It probably sounds as though this is going to be a blog post about taking risks in writing. After all, look at the title: “Writing Without a Net.” But it’s not. It’s going to be a post about writing without financial security, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and want to address.
What do I mean by financial security? It’s when you’re not really worried about finances, because you know that there’s a safety net underneath you. Like the circus performer balancing on her rope or swinging on her trapeze — she knows that if she falls, she’s going to bounce right into that net. It’s going to catch her. There are different kinds of safety net you can have. A very strong one is having an inheritance of some sort. More writers than you would expect do in fact rely on money inherited from parents or grandparents. Having an inheritance, something in the bank or more likely a trust, makes it much easier to focus simply on writing. You don’t necessarily need to have a job, you don’t need to worry about whether or not you can afford rent or food . . . That’s probably the best kind of security you can have. Another way of having familial security involves having parents or grandparents you can rely on in an emergency. If you need money, they will help you out. That’s not quite as liberating as an inheritance, but it does allow the writer to take risks. If she fails, well, there’s still a family net under her.
And then there’s relying on a spouse or partner. I think this is a much larger category: many writers have a spouse or partner who is the primary breadwinner — this can be someone who makes all the money the family relies on, or a significant part of that money. Again, it’s a safety net. As I said, there are different kinds of safety net, but basically, the idea is that the writer is free to take risks, to make decisions that don’t respond to immediate financial needs. My guess — and it’s just a guess based on personal experience– is that many, perhaps most, professional writers do have a safety net of some sort. It’s always been hard being a professional writer without one, which is why many writers we know from previous centuries came from the upper classes. Yes, they were the educated, the ones who had been taught literary techniques and conventions, but they also had the time and security to write.
Nevertheless, there are still a lot of writers who write without a net. I know, because many of my friends do. They rely solely on themselves. Sometimes they have other people relying on them — spouses, partners, children. And if they fail, no one is going to come bail them out.
Honestly? That’s a hard position to be in. I’ve known friends of mine who’ve had trouble making rent because a royalty check did not arrive, who’ve put off taking life-saving medications. What you have to do, if you’re relying solely on yourself, is create your own safety net, to the extent you can. Mine, for example, consists in part of a PhD that allows me to teach. The income from teaching pays my rent and buys me food. It pays for my healthcare. If I didn’t have the security of a steady job, I don’t think I could write at all. There are other ways — freelance work, for example. But it’s always a balancing act.
I think about these sorts of things because I grew up without much money. We were certainly not poor, and I had access to libraries, museums, a good public education. But I never had a sense of financial security. I did not have savings until after I finished graduate school and started to write — the savings are actually from the writing. I live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country — my salary covers necessities. It’s writing that has put money into my savings account and given me the sense, for the first time, that if there were some sort of emergency, I could deal with it. And it allows me to pay for some luxuries (flowers, chocolate) without a sense of guilt.
I’m writing this post because I imagine there are many of you out there who are writing without a net, and what I want to say is that it’s harder. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that. There are decisions I make about my writing life that are determined directly by financial concerns. For example, I envy writers who can afford to attend all the conventions. I can’t. For one thing, I have to work, so most conventions during the university semesters are out. For another, I simply don’t have the money. Let’s face it, taking into account airfare and a hotel room (even when shared), most conventions cost around a thousand dollars to attend. That’s a thousand dollars for four, maybe five days. A wonderful four or five days that you can spend catching up with friends, meeting fans, talking to people in the industry — I do love conventions! But it’s a lot of money. And there are other things I could do to advance my career that are harder because I’m writing without a net. Did you know that many, maybe most, authors organize and pay for their own book tours? Only the best selling authors get book tours organized by their publishing companies. Some authors have their own publicists and arrange for at least some of their own advertising. Those sorts of things cost money — they’re more difficult to do when you’re writing without a net and you need that money for other things, like necessities or, if you’re lucky, building up savings.
I wish I could do the things that writers with more financial resources can, but I can’t. What I can do instead is live my life, in the way that fits my particularly circumstances. First, I can think about how to create my own net, my own security. Second, I can focus on what is possible for me, what I can accomplish with the resources I have. Like, for example, writing this blog, which costs me only $99 dollars a year for web hosting. (Yes, even the small things cost money.) I can focus on the writing itself — I can try to become the very best writer I can be. And finally, I can try to live my life as gracefully as possible. The people I know who live graceful lives are not the ones with a lot of money, the ones with the strongest nets. They are the ones who create beauty wherever they are, under almost any circumstances. All of us can do that . . .
(These photographs are of me revising the sequel to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter in Budapest, where I spent parts of July and August. One of the things writing has allowed me to do recently is travel back home to Hungary once a year. Ironically, a five-week trip to Hungary costs about as much as a single five-day convention . . .)