10 Takeaways from Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
I’ve read pieces of Manjula Martin’s Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living since it’s publication in January 2017, but I found it again recently at my local library and devoted an entire weekend to it.
It’s part anthology featuring (mostly) famous writers on the subject of their making, breaking and all parts in between and part interview, featuring more (mostly) famous writers talking shop with Martin herself as well as SF Chronicle columnist Caille Millner.
Not only was it worth the time, it’s now on my shelf, dog-eared and likely a longtime reference. It’s not necessarily a how-to, as much a how-I — there are a few specific references to what published authors can make for say, a year (Roxane Gay estimates 2014 netted her around $150k; Cheryl Strayed received a $400k advance on Wild; Alexander Chee wrote an op-ed for free, then later received a $1400 check because it had been republished) but this is not a full-disclosure writer’s market book.
This book will tell you how these writers make a living; why most of them still have day jobs; what “success” looks like and what the future holds. It will explain why getting a book deal doesn’t mean your book will be published; why receiving a $400k advance isn’t exactly the windfall it may seem and why there is more to having a day job than the additional income.
- “There is no ‘made-it’ point. There is only the making of the work.” — Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
- “The reality is, more and more and more, being a writer is running your own business. While I’ve had salaries, and I’ve been an employee, overall and ultimately and certainly increasingly so, being a writer is running a small business.” — Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and forthcoming The Library Book
- “It’s not enough for writers of color to learn craft; we need to navigate the impossible waters of an unwelcoming industry. I flailed for words that would prepare her for all that lay ahead; none came.” — Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper
- “Every writer needs to conceive, develop, and maintain a literary relationship to her family, her country, her community, her peers. A writer ought to be thinking about this, yes, when he sends his work out to be published, but also when he’s writing it, and when he’s contemplating writing it. A literary work unconcerned with the desires of its audience is like a thoughtless gift, a crass experiment in social engineering, like the statue of Jesus your pious aunt bought for your atheist front garden and expects a thank-you note for.” — J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River
- “Fiction of success is stoked by the fiction of buzz and sustained by the fiction of social media.” — Malinda Lo, author of Ash
- “In April 2012 the book had been out a month. I was on my book tour, and I was traveling around, and everyone was treating me like this big glorious best-selling author, and my husband texted me saying, Our April rent check bounced. Why did it bounce? And I replied, Because we don’t have any money in our checking account! [. . .] The first royalties I received for Wild were in January 2013.” — Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
- “Knowing what one wants can confound as much as it can direct.” — Nell Boeschenstein, author of “Not a Complaint”
- “There may be no advice given to young creative types more often than “Stay hungry.” Hunger is encouraged by commencement speakers, noted as a requirement in job listings, looked back on fondly be on-time strivers now on the far side of their golden years. Hunger is everything because it’s nothing –not yet — just raw promise, one lack that may eclipse others: talent, pedigree, luck. [. . .] But then, whether or not you give into your hunger, even if you give it nothing at all, it always slinks away; but then, it always returns. It is a fundamental condition. We seem to forget this when we talk about the appetites of the young. “Stay hungry,” we tell them, as if they have been drafted into some cannibal army and must devour their own to have any hope of survival. “Stay hungry,” we tell them, as if they have any choice at all.” — Rachel Maddux, author of “On Staying Hungry”
- “Money obscures one’s relationship to work; it distances us from ourselves and the things we make.” Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
- “Though I loathe debt, I indeed would choose it over starving. It takes a toll but it buys a chance.” — Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Ultimately, these were just a few of my takeaways. The anthology is ripe with them, if you’re there for it. There are critical things to keep in mind as one goes through a book like this — these are all published authors following a mostly traditional publishing path; many of them are Ivy League educated with multiple degrees, or back and forth on the Iowa City/NYC track.
So no, this book isn’t going to save your life or provide any short cuts to long-term writing/publishing success. There is a fair amount of anger and frustration with the traditional system (see: Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older) and it’s excuses for keeping the status quo; there are stories of overcoming; of ghostwriting; of illness; of economics and economics; of selling out; of selling quickly; for making the right decisions and many on making the wrong decisions. It’s writers talking about writing, and if you’re a writer, it’s a always a good thing.