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The Awful Truth About The Writing Life

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Here’s a long, meandering essay by Emily Gould, talking about the struggles of her life as a writer. [2]There may be times in this essay when you get mighty frustrated with her Brooklynite preciousness — for me, it came when she confesses jealousy that her live-in boyfriend donated sperm to his lesbian’s sister partner, and now he was going to be the boy’s uncle and father, while she, Emily Gould, pined for a baby. Still, if you are a writer or aspire to be one, I want to encourage you to persevere through the essay, because you can learn a lot from it. There’s practical wisdom here.

Here are the main lessons:

1. You have to get real about money. Gould writes:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

It seems like a lot of money because it is a lot of money. But as you learn from reading the essay, she frittered it all away, and went into serious debt. It’s easy to do that living in New York City, where everything is expensive. She didn’t do anything extravagant, though; rather, it leaked out in dribs and drabs (and taxes; if you live in NYC, they’re going to hit you hard).

The thing you see at work here is that Gould had no plan. She just drifted — and, like many writers, she had no financial sense, instead getting by on faith that Something Will Turn Up. Believe me, I know the feeling. My wife Julie and I are both journalists by training. Six or seven years ago, we finally wised up and realized that we were idiots about money, and needed help coming up with and sticking to a savings and investment plan.

We found Christopher Currin [3], a financial advisor in Dallas, and went with him because a) he was well-recommended, b) he was a nice guy, and c) because he promoted himself as enjoying working with writers and artists. Even though we moved from Dallas four years ago, we have continued our relationship with Chris. He has helped us save and wisely invest far, far more money than we would have done on our own. If we had had the good sense to find him, or somebody like him, earlier, we would be even more financially secure than we are now.

Unless you are confident in your own savings and investment savvy, and your own discipline, I emphatically recommend finding your own Chris Currin. Writers tend to greatly underestimate their own savvy in this area, and more to the point, fail to appreciate how important it is — especially if you aren’t on staff somewhere, and can count on a steady income. The thing is, the media business is so fragile nowadays that nobody can count on a steady income. If you depend on your writing income, chances are you need a financial planner. Read Emily Gould’s essay as a cautionary tale.

2. A lack of organization is deadly — and the Internet is your greatest enemy. Says Gould:

Twitter and Tumblr and even email—anything that rewards constant vigilance and creates repetitive cycles of need based on intermittent reinforcement—were the bitterest foes of the sustained concentration that’s necessary to making worthwhile art! DUH! How had I been so blind?! How had I lived such a debased life for so long? How would I ever go back to New York? I was determined to preserve my monastic habits when I left Rosendale, for as long as I lived.

Yeah, good luck with that. I mean, she’s absolutely, positively correct — but it’s a hell of a lot easier to make those monastic vows than to live by them. I still haven’t mastered this. Not even close. Gould confesses that she would tell herself when she was blogging that hey, she was writing. She was building her brand. She was … well, she was doing anything except what she was really doing, which was wasting time and energy that she ought to have devoted to working on a book.

This is Your Working Boy. In fact, this is Your Working Boy right this very second. Heard from my agent this morning that he loves my completed book proposal for How Dante Can Save Your Life, and will be sending it out to initial editors shortly. He has asked me to write a third sample chapter, in addition to the two I’ve already done, so that editors can have a fuller range of the book’s scope. Happy to do it! But what have I done for the past two hours, since having that conversation? Blogged. There is always something to blog about. But then the day comes when the money has run out, and you haven’t made progress on your next book, and your life is a mess, and you are 30, and your boyfriend has knocked up his lesbian sister-in-law with a turkey baster, and … what then?

Don’t go there. Not if you can help it. Most young writers think that if they can score that big book deal, everything after that will be gravy. Not true. Not true at all. Trust me on this one. Trust Emily Gould. There are a thousand million ways you can screw it up, and only a handful of ways you can move onward and upward.

3. Be skeptical when writers tell you about the writing life. Gould says she drifted for years dreaming about the kind of life she would have as a Successful Writer. Writers fantasize about this all the time, because they tend to have unrealistic ideas about what success will mean, and how sustainable it will be. It didn’t happen for her, and she realized late in the game that those daydreams helped distract her from the reality of her situation. She writes:

In January 2013 I began a full-time job that, while it leaves me no time to write, is helping me slowly repay the debts I incurred by imagining that writing was my livelihood. Act 1 is over—it’s been over for a while—and I’m headed back into the woods.

Maybe it’s just my experience, but I find that I don’t have a lot of patience for writers who talk about writing. Some can do this well; Stephen King’s book about writing is terrific [4], for example, and I strongly recommend it. But most of the time, writers who talk about writing are bullshitting, wasting time when they ought to be writing. When I hear that a non-famous writer is going to talk about writing, I generally have  the same reaction I have when I hear that somebody is going to give a talk about how to get rich: If you know so much about it, mister, how come you ain’t rich yourself?

