Today, the Slovakian translation of my novel arrived. That’s two translations so far (the first was Spanish), and my publisher says there are more on the way. Oh, if I could’ve shown myself this picture when I was seven… or sixteen… twenty… thirty-eight.
It arrived just as I finished reading Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Writers rarely talk about money, but Scratch should be required reading for anyone who is a writer or an artist of any sort — OR considering a career as one.
These two moments have brought up snapshots from my own life — not about the joys of publishing, but about this taboo topic of writing, money, and that art of making a living… So here’s my tribute to Scratch.
I decide I want to be a novelist. When I tell people this, they say, “Writing is a hobby. Maybe you’ll teach!” But other people seem to have jobs writing books so I secretly vow to find a way to become a novelist. I start writing every day. I never stop.
My father is a car dealer; my mother runs his books. I sit at the dinner table with them, as I do every night, while they worry about money: will they have enough to keep the business going or not? Will we have enough money to buy orange juice. Or not?
I change my major from English to Art History. I decide that if I must teach for a living, I’d rather teach art. But I have secret dreams that I’ll become a bestselling novelist before I finish my PhD and will never have to teach.
Academics don’t like it when I make up historical facts, so I drop out of the PhD program. Instead, I enroll to get my MFA in Creative Writing. I assure my parents that it’s a teaching degree.
I hear rumors of a place where you can make a living telling stories, so I decide I will work there until I achieve my real dream of becoming a novelist. I’m the only person I know for whom Hollywood is plan B.
While a researcher on Candice Bergen’s television talk show, I ask my Executive Producer for a promotion to Associate Producer. He says, “I thought you wanted to be a writer.” I look at what the “writers” do on our show — writing guest introductions, tosses, teases, pre-taped packages — and decide researching guests and writing questions to ask them seems just as interesting. Besides, “writing” for me isn’t the act of putting words on a page. It’s making up stories about made up people. And I already do that on my own. I don’t need talk shows for that. I need talk shows to pay rent and put food on my table — to support my writing life.
The day Osama bin Laden is killed, I’m Senior Producer at Tavis Smiley on PBS. I wake up at 5 AM to scrap our coverage for the day and rebook the show. That afternoon, one of our guests, the incomparable newsman Bill Moyers, asks me who we added to the line up to discuss Bin Laden. I can’t remember. I’m so tired and my brain is so fried I can’t remember the name of the guest who sat for an interview three hours before, someone who I killed myself to book that morning to cover one of the biggest news stories of my career… But before I drive home, I write a rather good paragraph about how exhausted Michelangelo is while carving the David.
After selling our condo in Los Angeles to go on book tour (why pay a mortgage and the Marriott, too?), I ask my dad how he did it: how did he stay in business his whole life knowing that he might not sell enough cars, knowing that it’s so hard to keep a business going and alive? He shrugs, as if it’s no big deal and says, “I think I can, I think I can…” and makes a noise like a chugging train.
One of my business reps is screaming at me because I want to sell the movie rights for Oil and Marble to a company who has the same creative vision as I do, and I don’t want to lose the deal for the hope of making an extra dime or two. How can I explain that I don’t have to worry about money? Not because I have so much of it in the bank, but because I have no doubts about my ability to make more… Thanks to my car dealer parents and their ability to stay in business year after year.
Later today, I’ll board a plane for Washington, D.C., not for a book event, but to consult a legal nonprofit on their media relations. Because even with bestseller lists, that “extraordinary” New York Times review, movie options, and foreign translations, I know that it may be a bit longer before my dream fully supports my life, so until then, it’s still my job to support the dream.
What I learned from reading Scratch: some people refuse to take a day job and end up starving for their art. Other people allow their day jobs to eat up their writing life; they end up with careers but no novels. Others, like me, have done both: kept a day job and published a bestselling novel. How? Even when working 60 hour weeks producing five nights a week of television, I found a way to write every single day. Even if I threw out every word. Even if it was only for a few minutes before falling asleep. Regardless of the demands of life, I found a way. And I always will.
“I think I can, I think I can…”