I remember years ago – five years ago, to be precise – after I’d decided not to take another teaching job, I announced to my dad on the phone, “I’m going to make a living from writing.” If this sounds like a terrifying decision, keep in mind that my rent in Oaxaca was $150 a month and a massive bean-and-cheese filled tlayuda, paired with a forty of Corona, cost approximately $2.
Still. I was making the plunge. I was almost entirely ignorant then of the fact that “writing” (doing the type of stimulating and probing writing that fascinated me and that I believed in) and “living from writing” (actually earning a living wage from selling one’s work) could and often did stand in complete opposition to one another.
Write what you want, or write to get paid – at least until a certain series of breakthroughs, this is a fundamental dilemma most writers face, and they navigate its tension in all sorts of alternately innovative, wily, depressing, and complicated ways.
Here are the stories of four Vela writers struggling to find a balance between making art and making a living.
In “Additions and Subtractions” Alice Driver considers the negotiations she’s made between writing for money and writing for joy, and whether or not they’ve been worth it:
I found a job writing 50 blog posts on the value of carpet. At the time, I was backpacking through Honduras, and it seemed like a potential source of money. What could I write about carpet? I brainstormed and did a few Google searches like “carpet + benefits + fabulous.”…But I never finished the first carpet blog post, because the moment I took it seriously, I felt eaten up by shame, as if I were devouring myself bit by bit by simply considering writing the blog posts.
In “On Value,” Miranda Ward reflects on one particular piece she sold for $60:
The fact is, this piece of which I feel ashamed is now a permanent part of my narrative as a writer. And if, someday, I finally find the fortitude and ability to write what I really want to write in the way I really want to write it, I’ll still always have all the things that came before. Little public reminders: here are my weaknesses! One of them is impatience; for instance, in my impatience to Be A Writer, I published a hell of a lot of shit.
In “The Antidote for Personal Narrative,” Lauren Quinn takes a teaching job in Vietnam and finds it changes her outlook on writing:
What happened is what happens to most people who have a marginally attainable dream: I got broke. Really broke. I dipped into my savings; my sister wired me money under my nephew’s name. I got a job teaching, evening English classes for teenagers and mornings at an English-language preschool.
Becoming another underqualified teacher in Asia didn’t exactly stoke the flames of my ego. Nor was I a particularly good teacher at first, stumbling over outdated textbooks in a run-down classroom where the electricity constantly cut out, or chasing after twenty-four semi-potty-trained three-year-olds in a classroom the size of my bedroom.
But something began to happen: at the end of the day, I would go home and felt like I’d done something.
And in “Fellowship and the Emerging Writer,” Molly Beer considers the importance of patrons in funding and promoting art:
There is very little “earning” for art-making. Research shows what we all already know: artists working in their chosen fields cannot sustain themselves financially in this country. Furthermore, although 96% of Americans claim to value art in their communities and lives, only 27% value artists. Every lobby needs a painting, but who lobbies to feed the painter?
There are no clear answers here, only negotiations, slippery and difficult, and we hope you’ll be able to relate in your own quests to balance the financial and the creative.