Yeah, that’s not entirely fair. But then, I’m a chronic bullshitter, and the person I bullshit the most about writing is myself. Hemingway once said every writer needs to develop “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” Expanding on this thought, the late Neil Postman was right: [5]

Students should be taught to learn how to recognize bullshit, including their own.

It seems to me one needs, first and foremost, to have a keen sense of the ridiculous. Maybe I mean to say, a sense of our impending death. About the only advantage that comes from our knowledge of the inevitability of death is that we know that whatever is happening is going to go away. Most of us try to put this thought out of our minds, but I am saying that it ought to be kept firmly there, so that we can fully appreciate how ridiculous most of our enthusiasms and even depressions are.

Reflections on one’s mortality curiously makes one come alive to the incredible amounts of inanity and fanaticism that surround us, much of which is inflicted on us by ourselves. Which brings me to the next point, best stated as Postman’s Third Law:

“At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.”

True. Now, let’s go write. Or find a financial advisor.

UPDATE: Mrs. Dreher points out that you should look for a “fee-only” financial planner — someone who does NOT work for commission, which would give them the incentive to steer you into unwise investments. We most certainly didn’t have a lot of money to invest when we found Chris Currin. In part because of Chris Currin’s wise stewardship of our resources, we have significantly more to invest now. Fee-only, people!

44 Comments (Open | Close)

44 Comments To "The Awful Truth About The Writing Life"

#1 Comment By ArgleBargleZarg On February 25, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

Are there decent financial advisors who work with modestly salaried people with minimal retirement investments? The place we bank with now won’t talk to you until you have at least $50,000 in assets with them.

#2 Comment By Art Deco On February 25, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

You only need a financial advisor if you have money to invest.

Better advice is to write avocationally and make your living doing something else. Eds and meds is what we have left.


[NFR: No, you need a financial adviser, period, unless you are really smart about your money. Our guy has more than paid for his services through saving us a lot in taxes, simply by knowing the tax laws and what’s deductible. There’s no way Julie and I could have done what he’s done. Plus, he’s helped us come up with and stick to a retirement savings plan. Everybody needs one. Going to a financial adviser was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, and I’m only sorry it took me so long to do it. — RD]

#3 Comment By Gretchen On February 25, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

So the reason you’ve had so many great posts in the last few days is that you have a chapter due?:)

[NFR: You smile, but that’s not far from accurate. Just think how many books I would have written if I could focus the energy I dissipate here! — RD]

#4 Comment By Gretchen On February 25, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

Arglebarglezarg: we had that problem. They were either for people in debt trouble, or on commission selling something. We finally realized that the company that does our 401k has advisers for their customers.

#5 Comment By Gretchen On February 25, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

So Rod, how did you locate your financial adviser?

#6 Comment By Gretchen On February 25, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

I wasn’t really kidding. I’m the master procrastinator, so I know their ways.

#7 Comment By charles cosimano On February 25, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

The best advice I ever heard about being a write was, “Marry a woman with money.”

The second best was, “Never turn down a free meal. You never know when you are going to eat.”

But seriously, the advice about managing money is the most important. Writing is not a guaranteed paycheck. Most of the time it is no paycheck at all. And publishers cheat.

The second thing is to treat writing as work. You have to set aside a time each day where you do nothing but write. You have the wringer off the phone, the doorbell disconnected (you should do that anyway, if anyone needs to get ahold of you let them send you an email and make an appointment) and you tell the wife not to disturb you unless the house is on fire. Then you go into your office, close the door to keep the cat from jumping on your keyboard at an inappropriate moment and stare at the screen hoping the muse will send you the words of fire.

#8 Comment By charles cosimano On February 25, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

And the last advice, tell the person who runs the website to get a *&*^^%$% edit function!

#9 Comment By Jake Lukas On February 25, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

I got to the paragraph that begins, “This is Your Working Boy” and stopped reading. Not that it wasn’t interesting, but the fact is I’m in the middle of trying to get something to an editor by Friday. So, I guess I’d better get back to it lest I say, ‘I’ll read just one more article…’

#10 Comment By Josh McGee On February 25, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

“There may be times in this essay when you get mighty frustrated with her Brooklynite preciousness — for me, it came when she confesses jealousy that her live-in boyfriend donated sperm to his lesbian’s sister partner, and now he was going to be the boy’s uncle and father, while she, Emily Gould, pined for a baby.”

You doubted yesterday whether everyone has a book in them. Not sure where I fall on that, but this is definitely the makings of the greatest Daytime Soap Opera of all time. Think about the storylines that could be in place 20 years from now when the next generation is all grown up!

