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The Awful Truth About The Writing Life

Here’s a long, meandering essay by Emily Gould, talking about the struggles of her life as a writer. 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 […]


Here’s a long, meandering essay by Emily Gould, talking about the struggles of her life as a writer. 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, 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, 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:

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!