A scary question for writers
it's something I've avoided for years.
My phone barely had a bar of service when the asphalt stopped and the dirt road began. Staring ahead into the darkness beyond my headlights, I took a deep breath. It was the sixth night of my cross-country road trip. Apparently, there was a place where I could “camp,” somewhere down this dirt road in Pennsylvania. I’d entered the coordinates from a listing on free camping website, which is a go-to resource of mine when I’m traveling and really trying to save on cash.
As for so many, the pandemic has taken a toll on my finances. So when I decided to drive to my parents’ home in Connecticut, I was committed to spending as little money as possible along the way. I rented my condo out for the month and shoved an IKEA mattress topper into the back of my Subaru. I would camp and avoid people and expenses as much as possible.
It was midnight when I started down that dirt road. And I’d been there before. Not the road, but that moment of stressful indecision between spending money on a motel and continuing a search for free options as the time for sleep slipped by.
When Google Maps told me I’d arrived, there was a barely visible turnoff, crowded by tangled brush. Branches clawed at my window. I sat there trying to convince myself I could sleep perfectly fine on the side of this dark road. But a dozen horror movie scenarios played through my head. I’ve camped in lots of remote, off-the-path places, but whenever I arrive in the dead of night, I can’t shake a sense that some unseen danger lurks in the bushes. So I returned to my phone and searched “Walmart.” I certainly wasn’t going to pay $80 for a motel when I needed to be on the road again by 7. A Walmart parking lot—a go-to for people looking for a place to park for the night—would have to do. I found one nearby and slept fitfully beneath the glare of their bright blue parking lot lights.
I love and hate how that night went down. I’m a freelancer because I value freedom. I love that I can throw some camping supplies in the back of my car, and take off for destinations only somewhat known. And it gave me something to write! Stories are in the struggle, right? But also, I really hate it when I’m exhausted and want the comfort of a room for the night, but don’t feel like I can spend the money.
I’m fine with less, I tell myself. But am I really?
Sleeping in the back of my car can be great. But not always.
In many aspects of life, I am fine with less. I don’t care about fancy clothes or expensive gadgets. I’d much rather do things than buy things.
It’s an essential part of being a writer, I tell myself—the not needing or expecting a lot of money. We don’t do it for the money. We love the work, not the reward. And when there is reward, it comes in the form of bylines in respected publications and positive feedback and Twitter shares—not money. Money is never the thing.
Until you’re really fucking tired. Then money is very much a thing.
The next day I found myself listening to an audiobook my friend recommended: I Will Teach You to be Rich. I had approximately zero interest in listening to this book, but I was just tired and bored enough to give it a try. Personal finance. Ew. But fine.
The author, Ramit Sethi, asks something early on that made me suddenly care enough to pay attention. To money talk! I can’t believe I’m saying that and writing about this.
He asks the reader why they want to make money. He emphasizes that it’s extremely important to figure out why you want to make money and what you would do with the wealth you could accumulate.
And since we live in a capitalistic society, and just about everything costs money, what the question is really asking is: what do you value in life? And how can money help you have that?
It’s scary to ask ourselves about money goals, because we’re afraid we won’t be able to reach them. We’ve been told, as writers, that we’ll always be struggling financially. And it’s so much easier to accept that than it is to demand more for ourselves. But in focusing on this question about what we want to gain by having more money, rather than focusing on a dollar amount in our bank accounts, the topic becomes more approachable.
Sure, I don’t need A LOT of money. But there are certain things I love and value and certain things I would like the freedom to spend money on.
It’s important to me to be able to travel and occasionally stay in comfortable places with really poofy white comforters. I also want the freedom to pursue stories without an immediate payoff. Some of the bigger journalistic endeavors I have in mind would mean a lot of work up front. I’d like to make enough money through other work to devote time to writing those big stories. Also, I want to be able to generously give my time and my money to causes I care about. Because the world desperately needs our participation in making things better right now—but when I’m stressed out about money, I retreat from those responsibilities. Also good beer. I really love good beer and I don’t ever want to feel like I have to buy the $3 can of beer-flavored water instead of the $6 hazy IPA on draft. I want the IPA.
This got me thinking about how writers do talk about money. Most of the time, we’re talking about it in limiting terms that are cynical, defeated, and completely unproductive if we actually want to change things. Even more so lately.
Yes, our industry doesn’t look great right now. Budgets for freelancers have been cut. Staff writers have lost their jobs. Publications are folding. That’s why I started this newsletter for freelance writers. It’s hard out there.
But I also know writers who are making six-figures. I know creatives in other fields who have found ways to make really good money doing what they love.
We don’t have to give up our commitment to the work and become money-hungry corporate ladder climbers. But we do deserve financial stability. We deserve to break out of that self-defeating, starving artist narrative, and we deserve to live lives that are comfortable while doing the work we love. And most importantly, we owe it to our work. None of us can do the work the world needs from us if we’re constantly stressed out about how to pay our bills.
It’s OK to be a writer who is dedicated to writing and also wants to make good money.
I want to write and I also want to save for retirement. I want to do work that matters and I want the motel when I’m tired. I want the damn IPA.
So why do you want to make money?
I’d like to propose that we all move away from our limiting beliefs about there being no money to be made in writing and start talking more about how much we have to gain when we figure out how to make it work.
It’s not going to be easy. But we don’t do things because they’re easy. Writing isn’t easy. I know you’re already doing hard things. For whatever reason, money is a challenge that most of us writers and creators have been conditioned to avoid. I don’t want to do that anymore.
I’m still making my way through that book. And if you’re someone who has been ignoring the details of your personal finances in favor of blissful (lol, actually very stressful) ignorance of your money situation, I highly recommend checking it out.
Moving forward, I’d like to talk about money more around here. I’m thinking about doing some monthly personal finance recaps. Honestly, the idea makes me sweat. I’ve carried around a lot of shame for years regarding how I’ve dealt (and not dealt) with my personal finances. But I’d like to break away from that and take some control.
So tell me. Why do you want to make more money with your writing? What could you gain with a better financial foothold? How could your life or your writing be better? What limiting beliefs have you clung to regarding money? (My big one: I will NEVER pay off my student debt so it’s better to just ignore it. I’m no longer going to accept that.)
I’d love to have a new kind of conversation about money with fellow writers. Let’s start in the comments.
That’s all for today writer friends. If you’re interested in working towards taking control of your writing career, I hope you’ll join me and hit that subscribe button below. It’s a small investment that I promise to make worthwhile, through weekly writing opportunities, info on grants and education, advice from editors, and honest reflections on writing like this one.