On the main topic, sometimes I think writers make this too complicated. If you have a passion to write and can earn a living doing it, great! Be thankful for it! If not, get a job and do it on the side. It’s not ideal, but how many people, really, get paid good money to do their dream job? I just can’t relate to the torture in this area.

I grew up with a father who is a very good musician. He played as a pro for a short period of time when young (nothing big at all, he was still poor/non-famous, but it was legit), and has made some money on the side for a long time afterwards. Yet, he still had to get an 8-5 job. He was good enough to live a life on the road, playing in the backing band for some artist, but he didn’t want to be away from his family all the time.

And he didn’t torture himself over it. I guess, having grown up in a home with a comparable scenario, I don’t relate to the way writers seem to torture and obsess about this topic…..

#11 Comment By SteveM On February 25, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

There was an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show where she asked newsroom writer Murray Slaughter if he wanted to join the gang for a drink after work.

Murray replied, “No thanks, Mary I have to finish a novel.”

Mary replied back, “Murry, I didn’t know you were writing a novel!”

Murray’s close as he’s walking out the door, “I’m not writing a novel, I’m reading one.”

#12 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On February 25, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

I can’t/won’t quote it here as it’s under my real name but a discussion I had with another writer many years earlier helped me realize that having a ‘real’ job, however defined, to support your creative work is not only no bad thing, it is in fact the best approach for a certain kind of person. I have thanked him for it since. Now, it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely good FOR certain people, if you are self-aware enough. I’m not always, but the years have taught me that I’m glad that I came to that particular realization. Other things I’ve realized over time were almost down to luck, but becoming more aware of them has been a help.

#13 Comment By elrond On February 25, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

This is off the subject, Rod, but could I suggest that you choose a different title than “How Dante Can Save Your Life”? I’m sure it will be a great book, but the title doesn’t really work.

#14 Comment By Viking On February 25, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

This brings to mind a question I’ve had for some time: Rod, do you and other writers for TAC get paid anything for your postings? I mean, as in cash, not the “thanks of a grateful nation” sort of thing.[nfr: it’s part of my job description, that I blog. I blog so often because I enjoy it. — rd]

#15 Comment By Judith On February 25, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

“You only need a financial advisor if you have money to invest.”

If the author of that statement doesn’t need one, then he is free to not get one. But beginning that idea with the word “you” is groundless.

Every single person can connect with guidance that will help with financial planning, regardless of where one is at. If there are no assets beyond apparent immediate need, then an available first step is to track every single cent one spends, and start working with the accumulated data at the end of the month. The reason for this is to adjust one’s focus from a love affair with hopes and dreams, to the concrete details to which these dreams need be connected.

The process will slowly lead to planning, and production, new ideas, and meeting like minded people.

Once the pattern of living paycheck to paycheck has developed, it becomes a hard habit to break, regardless of how much one is earning. This will help break that habit.

#16 Comment By David On February 25, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

At the FT, Ludo Hunter-Tylney tells a similar tale of woe.


#17 Comment By stef On February 25, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

These “don’t be a writer, kids” narratives really do demonstrate how difficult it is to make a living at it. They follow the “poison the well” strategy (from the evolutionary biology book The Red Queen; i.e. get your rivals to drop out of the field, and thus have less competition.)

There’s always the write-for-free approach. Call it “open-source writing” if you want: analogous to open-source distribution of source code, where individuals are free to use the basic source and create their own games, operating systems, apps, and so on.

Same for fiction. Just write it; make it creative-commons; allow people to play in your sandbox and modify it (or not.)

The writing for money model obviously is working for some (more power to them), but not for many.

[NFR: That is paranoid silliness, the idea that people like me who actually get paid to write are trying to discourage others from doing it to protect our market share. If you want to write for free, bully for you. I address people who want to make their living at it. It really is difficult, and if you’re going to try to make a go of it, there are some things you can and should do to improve your chances of success. That’s all this is about. The writing-for-money model doesn’t work for many; my intention is to help those who do have the talent and the desire to do it full time avoid the mistakes I’ve made. Nobody needs advice if they don’t expect to be paid for their writing. — RD]

#18 Comment By stef On February 25, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

Sorry, forgot to add above: open-source writing assumes that you distribute the results freely, as do others. Nobody gets to distribute your work for profit.

Can we have an edit function someday? Pretty please?

#19 Comment By Judith On February 25, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

I’d like to thank both SteveM and stillobserver for your comments, they were helpful to me.

Many years ago, when I went to see a lawyer to draw up an offer for my first house, a for-sale-by-owner, I was complaining about family matters, and the attitude of my parents towards loaning me money for the down payment, when they had unhesitatingly helped my siblings.

He said to me “if you cannot afford the down payment, you cannot afford a house.”

He has no idea how grateful I feel today for his words, which turned me around, and caused me to decide that I did not need anything that I did not have the money in the bank for, and that I would be the one to put that money in the bank.

