Really Bad Advice Wednesday: Accept Being Poor!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Boy, this is a hard one.  Even as I type these words I’m worried that no one wants to follow me down on this depressing bummer of a trip. Over the next few paragraphs I’ll try to convince you it’s not that depressing, but in a society that values wealth above else it’s hard to tell someone that the career you choose, even if you are talented and work as hard as humanly possible, will not likely bring you wealth. There are exceptions, you’ll argue–Charles Frazier, Tom Perrotta—quality writers who also are able to afford to pay for both home and car.  It’s true, it’s true, but the vast majority of us who spend our time trying to make great sentences and books can barely pay our bills. This hardly makes us exceptional in these tough times, but that may not be much reassurance to a young writer choosing to pursue a life of word making.

So why do it?  As hundreds have said before me, because you have to do it, you are compelled to, and you ain’t in it for the money.  But more than that.  Because there is joy in it.  Joy in making your own worlds, thinking your own thoughts, creating individual art in our increasingly pre-packaged, homogenized society.  Joy in having no one tell you what to do, in spend years learning a craft in a craft-less time.  Joy in an activity that is its own rebellion against the way most of us live now.  “The life that men praise and call successful if but one kind,” wrote Thoreau.  That’s a hard lesson to learn, and it takes a long time, and maybe you never learn it.  But you still scribble the quote on a piece of paper and tack it to your wall, and try to learn it and live it.  Sure, it may not help on the morning you have to pay for a muffler, but in the long run it does help.  Here is what I wrote about Dan Driscoll’s seemingly futile quest to clean up the Charles River in My Green Manifesto:

“Certainly, fighting this fight is something important in these compromised, apathetic times.  To me it seems, at the very least, a better way of spending one’s time on earth than trading stocks or piling up money.  To me it seems—and I hope I can say this in the least mawkish and Disney-like fashion—a hopeful and inspiring way to be.”

So, too, writing.

But look, I am not in the business of squashing dreams.  If it helps you to daydream of bestsellerdom, and million dollar advances, then by all mean do. Maybe those fantasies are part of what gives you the give you the energy necessary to chain yourself to the desk every day, and that’s just fine.  There’s nothing wrong with living in hope; it may just be the best way to live on this earth.

But if the hopes don’t lead to realities, if the coffers don’t fill, don’t judge yourself a failure. You are like most of us who have made typing our passion, and you are part of a great tradition of writers who couldn’t pay the rent.  You have made a deal with the devil, or maybe with the angels.  You have given up the things that “men praise and call successful” and in turn you’ve gotten to do this hard thing that every once in a while brings deep satisfaction.  You have, to steal from Frost, united “avocation and vocation.”  It’s a lot more fun than most jobs.  For many years my daughter has played with pieces of clay on what we have come to call her clay table, and by this point she has acted out thousands of dramas on that table.  She doesn’t get paid very well for it, probably the same amount that you made on your last short story or essay, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. Obviously it’s easier when you’re eight.  But what adults can do is remind themselves of their priorities, their values.  My priority is writing books and trying to be a great writer.  And so what I do is make everything in life, and every day in my life, focused, within reason (and sometimes beyond), on that unattainable goal.  Sometimes this way of being crashes up against the world.  Too bad.  After doing this for almost thirty years I have come to have a better idea of what I value.  What I value is making things, hopefully great things.  What the world values is another story.


  1. John Jack writes:

    I’ve wondered since way back when I began —
    — and my way back when is relative to the span of a lifetime lived with a passion for reading, writing, rewriting, revising, editing, and publishing —
    — and suffering the slights and narrows of untimely though sincere approvals and acclaims —
    — and the glad tidings and cruel sorrows of disapprovals from, at times, uncalled-for negative evaluation audiences —
    — a span so long it’s a hundred percent of my existence —
    — equivalent to but not equal to anyone else younger or older or the same’s hundred percent in absolute age —
    — why I write.
    I got an satisfactory answer recently, finally, that only renewed my passions for all things written word: Because I crave meaningful participation in the human conversation that began so long ago when humanity first gave fleeting aural substance to thought.
    Spoke so others might meaningfully converse and understand as partially or as fully as we are ready, willing, and able and wanting. An ongoing conversation that reflects and influences and answers the very meaning of life’s purpose.
    I’d be satisfied to earn a semi-independent late adulthood subsistence from my writing activities, be they fiction, nonfiction writing, editing, publishing, perhaps guiding those poets who will follow on and on themselves lead on to nouveau reaches.
    Otherwise, I’d be delighted to pass into grace owing all but my soul —
    — owing a fortune to the money lenders and tax collectors and exploiters of my hard labors on this their profit mongering plane.
    More so, I’d be delighted to make an audience’s acquaintance through my writing. That special audience of meaningful one whom I seek across the ages and the places I’ve visited on this joyful mortal toil we call a poet’s journey.
    Meanwhile; I’ll manage somehow. I have since way back when.

  2. Ben writes:

    I think it’s worth reflecting on the many ways a writers life can come together–writing and teaching being the dominant one in our time, but there are others as well–journalism, copywriting, things entirely unrelated to writing, all with different tradeoffs of time and money, different equations of freedom.

    I spent a month at the Vermont Studio Center and one of the best parts of it was seeing how different people put creative lives together, and the costs and benefits of each–the professional artists whose personal work was still polished to the point of blandness; the cafeteria worker whose paintings were savagely, almost privately original.

    The ‘space’ to write comes in many forms, and few of them are free:

    “Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.”

    • Dave writes:

      I agree, Ben. We evolve to survive as writers….and for most of us that means wearing many other hats. What is sometimes frustrating is that even with all the hats–journalism, teaching, books, blogs, etc… it doesn’t quite stretch enough to cover the bills. But of course that is not a situation that’s unique to writers, especially these days.