and gives me down time (I’m basically in a word processing center — perfect for a writer). Although I’d love to make a living writing one day, this is the next best thing. I grew up wanting for much, and don’t see the point on inflicting that on myself or my family if it’s not necessary. Nothing wrong with blooming a little later ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Debra K. – I think that’s what it’s all about – dream about and work toward the future, but be practical about it, especially when others depend on you!

    Debra E. – very good point about Later Bloomers. ๐Ÿ˜€ And congrats on the new, low-stress job!

  4. I’ve been writing a memoir for the last two years. Not only has my income been greatly reduced, my expenses have risen! Becoming an author, especially one who has created a platform, takes not only time but money. I see it as an investment, but when I’m there in Kinko’s feeding the machines with my credit card, I think about writers who might have to suffer privation because of expenses like these. I feel their pain. And I hope they will be rewarded.

  5. I am not one for suffering things I can avoid. And I really like to eat. When I tried writing full time, I was not as productive as I’ve been at other times. So, like you, I’ve chosen to work two jobs: one to earn enough to live comfortably and the other is writing. It’s the best way for me.

  6. Shirley – I consider my job a real blessing! Thanks for coming by.

    Lynette – good to know I’m not alone!

  7. I am a lot like you, too. That is what decided my path, when it came down to it. I had the choice between going to Miami with out a job and being stressed about making ends meet by trying something like freelancing, or taking a teaching job in Raleigh. I went with Raleigh because I know that if I don’t know how much money I’ll have next month, I won’t be able to write. The deal I found to have more writing time is to work 80%. It means I make less and it still feels like teaching full time, but I have an extra hour in the morning for writing. I, too, need a safety net in order to be creative. My day job isn’t easy or stress-free, but it is fun to work with kids. And it is what I am trained in. I think I would also go crazy in an office job. I need a little bit of creativity in all areas of my life. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. You have to do what you have to do. Paying the bills is more important than writing full time. But it is important to make time for your passion and have that creative outlet!

  9. I’ve taken what I like to call the third path ๐Ÿ™‚ I am a full-timer, but I don’t write fiction full-time. I write for magazines and newspapers, for a while I wrote grant proposals (boring but lucrative), I edit, and I teach classes on writing and social media. While I’d love to eventually write fiction full-time, those other writing jobs help pay the bills. My husband’s benefits also cover me, and we live in Canada where visiting the doctor or hospital is free. I can’t say what choice I would make if those things weren’t the case, but my guess is that I’d opt for the security of a day job. The right and responsible thing is for us to make sure we can pay our bills.

  10. Emma, it sounds like you made a great trade-off! And who knows, you may get to Miami yet. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Maria, so true! That’s why my job is such a blessing – it does take a little time, but I almost never need to work overtime or take work home – that’s family and writing time!

    Marcy, your situation sounds like a great blend of flexibility and security! Not to mention, all that other writing, teaching, and editing can only help your fiction writing!

  11. This is a balance every writer needs to find and very topical for me too since I’m graduating and job hunting. Kids add another factor to the mix. With work (fingers crossed) and the family, I likely won’t have the energy to write much at first. But any words written down are closer to a book’s completion. And work can be a great inspiration for stories and characters.

    If I have a moment of despair for not being able to have it all right now, I’ll keep Debra Eve’s late bloomer philosophy in mind ๐Ÿ™‚ There are decades of productive years ahead. A comforting thought.

  12. Reetta, it’s sure not easy to balance writing with a full time job and kids, but it can be done! And let’s hear it for later bloomers, too! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  14. Thought provoking topic. There does seem to be some romance to the notion of suffering for our art. But then I think about how easy it would be to lose touch with reality if I could write without thinking about the bills. For me, writing comes from experience, so the struggle is a part of it… Like it or not ๐Ÿ™‚