#20 Comment By Sam M On February 25, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

Correct. Do not trust what writers say about writing. They are liars. Hemingway had it right:

“It is very important to discover graceful exits like that in the newspaper business, where it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working.”

There is a lot to be said for a regular job if you are writing. And not just if you have a family. It gives you something to write about.

Seriously. Don’t go get an MFA and pay $100,000 for it. Get a job as a certified nurses assistant in a nursing home or something. Only pays $9.50 an hour, sure. But that’s about $40,000 over two years. Which puts you $140,000 ahead. Plus you have CONTENT.

#21 Comment By Sam M On February 25, 2014 @ 4:45 pm

PS: People need to read more about Gould. She was an editor at Gawker. She has written extensively for NYT Magazine, n+1, and a host of others. She has what the agents call “platform.” She’s also young and attractive.

Man. If she struggles… wow. Get that day job. Seriously.

On the other hand, I am pretty sure that the first $200,000 book deal she got was for a collection of essays she had written. That’s a good gig. Or maybe it was for the new novel she has coming out. Either way… day job.

#22 Comment By JRolicker On February 25, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

When I hear that a non-famous writer is going to talk about writing, I generally have the same reaction I have when I hear that somebody is going to give a talk about how to get rich: If you know so much about it, mister, how come you ain’t rich yourself?

[8], author and self-help critic, has a good counter example to this line of argument. He brings up the case of Charly Lau, one of the greatest MLB batting coaches of all time, who himself was never more than a mediocre batter. Some people know what to do but also recognize it is not in their nature to do what is required to achieve something.

#23 Comment By Erin Manning On February 25, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

As one of those writers who doesn’t really make any money at it and isn’t really trying to–yet–because it would interfere with my primary job of educating my kids at home, I have to say that for the most part the people I don’t want to hear talk about writing are the vast majority of professional, successful writers (Your Working Boy is always an exception).

Why? Because many if not most professional writers who make real money in this game have benefited greatly from one of the following things: connections in the publishing industry, pre-writer celebrity status, marketing ability, willingness to be a copycat or stick to a formula, and, sometimes, pure dumb blind luck.

And there is NOTHING wrong with that. NOTHING. But then they get a goodish bit of money and the next thing you know they are giving talks to would-be writers stressing the importance of hard work, nose-to-the-grindstone persistence, “honing your craft” through seminars and expensive conferences, and so on. And they tell a roomful of people some of whom may be quite talented that they are all talentless hacks who should give up now and sell shoes for a living, and the attendees nod and thank them. But the one thing they never mention is that they got *their* first book deal after Uncle Bob who works at one of the Big Six relentlessly promoted that early novel, or after they won a gold medal in an Olympic sport or started a successful company in a surprising industry, or after they spent years–decades, even–marketing *themselves* instead of a book to agents and publishers (did you know, by the way, that no legit literary agent will represent a would-be writer who hasn’t been published yet, and that the Big Six won’t look at a manuscript that isn’t being presented by a literary agent?), or after they were the first through the door with a copycat YA dystopian fiction novel (I’m thinking I need to write a first-person narrative about a teenage female wizard whose world features annual “to the death” magic duels as a way of distracting the populace from the fact that their entire economy is based on providing edible sex slaves to a race of randy anthropophagic aliens–but I digress) or that they just happened to be seated in business class on a plane flight beside a world-renowned editor who liked their idea for a combination cookbook/self-help book loosely based on the Koran, or something. (Side note: has anyone ever written a Dante-themed cookbook? The recipe titles would practically write themselves.)

My point is just this: some of the people who made the most money writing books (especially fiction) had no literary pretenses, no special insights about writing, no great genius, etc. What they had, in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, was the ability to be prolific. If you look at any list of best-selling authors, you’ll find that the one thing most of them have in common is that they wrote (or write, for the living ones) a LOT of material (books, plays, etc.). And that’s something any writer can aspire to. 🙂

[NFR: I don’t think you and I are far apart on this. Notice I don’t ever talk on this blog about writing technique. I don’t know what I would say. The way I learned how to write was how I learned how to canoodle: through trial and error. I’ve given talks before on how to write reviews — mostly what elements a review should have in it — but insofar as I have a style at all, it has come through imitating the style of others whose prose I liked, until I found my own voice. I can’t tell you how I got to that point, nor did I ever set out to write like Tom Wolfe, or Truman Capote, or George F. Will, or other stylists I admire. But I read good writing constantly, and I do believe that if you read attentively, you will absorb technique. In my case, if I stopped to think about it too much, I would go deep into a rabbit hole and get paralyzed. What worked — what works — for me is just to do it, and see what happens.

