This week, a number of writers published essays about where their money comes from. This is a really important dialogue. I’ve attended many literary conferences where successful authors sat on one side of the table and us unwashed masses sat on the other, gripping ballpoint pens and dog-eared manuscripts, desperate to know how these famous novelists transmute prose into cash. It’s a task that can seem as impossible as spinning straw into gold.
“Well, I ate a lot of ramen noodles,” one author said, recounting his days slumming it in Manhattan shortly after graduating with a Princeton degree.
OK. Obviously something is missing here.
I think it’s important to talk about class, wealth and income and how these things influence creative output. So in the spirit of continuing the conversation, I’m answering the question of Where My Money Comes From. Here we go…
Ages 18-19: I attend Tulane University majoring in English. A third of my $30,000 tuition is covered by a need-based scholarship. A third is paid by my parents. I pay the last third with student loans and work as a creepy body piercer’s assistant/apprentice during the semester and a country club waitress in the summers before and after that year.
Ages 19-21: My parents can’t afford their third of the Tulane tuition. I transfer to LSU. My parents pay my in-state tuition and living expenses. I live with my grandmother for the bulk of the time, in dorms for one semester and an apartment for another, all funded by my parents. I work full- or part-time for the Marriott hotel, The Civil War Book Review, a rave promoter and a professor.
Age 22-25: I’m off the parental gravy train. I enroll at the University of New Orleans to get an MFA in creative writing. My tuition is waived and I receive a $6,000 yearly stipend in exchange for teaching. I live with my grandmother in Lakeview for most of the time; the rest of the time I live in a tiny Gentilly studio apartment where rent is $390 a month and includes utilities. I work part-time jobs, including at the Times-Picayune‘s packaging center and Pizza Hut. I inherit about $20,000 from my grandmother. I pay off my student loans, buy a Clavinova keyboard and put the rest into a mutual fund, where it grows into a down payment for my house.
Age 25-28: I’m accepted into LSU’s Comparative Literature PhD program. I don’t have funding my first year, so my parents pay my tuition and I teach two sections at Baton Rouge Community College, where I’m paid $1,800 a class. My rent is only $200, again, thanks to my parents, who give me discounted rent in an apartment they’ve procured for my sister. My parents pay for my health insurance. For my second and third year, I get a teaching assistantship that pays $11,000 per year, and I move into graduate student housing, where my rent is $250 a month and includes utilities. I work part-time at a coffee shop.
Ages 28-29: I drop out of the PhD program and move into a Marigny house with four roommates. My rent is $375. I work a ton of odd jobs, intern at Gambit, then get freelance assignments from Gambit (15 cents per word), teach two sections at Delgado Community College ($1,800 each) in the fall, and win the lottery by scoring a full-time editor position at Gambit.
Ages 29-present: I’m employed full-time at Gambit and write my debut novel during downtime. After five years as an editor, my salary is $40,518. I also earn about $8,000 annually from freelance gigs. And I made $6,000 last year by AirBnbing my house.
Looking over my history, I see my many advantages. The greatest advantage was a family who paid for me to get a college degree from a public university. I was also lucky to get funding from universities for my graduate degree. I won the intern lottery when I got this full-time position at Gambit. I’m sure not smarter or more talented than anyone else who interns here. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I am able-bodied, white, heterosexual and cisgender, with all the privileges these statuses confer. I am unmarried and have no children. Not having a family to support made it easy for me to prioritize my education and choose low-paying, flexible jobs (before I came to Gambit, the most I made was $16,000 a year) for most of my twenties. I was able to trade money for time, during which I refined my craft. I am grateful now to make a good living as a writer. Developing the skill set to do that took more than a decade of family support, trade-offs and dumb luck.
To quote the Salon piece: “OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.”