Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The starving author’s guide to money

with 3 comments

[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Money,” as Malcolm Cowley said, “is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.” In particular, the lack of money is generally the central problem of most writers’ lives, at least in the years it takes to establish anything resembling a career. Even more frustrating is the fact, confirmed by my own experience, that it’s incredibly hard to produce a publishable novel if you aren’t writing full-time. This contradiction, between the reality of present financial constraints and the dream of being able to write six or more hours a day, is one that nearly every writer has faced. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every financial decision you make, from the moment you first decide to write for a living, needs to be directed toward establishing a life where that kind of freedom is possible. Because money is really just a proxy for more important things, like freedom, flexibility, and time.

The first, essential step, then, is to scale one’s life to the appropriate level, which is easier for some than for others. E.B. White pointed out that Thoreau’s great experiment was only possible for someone who was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” and this remains true today: if you’re single and in your early twenties, it’s going to be easier for you to simplify your life than if you’re married with a couple of kids. But any life can benefit from some degree of simplification, and voluntary simplicity—or even what used to be called, less fashionably, voluntary poverty—remains the best position from which to embark upon a writing career. These days, simplicity has been variously defined, sometimes in incongruously complicated ways, but for an artist, it merely involves giving up some comfort in exchange for freedom and time. And time, more than anything else, is what a writer needs.

Of course, the specifics of simplifying one’s life will vary radically from person to person. For me, in the years leading up to my decision to quit my job, it meant relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn, scaling back on luxuries like new books, and, above all, in saving. This isn’t the place for a detailed lecture on frugality or investing—for that, I’d recommend Ernest Callenbach’s Living Cheaply With Style and the sage advice on—but it’s worth noting that budgets generally don’t work as well as an automatic savings plan: you increase the percentage that you put into savings, even if it’s a small amount at first, and learn to live with a reduced income each month. Make it unconscious, with a portion of each month’s paycheck deposited directly into a savings account before you can touch it, and structure your life around the remainder. Andrew Tobias put it best, in The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

The immediate objective, then, while working toward the larger goal of writing for a living, is to pay down debt and create a cushion of savings to weather the inherent uncertainty of a writer’s life. Dean Koontz has advised writers to have a cushion of at least six to nine months’ personal expenses before attempting to write full-time, but I personally think that the number is much higher—at least a year, maybe more. That may seem like an insurmountable amount at a time when the average savings rate in the United States is 4.5%, but it’s much easier when you’ve scaled back your expenses beforehand. Spiritual considerations aside, on a purely practical level, a simple external life is more likely to grant you the kind of internal life that you need. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Small moves over a period of years are more effective than a sudden plunge into the unknown. And when the time comes to take that final step, you’ll be ready.

Disclaimer: I’m not a financial professional. This advice is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice specific to your situation. (If Thoreau were alive today, his publisher would make him say the same thing.)

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. It also helps to be friend with Emerson.


    October 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

  2. Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?


    October 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

  3. Hrm…. I knew that it was presque vu? hammy vous?


    October 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

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