In an early episode of the hit TV show Downton Abbey, Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel, show up to dinner at the Abbey, which Matthew has recently learned he is to inherit. His mother, who trained as a nurse, asks about the local hospital and inquires, “Who pays for it?”
Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess, played so brilliantly by Maggie Smith, haughtily replies, “Oh, good, let’s talk about money.” That bit—which I’ve seen quite a few times now—always makes me laugh because it’s still considered impolite to talk about money. Yet for a writer, or an aspiring writer, few topics are probably more useful than a discussion on the economic realities of the writing life.
Writing is not something anyone should plan on doing to get rich, and as evidence I submit to you Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, founder of Scratch magazine. Frankly, I’d never heard of Scratch magazine but bought this book because I was eager to learn what sort of writing life some of today’s writers are living.
In Scratch, I found a variety of essays by a variety of authors (Cheryl Strayed, Jennifer Weiner, Jonathan Franzen) who’ve made money, wasted money, and been cheated out of money in a multitude of ways. Some of the pieces I enjoyed, and some I found a bit bizarre, but in a collection like this, I expect a range of writing gifts. But did the book live up to its promise of talking about “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living”? I’d say so. Because some author friends have been very frank with me over the years, I was not surprised to learn how small some of the book advances are and how little money a New York Times Bestselling Author can actually make. Some authors were very open and specific about the money they’ve made from their writing, and others preferred to speak in vague terms. More than the money, though, the book is about persistence, about getting your thoughts and ideas out into the world when there’s no promise at all that the effort will be particularly well received or rewarded.
I liked much of this book, but I don’t happen to like profanity, and today’s writers seem to be angry and use a lot of it. So I disliked having to weed through the muck to get to the meat. That might be a deterrent for some other readers as well, but if you’d like to take a peek into the dollar signs behind the life of a writer today, this book will give you much food for thought. It’s a literary reality check for those who dream of making a living writing.