I think so many people — non-writers, and aspiring writers — have false ideas about the writing life. My sister thought there was nothing to writing, that it was a scandal I made money with it. She had no idea how difficult it was, and how hard you have to work over the years to get to the point where the words come easily. Others romanticize writing, as if it were a gift imparted by an angel who tapped the writer on the head, instead of something you have to work on to perfect. I honestly don’t know how to tell you to write, in terms of technique. It’s just something I do, and don’t think about much. I might be a much better writer if I thought more about it, but I don’t do that.

Erin is right too about the value of connections. I tell journalism students to go to these conferences, and do whatever you can to get your name and your work in front of people who can help you. Everybody in this business knows if you’re a user; we can see the coming a mile away. But on the occasion that you encounter a young writer who is talented and smart and good, you will — if you are even halfway decent — go out of your way to help them, because somebody did that for you back in the day. The only reason I got a nice book deal for Little Way was because David Brooks was kind enough to write a column about my story and my sister’s. I cannot overstate how much I owe him for that. Plus, you really, really cannot underestimate plain dumb luck. Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit and what isn’t. Sure things bomb all the time. All the time! What the screenwriter William Goldman famously said about the film business — “Nobody knows anything” — can also be said of the publishing business. I had hoped Little Way was going to make me fabulously rich and famous. Every writer fantasizes about his book being a monster best seller. Hell, I remember lying in my bed in Dallas the night before Crunchy Cons was published, thinking about how great it would be to be a rich and famous writer, and how I was surely on my way. The universe said “Ha!” — twice. Nobody knows anything.

I say stuff like this not to discourage hopeful writers, but to give them a realistic idea of what it’s like to try to support yourself on the strength of your writing. It was never easy; it’s especially hard now, given how incredibly disruptive technology has been to the media economy. I have a friend who is a young journalist. He has entered the field at a terrible time, and he is undergoing a professional baptism by fire now. I have encouraged him to do this, not because I’m a sadist, but because — and only because — he really does have the gift, and not only the gift, but the passion in his breast for writing. He’s not going to be happy unless he’s a writer. What he’s doing now is paying his dues. It’s a trite and shopworn phrase, but it’s a true one. Where he is now in his professional life is not where he’s going to be five years from now. But he will always remember what he learned, and it will make him a better writer. I’ve known another young man like him, with that kind of talent, and wrote him a letter of recommendation to one of the top journalism grad schools in the country — but I did it warning him of how hard this path through life is going to be. He got into the school, and has had a hard time of it, trying to make it after his master’s program. But I can’t imagine him being happy doing anything but writing. If you can do something other than write, you should do that, and write on the side. But there are a few people who just have to write, because they can’t do anything else. For people like that, who are born to the writing vocation, I encourage to take the plunge, for the same reason I would tell a young man who in his bones felt born to the priesthood to answer the call. But both the life of the priest and the life of the professional writer or artist is a kind of martyrdom, even if you serve quietly and live modestly. You might get rich and famous, but probably not. The life has to be its own reward — but you also have to be able to pay the bills. — RD]

#24 Comment By charles cosimano On February 25, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

Uh Rod, about that title, “How Dante Can Save Your life?” The idea is to get people to read the book, not fall over laughing at the title. I mean we all know why you picked that, but the person browsing Amazon doesn’t.

How about “The Path of Dante?” Or “Walking in Dante’s Footsteps.” You want something that will catch a reader, not make him think the author is crazy. Of course we all know that the author is crazy, that is why read his blog…:)

#25 Comment By Judith On February 25, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

“And the last advice, tell the person who runs the website to get a *&*^^%$% edit function!”

I find this repeated request ironic, from a group of people who consider themselves intelligent and resourceful, and as a group, conservative, with a libertarian streak. (Yes, it isn’t just the liberals who have asked for an edit function, the request also comes from conservatives, and also comes from the various and sundry stand-back-and-admire-my-irony contributors.)

Isn’t reviewing one’s own contribution the responsibility of the poster? I mean come on, reread slowly, and stop and pause in between each word before hitting the “post comment” button. Mistakes still slip through, so what.

#26 Comment By Josh McGee On February 25, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

JRolicker – The other side is that some of the very best are unable to teach others why they are good at it. Ted Williams is a good example of a great hitter who struggled teaching it to others. In part, he was frustrated that they didn’t just ‘get it’.

A lot of the very best coaches, in many sports, were mediocre players at best, or failed to make it to the highest level. One of the reasons they can become good coaches is because in their attempt to ‘make it to the top’ they attempt to supplement their natural talent by becoming students of the game. Great coaches who were also great players are not as common as mediocre players who became great coaches***.

Whereas some have a knack for turning a dollar into $0.00, most have a knack for turning a dollar into $1.01 or breaking even. Some people, in my experience, are much quicker to realize how to turn a dollar into $1.25 or $1.50. They get value, and see it before others (or more clearly). I have come to believe that this is a gift, like athletic talent or storytelling talent, etc. Yes, the talent must be honed, but the talent itself is real, and a gift. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the best financial advisors are the people that are almost good enough to turn a dollar into $1.25 but topped out at about $1.10. But they became students of the game along the way….

