Your recent piece for Dame Magazine, “The Price I Pay to Write” responds to another piece at Salon by Ann Bauer, “Sponsored by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Don’t Talk About Where Their Money Comes From.” Bauer’s point is that many writers have a “sponsor,” whether it’s parents or a spouse, and it’s unfair for writers not to be transparent about it. You suggest that the larger issue is our failure to discuss what writers have to do to get by when (as in the majority of cases) there is no benefactor. But admitting to a benefactor or a day job means, effectively, that we’re not making enough money writing to claim it as our sole occupation. Which do you think is actually more shrouded in secrecy, and why?
I think that having a benefactor and working a day job are both equally shrouded in secrecy in their own particular ways. And there are various strains of benefactors: parents, partners, or grants. Obviously, winning some big award or getting sponsorship from some external organization (here’s lookin’ at you, Guggenheim) is a matter of prestige—but one that still isn’t really discussed, I think, because there are issues of jealousy (even though we want to support our friends and colleagues who win these prizes, we really do, but man, it’s just so hard not to wish we were the ones who’d opened that letter or got that call) and humility (we’re excited enough to sing from the rooftops, but we don’t want to be that lucky bastard who rubs our fortune in other people’s faces) at play.
Obviously, receiving assistance from one’s parents (especially after one has blown out the candles on a twenty-fifth birthday cake) carries the stigma of being labeled a Hannah Horvath—although, given how rough the economy is right now, with a paucity of jobs and affordable housing, I think there is more general empathy for people who need a little help from the folks. In truth, when I was working my first publishing job out of grad school, which paid me a grand $28,000 (just enough to put me above the poverty line, but not out of actual poverty), I moved back in with my parents—not to help with my writing, but to not be homeless and starving. Did I personally feel a great deal of embarrassment? Yes, yes, I did (and given that I have a rather complex relationship with my parents, that sense of shame was compounded), but none of my friends, or even casual acquaintances, that knew my deal, ever made me feel bad about it. We all know someone (hell, even married couples) who has had to move in with family or friends because we live in such a brutal economy.
Which leads me to the spouse or partner as benefactor, and that I do think carries a particular tarnish that is made darker and stickier by the harshness of the times. Most couples I know have to be double-income families (especially if they have kids) just to keep afloat, and there is a lot of class resentment against people who can afford to have one partner stay at home (especially if that partner isn’t doing the typical stay-at-home spouse work of raising children). Part of the reason I admired Ann Bauer’s piece is that she does acknowledge that hers is a position of considerable privilege (and she recognizes this so clearly because she has lived on all levels of the spectrum), and that it’s natural to have some resentment of people who seem to “have it all”: the great spouse, the comfortable life, and the time and energy to pursue their passion.
In that Dame piece, you write: “I’ve been writing in the margins of life since I was a college student selling cardigans at Lord and Taylor…” and go on to document the ways in which you’ve made writing happen amid other obligations. In some sense, this is how all writers start, in the margins, whether we’re scribbling underneath our desks in middle school or writing poems instead of term papers. What is it about the experience of “making room” for writing amid other things that you think is important?
Making room for writing, for me, means prioritizing writing above everything else I could be doing with my time—putting my eggs in that basket, so to speak. And, in prioritizing it, I’m unconsciously setting my mind to work on it—even while I’m driving the car, walking my dog, or standing in the shower. I know that I’ll be at my laptop later that night or during the day, and that my time is limited, so I’d better make it count.
Did getting an MFA allow you more room to write than you’d experienced previously? If so, how did this change the way you worked, or how you viewed the balance between writing and other obligations?
Even though I had some work-study jobs and I did have to work at a tutoring center, I had the time and the freedom—which came from a scholarship—to work an odd schedule, mostly late afternoons and early evenings, which was perfect for me because I am so not a morning person. I do my best thinking and writing at night, so I could stay up late to work and then mercifully sleep in before going to class or to my jobs. That freedom also allowed me to really experiment in my work and find my voice. There wasn’t this sense of limited time that made me feel like I had to squeeze coal into a diamond every time I sat down to write.
If you were offered some kind of sponsorship, would you take it? Why or why not? For how long, assuming that were your choice?
Unless this sponsorship involved me breaking legs or doing something similarly unsavory, hell yes, I’d take a sponsorship—one that would last the rest of my natural life, please. I would love to do nothing but write my books and essays and spend my time helping other writers I love to promote their work.
What’s been your favorite day job? What’s been your favorite in terms of the way it allowed you space for writing? What jobs have sapped your energy to write? Are there types of work you’ve discovered you liked by having them as part of your job description?
My favorite day job was working at the tutoring center because I was exposed to so many different families and stories. And, to be brutally honest, the curriculum came prepared, so there wasn’t much advance work I’d have to do, short of tailoring that curriculum for each of my students (and I did genuinely dig the kids). So beyond the flexibility of the schedule, it didn’t require a lot of work at home or a lot of emotional investment beyond the moments I spent with my pupils. If that were a full-time job with benefits, I would have stayed there for a long while.
The job that sapped my energy to write, honestly, was working as an adjunct professor. There were so many papers to grade, so many lessons to plan, and so many emails to respond to (without the inherent boundaries that a 9-5 can offer), and because I wasn’t paid a salary (and had to buy my own health insurance) I had to take on as many classes as humanly possible to keep myself afloat. Being a really good teacher requires a lot of emotional energy, which makes me all the more grateful for the wonderful teachers and mentors I had when I was in college.
You’re a prolific essayist, and you’re also working on a novel. Do you think particular genres are more conducive to the schedule of a writer sitting down to work after a 9-5 stint at the office? What are some of your tips for focusing on a long-term project with limited time?
Honestly, for me, switching up shorter pieces like the essays with the long push of the novel is essential to keeping up my momentum; I get the satisfaction of having finished pieces out in the world, and also enjoy the absolute imaginative immersion of writing a novel.
As for tips, well, I’d say a) set realistic goals about what you can accomplish in the course of a night, even if it’s something like outlining a scene in a story or a movement in an essay (don’t forget that sometimes our writing isn’t done right on the page); b) get creative about your writing time, sneak it in on lunch hours or break times, and if you’re lucky enough to get paid time off, have writing “staycations”; c) daydream, daydream, daydream; and d) remember that slow and steady truly will win the race, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re not writing as much as you’d like to (nobody ever does). If you persevere, you will, in the end, have your work.
What do you think writers job-seeking after MFA programs, or looking to privilege their writing, should be looking for in a job description, office culture, and/ or boss?
I’d look for language about work/life balance in the ad, and really emphasize, in interviews, that this is something that really matters to you. And really scrutinize the interviewer’s response: If they say that, oh yes, absolutely, that’s something that this company totally values, ask yourself if that response seems genuine or canned, and trust your gut. As for office culture, personally, I prefer friendly but not chummy: a pleasant place to work, but there’s no expectations of emotional investment beyond the time you’re in the office.
Laura Bogart’s work has been featured on Salon, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, DAME Magazine, Press Play, and The Nervous Breakdown, among other publications. She was awarded a Grace Paley Fellowship by the Juniper Institute at UMass Amherst. She has finished a novel tentatively titled Your Name is No. You can follow her on Twitter @LDBogart