One thing I've liked best about the Occupy Wall Street movement is the fact that Americans are, at long last, talking about that subject most often avoided -- money. (In polite company, we're not supposed to talk about religion either, right? But at least since the Bush administration and 9/11, if not well before, Americans dropped that element of etiquette.)
I've made people uncomfortable by talking openly about writing and money in the past. I've given gloomy speeches about publishing (somewhere between 70 to 95% of books don't earn back their advances; the typical advance is only $5,000; a huge advance is great in the short-term but can spell doom to a writer's reputation in the long-run, etc.) that beginning writers don't want to hear. I've broken off an already iffy friendship in part after being told, one time too many, that I should get a real job (this just a year or so before my first novel sold), and that I'd be better off working at BP in order to get health insurance (not that they'd hire me, and not that I'd trade my love of literature for any form of security or any kind of long-term job that didn't fulfill me).
I'd finally gotten the message -- that I should keep my pragmatic-money-talk to myself. And then the 99% movement hit. Now, every time I turn on the radio, there are wonderful, detailed explanations of who earns what (the top 1% hold over a third of all wealth), and since when (the 1980s were a major turning point when the stock market instead of inherited and other forms of old-style wealth became the most significant kind). I got a major in public policy and a minor in economics; I can't get enough of these details. No class divisions in this country? Since when? No class warfare until recently? Hah!
I recently enjoyed listening to the opinions of a high-earning friend tell my husband, an outdoor educator, that teachers earn too much. Never mind how important teachers are to society -- if there's too much supply, they should be paid peanuts in order to reduce that supply, our friend informed us. That's bad enough, but even worse is the fact that my husband earns less than a typical teacher's modest salary, because for twenty years he has chosen to work in nonformal settings, for the government and museums. He specializes in that kind of teaching, much of it outside in all kinds of crazy weather, because he believes that kids learn really well outside the classroom. He does what he loves -- a job that serves our community -- and he doesn't get paid well for it. Every year, we ponder this fact and decide all over again that he's really good at what he does and that there is no better place for him to do it than the great place where he works now.
We're a good match, considering that I, too, have toiled in low-paid obscurity. We accepted that fact formally when we married, and even had a line from the Talmud inscribed in our wedding rings that refers to the fact that where love is strong, a man and a woman can make their bed "on the blade of a sword." (Rolling over can get tricky, but one gets used to it over the years.) With our twentieth anniversary right around the corner, I just dipped into whatever weekend getaway fund we might have tapped, because I just returned from getting the car fixed after it died in midmorning traffic (again -- it was just in the shop last Thursday). I can only say I'm thrilled my debit payment made it through. We live by the skin of our teeth, and always have.
So why am I telling you all this? Not just because of the 99% movement. But because a fellow writer took me aside a few months ago to tell me something that I wouldn't bother sharing, except that it might make the difference to someone out there.
This fellow writer let me know that she'd always assumed, based on my long-term dedication to writing and my strong opinions and my willingness to take certain risks in the projects I pursue, that I was married to a rich man who supported us. A lawyer or something. (For the first time in my life, I literally did a double-take, head swinging left and right in confusion. My Brian? I started laughing. Haven't you noticed how we dress? Us, wealthy? I could barely get enough gas money together this week.)
Actually, I'm the bigger wage-earner in our family. On top of that, my income varies hugely. I've earned $1000 a month for long stretches. And I've earned $8000 or more a month (it went just as quickly as the $1000 -- a lesson I'm still struggling to absorb). The norm is at the low end of that middle range. When I was 18 years old, I set the goal of earning $30,000 a year from my writing within a decade. Some years I've made ten times that amount, and sometimes less than half, but I've never given up. The 18-year-old who thought no one could live on less than 30K has become the 40-year-old who thinks that simplicity is a great goal for more reasons than the financial ones.
For the last decade, most of my income --80%-- has come from my creative writing, most of it fiction. The rest, over the years, has come from journalism, technical writing and editing, a little teaching. But again, most of it from the writing that I care the most about: novels.
Compared to the average writer (who, according to one very outdated Author's Guild survey, earns about $5000 a year), I'm doing way better than average. And I'm grateful for it. I've gone without -- without dental and medical care, without floor and roof repairs, without college or retirement savings, without a second car even with a teen in the house, without money for kids' camps (I'm thrilled that they've learned how to pay for those extras themselves), without peace of mind except the peace of mind that comes from doing the only job I truly love-- in order to get there.
When the economy is doing well and everyone seems to be rolling in dough, it feels perilous to be a writer. When people suddenly realize that nearly all of us live on the edge -- and that even a fat stock portfolio is no guarantee of long-term security -- then at least a writer feels less alone, and people understand why you pack a lunch or can't afford symphony tickets.
The truth is, no amount of money is ever enough. I've had astonishing windfalls that were immediately sucked up by taxes and big purchases (a house, a major research trip), and I've had long spells of very little money where we somehow eked by, grateful for even the most modest, unexpected royalty check. (Thank you, Poland.)
I share this in case you are wondering how full-time writers manage, and thinking they have some secret stash -- a wealthy spouse, a big trust fund. Most of us don't have that. We write and freelance and teach and get a grant here or there and pray for foreign sales or a movie option or some other lucky break and we write some more. If we're smart, we live with a low overhead (see the Fitzgerald advice of a week ago). If we're not smart (and I'm not smart but still trying), we waste quite a bit of money on credit card interest, rationalizing that every small business needs financing of some kind.
We writers and artists will always be the "99%." To be honest, I never expected it to be any different.