***I do recognize there is a good argument that this is because the supply of great players is simply much smaller than the supply of mediocre players. However, excepting John Wooden, I have noted that all the great coaches I most enjoy reading / listening to were always just shy of big success as a player. Which….isn’t a refutation, at all, but a reason that I’m very slow to reject the older understanding of this dynamic.

#27 Comment By Jack Ross On February 25, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

Both this and the Tom Wolfe blog are very timely for me as I struggle to get going on more than one new project. I can’t argue with any of these points, and believe me I know all about the internet being your worst enemy (indeed, I’m going to need to give the Tom Wolfe blog a more serious read later since I looked at while simultaneously listening to a podcast).

I must also say though that they make me feel good about a lot of the decisions I’ve made that I only really focus on the downside of – namely, focusing on books instead of journalism and blogging, and not spending much time around other writers talking about the writing life and their “Brooklyn preciousness”. And though I may be bullheaded about my financial future, of course I know better than to not have a financial adviser.

#28 Comment By educationrealist On February 25, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

I was happy to see Sam M bring up who Emily Gould is/was. She’s one of the Gawker editors, wrote vicious hatchet jobs on the NY elite professional crowd and thrived on it until she met “Keith” (aka Keith Gessen), and left a fairly well-paid job at Gawker to blog. She’s the one Jimmy Kimmel shredded on CNN while she giggled her way through the interview. I think she later claimed she needed therapy.

She has had several high paying jobs, and the main reason she got that $200K is probably because of who she was. She’s famous because she’s the sort of person who enjoys slicing other people down, or because she overshares about her own life.

And whatever job she has now, it’s probably a job that she’s paid too much for, based on who she was and the hope that she’ll be famous again.

So yeah, “save money and don’t waste time”. Really? We need Emily Gould to pass that wisdom down?

#29 Comment By Ellery On February 25, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

If you can’t afford a financial planner, you could do worse than a read through and close attention to the blog of Mr. Money Moustache: [9]

He does a lot of pointing out the difference between what we WANT (a lot, and expensive) and what we NEED (not much.) Which of course, not knowing is what our credit-and-shopping-and-stuff-filled society is based on. Beat the system.

#30 Comment By Mike W On February 25, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

Good advice despite the, ugh, NY perspective.

I wanted to write fiction and decided early on that unless I was willing to starve, I’d better find a gig that paid, so I went to work writing and managing for high tech companies in California and then Seattle. I’ve had two YA novels and a picture book published the old fashioned way, receiving advances and that sort of thing, all of which helped gratify my ego and salve all those times I stared at a rejection letter and thought, “well, damnit, I’ll just show you…” I’ve also self-published some fiction, and actually made more money doing that than what was published by “real” publishers. The kind of advance the author of the article talks about is hard to fathom. I received an advance of $8k for my 2nd YA novel, $6K for my first and nothing for my picture book. I’ve made almost $20k from my self-published ebook novel and it has just passed 30,000 downloads in a year and a half. I work to pay the bills and support my family, and write because, well, as corny as it sounds, I have to. The money I get from my fiction is a confirmation of sorts, but the biggest thrill I get is when I have a story as good as I can get at a specific point in time. I can tinker on a story for ever, so my goal is always to get it to a point where I can abandon it without too much self-flagellation. Now that my kids are older, my writing routine is fairly set. I write a few hours Saturday and Sunday mornings; I also write on the ferry I take to work and back four days a week, and I can usually squeeze in a few hours the day I work at home…typically Wednesday. If for whatever reason I happen to miss a boat home in the evening it is no big deal. I wander over to the nearby bar, order a beer, grab a booth in the corner, pull out my notebook computer, and write. So I can’t say writing keeps me out of the bars, but it is something I think is worthy of my devotion and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about life sitting in front of my computer. And if every once in a while I get a sentence or a paragraph that just sings, well, then that’s reward enough.

[NFR: Mike, seriously, 30,000 downloads is amazing! Congratulations. I got nowhere near those sales numbers on Crunchy Cons, and it came out from a major publisher, and had national publicity, including positive reviews in the NYT and WSJ, and a WaPo Style section cover story. You’ve really accomplished something. — RD]

#31 Comment By alkali On February 25, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

I would add that in addition to writers, anyone who is going to work on a freelance basis doing anything needs good financial advice, especially with taxes.

