Diogenes Would Have Liked This Woman

Over at Salon.com, Ann Bauer has written an honest account of her career as a writer, explaining that, without her husband’s support, she probably wouldn’t have made it this far.  Her essay touches upon a subject that not many writers care to talk about:  how they make their money; or, more pertinently, how they support their writing in progress.

The level of support varies.  Bauer’s husband is well-to-do, and he is both willing and proud to be her support as she writes.  J.K. Rowling’s ex, on the other hand, you will recall, was unwilling to support his wife’s fledgling career as a novelist either financially or emotionally, and she had to divorce him to gain the freedom she needed to write.  The same was true for Patricia Cornwell in her early career.

For most of us, the career of Mississippi fireman-turned-novelist Larry Brown is the case.  “I wrote at night and on weekends,” he says, “and I kept my day job, hoping that one day this other thing might become my real job.”  I do not believe the late Mr. Brown could have been called financially successful, but he had fine talent that was recognized for what it was by his peers.  Such recognition, apart from money, might not be enough for many writers, but in many instances, it has to serve.

I suspect that writers don’t talk about their money for the same reasons other workers don’t:  they don’t want to feel the double-edged sword of social rejection.  You mean that’s all you made last year?  Or, Yeah, you made $100,000.  So what?  I could’ve made that much, too, if I didn’t have to work a damn job.  It’s as if sometimes we ask the well-heeled writer like John Irving, who lived off a family inheritance, “Why don’t you get out of the way so that the people who need to write can write?”

Except it doesn’t work that way.  Irving had talent as well as money, and he deserves credit for getting the most out of what he had.  He’s also been honest about the advantage that financial security has given him.  A lot of would-be writers have had such security and simply wasted it.

The truth is, most writers have to work and write at the same time.  Anthony Trollope, the brilliant English novelist, was such a man, laboring in the postal service in England and Ireland, a job he hated.  His mother was a moderately-successful novelist in her own right, so Trollope saw first hand the discipline it took to raise a family and write, as well.  And Trollope failed, over and over again.  There came a day, however, when, as he said, “this novel failed less terribly than my previous efforts.”  After failing to find a voice and his footing in five or six books, Trollope found it, and became the author of The Warden and Barchester Towers.  He became the novelist of whom Tolstoy was to say, “Trollope kills me with his excellence.”

Trollope made money, too.  And he was not shy about letting people know how pleased he was with that development, or shy about sharing his wealth, either:  “For who does not wish to be counted as generous amongst his friends?”  he asked.

Just so.  Our finances are indeed a private matter unless we choose to make them public.  What we share as writers, if not our money, is the knowledge of how short our lives are, and how long it takes to do learn to do what we want to do.  We all need support and we will do what we have to do to get it; but, in the end, a writer’s wealth matters very little next to his willingness, or her willingness, to put in the effort required to be the best writer humanly possible.

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4 thoughts on “Diogenes Would Have Liked This Woman

  1. Sadly, I think many writers measure success through financial recognition! I wonder if the ‘have to work’ writers don’t almost have an advantage–a filter, maybe, that strains out the extraneous? When your time is limited, you have to make choices. Thanks for this thoughtful post…which is the second I’ve read this evening that features Trollope. I’m thinking I need to get acquainted with his work.

  2. Many “have to work” writers do have that advantage, or seem to. But here’s what it is. The woman with whom I was in love years ago said that such people, under such pressure, ‘turn off their internal editor,” meaning not only that they cease to worry about sentence errors, but also that they cease to worry about what other people think about what they write. They let go of their fears and write because they must get the job done. Once they’ve written something, they can revise it, but not before. Trollope is great, and we appreciate him not nearly enough. Thanks for writing.

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