One non-fiction writer I admire (on the strength of his thought-provoking and chilling Columbine) is Dave Cullen. Columbine took a decade to research and write and the results show in the finished product. All of the blogs and articles out there on how to make a living as a writer would say that his next move should be to “build a brand” and quickly put out a lot of similarly themed books and products. No doubt, this is smart advice. It is, of course, not what he is doing. Cullen’s follow up to Columbine is another long-term research project called Soldiers First about gays in the military. Cullen followed his subjects for a decade and a half before and after “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Writers are paid, of course, but often months, years or decades after the labor and often at a rate that would fall criminally short of minimum wage when all the math is done.
On Goodreads you can post questions for many authors and I asked Dave Cullen how he funded his long-term research projects. (Mostly because I was looking for ideas on how to fund mine!) A certain kind of economist might tell you that people are rational animals who do work in order to earn money and that if they are not paid enough they will not do the work. But Cullen responded that he went into debt to produce both of his works– Colubmbine and his forthcoming book.
For Columbine… The first few years, I was writing a lot for magazines, and just scraping by with freelance gigs. (This is before the web destroyed much of the journalism market, and you could still get by on freelancing. It was always tough, but possible that recently. Now, I don’t think it is.)
Over time, I went into debt, then got some advance money to help, and went back to working part-time outside writing as a consultant. Luckily, I’d worked as a computer consultant and management consultant for Arthur Andersen into my early 30s before quitting it all to go to grad school and write full time. So I was employable that way.
Then I went back more deeply into debt.
The unexpected success of the book got me out of debt, and combined with speaking gigs and other assorted bits, has kept me afloat working on this next book–along with some advance payments starting last year. I’m about to start going back into debt on this book, but hoping it will earn money after publication and I can stay solvent.
I’m now in my 50s without a retirement plan–and weak social security benefits after a decade of very low income–so that scares me. But if I can write some great books, hopefully that will take care of it.
The “write great books and hope” retirement plan would elicit a real scolding from Suze Orman. Yet there is a wisdom to it. Yes, it is hard to be constantly MacGyvering your financial life as an artist. I won’t downplay the stress of it. But every life has its stress and struggles.
Writers do not want to write in order to make a living. Rather they want to make a living in order to write. (While at the same time hoping beyond hope that writing will pay the bills.) It is not only a question of funding an IRA but of focusing and putting all one’s energy into something that gives him a goal and a sense of purpose.
Looking back on a long life would you like to be able to say “I had a well-funded retirement” or “I wrote a book that was worth reading.”
Write great books and hope…