(Parenthetically, it is frequently observed that the difficulty self-employed people have doing their taxes is because of our terribly complex tax code. This is not really true. In a country where the principal mode of taxation is taxation based on income, we are going to have hard problems drawing lines between personal expenses and business expenses for self-employed people, because we need to draw that line to determine what is income and what is personal consumption. You could draw the lines differently, but you still have to draw them. To get away from those problems you have to switch to relying on a consumption tax or value added tax regime — and those regimes have their own problems. It is sometimes said that this is why taxes should be lower in general, which would be nice, but you’re still going to have that line drawing problem unless you can get taxes so low that there is basically no government, which is unlikely. Taxes are just going to be painful, the end, full stop. Call an accountant today.)

#32 Comment By John Mark Ockerbloom On February 25, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

As he acknowledges, John Scalzi’s done better financially than most writers, but he also spent a lot of time earning not very much at it. His 2008 blog post [10] has a lot of good advice at writers at various points of the income distribution curve.

#33 Comment By Art Deco On February 25, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

If the author of that statement doesn’t need one, then he is free to not get one. But beginning that idea with the word “you” is groundless.

What the moderator refers to as a ‘financial advisor’ is what is called an ‘accountant’ or ‘tax preparer’ in New York. What you are referring to is a ‘financial planner’.

And nothing said was groundless.

And, of course, it is not groundless.

#34 Comment By Art Deco On February 25, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

Every single person can connect with guidance that will help with financial planning, regardless of where one is at.

Free pieces of advice Judith:

1. Don’t overspend your income.

2. Don’t get fixated on perfect strangers.

#35 Comment By Art Deco On February 25, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

I was complaining about family matters, and the attitude of my parents towards loaning me money for the down payment, when they had unhesitatingly helped my siblings.


#36 Comment By Art Deco On February 25, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

Get a job as a certified nurses assistant in a nursing home or something.

It takes a special sort of disposition to do that sort of work well. When you see them in action, it’s impressive.

#37 Comment By Darth Thulhu On February 25, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

This has all been thoughtful and fun to read. Now approve this comment, walk away, and write yer gosh-darned chapter! 😉

#38 Comment By Rambler88 On February 26, 2014 @ 12:46 am

Rod, I have to say something about the phrase “Brooklynite preciousness.” It takes a lot to make a Brooklynite do a visible double take, but that did it.

Emily Gould is not a Brooklynite. Emily Gould is a Marylander, from a suburb of Washington, D.C. Nothing at all against Maryland, and I don’t blame Maryland for Gould. But Maryland ain’t Brooklyn. Gould is no more a Brooklynite than Hilary Clinton is a New Yorker.

I’m a Brooklynite. My fadduh father was a Brooklynite. (We really talked like that among ourselves. The old-timers still referred to Manhattan as “New York.”) “Precious” was not a woird used to describe us, back in South Brooklyn.

That Brooklyn is gone, of course. But let it rest in peace. If Gould had wound up in Queens, would you refer to her “Queens preciousness”? What’s in Brooklyn now is just people from all over the country who can’t get into Manhattan to be really-truly New Yorkers. They adopt the name Brooklyn as second-best because they’re vaguely aware that “Brooklyn” has some sort of street cred (a quality they vaguely desire). Of the hordes who moved there with stars in their eyes, the Peter Pans stayed, as did the hyenas who were aggressive and shameless enough to be successful. The responsible grownups acted like responsible grownups and realized that living in St. Francisville or wherever was a pretty good deal after all, and a whole lot better than living in a high-rent circus that used to be someone else’s town. As for the natives, we mostly just got the hell out (except for those who had no cultural ties whatever with the U.S.). I’ve lived in Minnesota for ten years. I fit in pretty well here (especially outside New-York-wannabe Minneapolis). But would you describe my comments as “Minnesotan [fill in adjectival substantive]”?

As for writing, I write for a living, though I finally chose a stabler and more prosaic specialty after doing typography, editing, and graphics for a long time in New York (=Manhattan). I learned from my father, who was a reporter for the Eagle before moving on to AP. (I hope I don’t have to tell you which Eagle.) He covered New York City for thirty years, and told me “When you grow up, make your living doing whatever makes you happy. But if you take my advice you won’t be a reporter.”

Adults who haven’t made the right start should indeed be discouraged from writing professionally. People should instead be encouraged, from childhood, to do the things that will give them the skills needed to write professionally–which will also give them a number of other options, if they start young enough, and will teach them to inform themselves and think critically about career prospects. They should be encouraged to be curious, to think, to put their thoughts in order on paper (or rather, on the screen), and above all to read constantly, inquisitively, substantially, and more widely than they think is good for them. Preferably in more than one language. Lege, lege, lege, et relege, sine fine. A reasonably intelligent person can do all of these things and still have a life. No magical quality is required. “Creativity” happens when your basic skills reach critical mass, and not before. When you have read enough, and seen enough and thought enough to have something to say that might interest others, you will start writing just because you can’t help it, or because there’s no reason not to, or because someone is paying you real money to do it. Before then, you’re faking it, and doing no-one any good.

