“There’s a very fine line between being a writer and simply being unemployed,” my daughter once observed.
She’s so right.
Back in May, I took a leave from my job in advertising. It was a tough decision that my husband and I debated for weeks. But no matter how we figured, the calculus of having a frantic, 50-hour-a-week job (even with an understanding employer) and promoting a book—which is, in itself, a full-time job—simply didn’t work. So I resigned with the stipulation that I would stay current with my accounts. My departure was never announced. The assumption on both sides was that after my short summer book tour, I would go back.
I knew it was a gamble. I accepted that. And this bet just went the wrong way. By the time I was ready to return, management of my old department had changed. New hires had been made. One of my accounts had all but vanished. For very sound business reasons, my agency no longer had an opening for me.
So I am now one of approximately 12.8 million unemployed people in America who is looking for a job.
My situation is far far better than most. I have an employed spouse and no debt; we no longer even own a house, so we’re as agile as two middle-aged people can be. However, we do have one child in college and another on his way next year. Our third, a hapless soul, is always on the brink of financial disaster. Also, our old Subaru is making noises like it may be about to die.
But the real issue is that I do only one thing. I write. And writing is a very cheap commodity these days.
Just the other night, for the dozenth time, I got a call from a friend who insisted the key to wealth lay in my essays. “Just write more of these, compile them into a book. Viola! ” she said.
I explained that it doesn’t work that way: these days only a few really big authors make money from their books. The advances on my three have stair-stepped down from $40,000 in 2005 to $7,500 in 2008 to a figure too low to name in 2012. (That ‘08 book is now in its fourth printing and I will receive my first-ever royalty check in the amount of $416 next month.) This same dwindling fee structure goes for essays. And national magazines sometimes take a year to compensate writers. I’m still awaiting payment for a piece I published last March. When/if it arrives, the check will be for $150. No lie.
Let’s be clear: I choose this life. A smarter, more cautious woman might have held onto the 8-8 professional job and let the book promotion go. But that’s exactly what I did back in ’05 when my first novel came out. I was a single mom and I couldn’t afford to risk my income. Then for years people in publishing would scold me, saying Wild Ride could have been a much bigger book—and I would be worth more as an author—if only I’d devoted time to publicizing it. And so the conundrum goes…
I’m very lucky. Our family will manage to hold on whether or not I find a job. Next year, our income will recalibrate and our daughter will be eligible for financial aid. Meantime, I’m checking Craigslist and Monster and making dates for ‘networking’ coffees. And I’ve no doubt something will come up—if you keep at it, I’ve found, something always does.
But it will be a slow process because I’m part of a horde of people searching for work, many of them 40something liberal arts grads like me. I don’t think it’s unfair. I don’t think it’s Obama’s fault. I don’t blame the government for not subsidizing my art. In fact, I wonder if it makes me a better writer: this understanding of how tenuous our lives are and how ultimately replaceable each of us is.
My goal is to capture the universal in story and reach readers who might otherwise feel alone. I’m proud that I’ve managed to speak for the terrified parents of teenagers with autism and for people mutely trapped in troubled marriages. Now, being part of the great unemployed mass—looking for meaning and activity and, let’s face it, self-worth—may teach me something. I find it’s nearly always the rough stretches that fuel my best work.