Writing for Money, Writing for No Money


As I write this post, I am supposed to be writing something else. I have been struggling to finish the “something else” for four days. It’s a short piece, something I know I’m capable of running off in a few hours. But instead I have swept the kitchen floor, finished a jar of jam, walked to CVS, called my parents, opened another jar of jam. This should be a familiar situation to anyone who has ever procrastinated doing anything.

But there’s another distinction between the writing I’m doing on this website and the writing I’m supposed to be doing: for writing the thing I’ve been putting off, I will eventually get paid. Not a lot, but more than zero dollars. And I wonder if that is part of the reason writing it has been like pulling teeth.

Technical writers, business writers, and grant writers take it for granted that their work will be paid, that writing is a skill that has monetary value. Poets and fiction writers, on the other hand, even as they begin to publish in good places, can never quite assume that a check will be in the mail. Especially now, some of the most interesting online places – where your work is perhaps more likely to be read by all your friends than in even the best print journal – don’t pay. What difference does this make to our writing, and how we think of it as work?

“I’m working,” or “I have to get back to work,” you have probably gchatted to someone who has interrupted your morning writing time (and what were you doing with that window open, huh?) and subsequently you might have felt a little dishonest as you glanced at your messy Word document and then clicked on “Can Men Breast Feed?” Calling our creative efforts work can be, variously, a way to impress our non-writer friends, a way to legitimize ourselves to ourselves, a way to apologize to the rest of the world for the fact that we actually kind of enjoy what we do, and many other things. But no matter what the word does for us, we probably have fewer doubts about it when it comes attached to some USD.

For most poets and fiction writers, of course, any money that elevates our work for the rest of the world probably comes after years of unpaid toil, if at all. There’s something freeing as well as frustrating in that fact – even if your mother gives you a side-eye when you disappear from a family gathering in order “to get some work done,” and even if a family friend sends you a congratulatory postcard upon hearing you have “sold a poem” (it happened to me), it’s nice to know that in the meantime, you can experiment, you can mess up, and you can take as long as you want.

But that’s just me, a worried person who hates to pull all-nighters. Is your writing work? Does your answer change based on whether you’ve been paid lately? What do you say when someone asks you what you “do”?


“My number one advice is don’t be snobby”: An Interview with Caitlin Jackson

Caitlin Jackson and I met as undergraduates in a poetry workshop at Oberlin College. Caitlin is a poet who got her MFA at the University of Central Florida. By day, she is a technical writer for a large corporation. 

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

I decided to get an MFA mostly to motivate myself to write, and to improve my writing. I had graduated from college 3 years previously and was ready to go back to school. I had a full time job and a lot of debt, so those two things worked against me pursuing the degree, but the most important thing to me has always been my writing. Before the MFA program I was still writing, but I felt like I was stuck in a vacuum and not improving or growing in the work I was producing. I was also pretty bored. Being a technical writer at a large corporation is not the most exciting or fulfilling way to spend your life. I decided I needed to re-prioritize and focus more seriously on my writing. And so I started investigating MFA programs. I needed a change. 

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