Unfortunately, in our culture, most people who want to write pay no more than lip service to those prerequisites, and they’re indulged for far too long. Indulging them is a minor industry, with a lower entry bar than the business of actually teaching them how. Huge numbers of people start out wanting to write, just the way huge numbers of people start out wanting to be sports heroes or rock stars. A few of the aspiring sports heroes or rock stars realize early enough what they need to do to try for those goals, and do it. A few of those succeed. The rest soon enough realize what would happen if they got out onstage or on the field with the pros. That doesn’t prevent a lot of them from becoming Monday-morning quarterbacks or air-guitarists, but it does cut down on the number of them wasting their lives trying, and wasting their potential in other (and more important) areas.

It just so happens that people are not so commonly disabused about writing, even though the necessary skills are less common than ever.

[NFR: Nice post. By “Brooklynite preciousness,” I mean the Williamsburg/Fort Greene/Park Slope crowd. I lived in Brooklyn myself for four of the happiest years of my life. “Brooklyn” has become shorthand for a certain ultra-hipster sensibility. I intended no smear upon the great borough of Brooklyn, and I’m sorry that I made you feel that way. — RD]

#39 Comment By Richard Parker On February 26, 2014 @ 1:58 am

“And the last advice, tell the person who runs the website to get a *&*^^%$% edit function!”

Whhhhhy you must be new in these parts, partner…

[NFR: Yes, because if you weren’t, you’d realize that I keep telling y’all that this is out of the power of TAC to control. Our software platform comes from WordPress. — RD]

#40 Comment By Tyro On February 26, 2014 @ 4:23 am

When I hear that a non-famous writer is going to talk about writing, I generally have the same reaction I have when I hear that somebody is going to give a talk about how to get rich: If you know so much about it, mister, how come you ain’t rich yourself?

There are certain fields, and writing is one of them, where you can do very good work and still not be financially successful. It’s a gamble, which is why I think a lot of advice is along the lines of “keep a job to ensure money is always coming in while you’re writing”– be sure that even if you don’t “make it”, you will still be ok.

I took this approach with graduate school and arranged thing such that even if I turned out to be mediocre, I would still make a good living. And lo and behold, I did not turn out to be a successful academic, but I am still financially secure and have a lucrative career path.

#41 Comment By Tyro On February 26, 2014 @ 10:11 am

As for the natives, we mostly just got the hell out (except for those who had no cultural ties whatever with the U.S.)


My cousins have lived in Brooklyn for a few generations now since coming to the USA. Plus many generations of African Americans. When do they start to have “cultural ties to the US”?

Even in France these days they are describing things that have a twee hipness about them as “trés Brooklyn.”

#42 Comment By Rambler88 On February 26, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

I took no offense, Rod–as I said, the old Brooklyn is gone anyway. I know you lived there for a while. The point I wanted to make, but failed to make clear, is that that “certain ultra-hipster sensibility”, the “twee hipness” mentioned by Tyro, is in no way peculiar to (inner) Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan (or inner Queens). Manhattan is the well of twee hipness, and has been since before I was born. What’s in Brooklyn now is just what slopped over the rim of the well. The ones in Manhattan (from whom the wannabes and the media in the rest of the world take their cue) may want to think that the ones in Brooklyn are different, but that’s just because they need to preserve their core illusion that just being in Manhattan makes them something special–no matter how briefly they’ve lived there and how little they’ve done. Put the onus on the “ultra-hipster sensibility” itself, by name, or put it on New York as a whole, which is fair enough, since hipster sensibility, centered on the twee, is the city’s flagship export. Singling out Brooklyn is misleading and innaccurate. It shouldn’t offend a speaker of Old Brooklynese, who knows that his hometown is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But we’re still around, and that’s not a brush we deserve to be tarred with.

@ Tyro

When do they start to have “cultural ties to the US”?

That’s not a matter of chronology. To imply that it is begs every question about the nature and importance of culture. This is leaving aside the fact that in some of the largest ghettos they explicitly reject any cultural ties with the U.S., and do it with a fanatical offensiveness that is rarely reported outside New York.

#43 Comment By mrscracker On February 27, 2014 @ 10:00 am

Mrs. Dreher points out that you should look for a “fee-only” financial planner — someone who does NOT work for commission, which would give them the incentive to steer you into unwise investments. ”
It depends.If the financial advisor works for an ethical investment company, his field supervision dept. will be looking at each of those investment purchases, commission or no, & the advisor will have to be able to defend those buys as being of benefit to the client.If there’s any doubt, the client will need to sign off on an acknowledgement letter that he was purchasing those investment products on his own, not through advice of his advisor.

#44 Comment By Heather On April 15, 2019 @ 7:00 am

Great article!