Writers can’t make money writing. This is the one consistent mantra I’ve heard throughout my life. My parents first told me that when I was six years old, after I’d written my first book—about my dachshund, Pansy—on the backside of gum wrappers. I’m going to be a writer when I grow up, I said. Oh, both my mother and father responded, their disappointment palpable. You’ll never make any money writing.
In college, teachers echoed those claims. The professor who taught magazine writing at Temple University told me I was a natural, a talented feature writer. You’ll never make any money writing, though, she added at the end of a critique. I sold the article she was critiquing to New York Nightlife magazine. I was shocked when the editor told me I would be paid for it. In my thirties, I attended fiction writing workshops in New York City, and again, was told I wrote well. But…I would never be able to make a living writing fiction. In my forties a writing coach told me that if I was writing my novel in order to make money, I was sadly delusional.
Those words were echoed more recently by another writing coach, emphasizing her point with an anecdote. One of her good friends, a fine writer, had a book on the New York Times bestsellers list. He lives below the poverty level, accepting teaching jobs he loathes in order to pay rent on his hovel in the bowels of Brooklyn.
I wonder what people tell kids who grow up saying they want to be doctors. I wonder if they say, you’ll never get into a medical school and if you do, you’ll graduate saddled with thousands of dollars of student loans. You’ll pay outrageous amounts of money for malpractice insurance and you’ll work for HMOs and the pharmaceutical companies. You’ll prescribe medications you know cause breast cancer and liver damage and you’ll spend most of your day filling out forms. You’ll see 20 patients daily, which will cause you to adapt many of the unhealthy lifestyle habits you warn your patients against. You’ll feel enormous pressure to seem more successful, more healthy and more together than you really are. You will be expected to be the smartest person in the room at all times.
I’m willing to bet no parent has ever responded to their child’s desire to become a doctor with a litany of why that’s a bad idea. Certain professions are noble or at least lucrative, while writing and other arts are often viewed as self-indulgent and a waste of time.
I can think of only two things I love as much as books and magazines—dogs and coffee. I remember myself as a four-year-old, my mom taking me to the Children’s Library, my chubby hands picking out books I was already able to read. I remember finishing Gone with the Wind on a Greyhound bus headed for Annapolis, Maryland when I was 13 years old, sobbing uncontrollably, the middle-aged woman sitting next to me trying to comfort me without understanding why I was crying (because the book—the story—was over). A month ago, I finished Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and cried off and on for three days, not because the story is sad, but because the prose is so beautiful, so extraordinary, the emotion it invoked in me flowed out in the form of tears.
If I was a writing teacher, the first thing I would say to my students: Congratulations! By following your heart, you are all going to be rich, in every sense of the word, beyond your wildest dreams.
I’m still trying to dismiss the negative messages I’ve assimilated regarding the writing life. I’m still trying to let go of the fears I inherited from my parents and teachers and even my friends. It doesn’t matter that no one believes I can earn a living as a writer. I’m the only person who needs to believe I can do exactly that.