You’ve heard it before: If you want to make it as a writer, start by being a good literary citizen. What does being a good literary citizen involve? Here are three easy steps that anyone, anywhere can do: (1) Buy books from indie bookstores (in person or online). (2) Subscribe to journals. (3) Blog, tweet, Facebook, etc. To which, I wholeheartedly say: Yes! Yes! Yes! So, what’s the problem?
I have no savings of any kind. I have massive, soul-crushing student loan debt. I am burdened with a stubborn and, at this point, certifiably masochistic desire to be in, near, and around words all day long. I have worked as an editorial assistant, proofreader, copyreader, copyeditor. I’ve shelved library books, sorted word slips at a dictionary, taught comp to dewy-eyed freshman. Let me tell you, for the most part, I enjoy what I do, but, in general, word work pays shit. As a freelancer, I get no benefits, no vacation time, no time off. Because I work from home, I don’t even get any free donuts. The majority of my work is paid per page, so there is no slacking off in the break room or lunch meetings. Let me put it another way: time spent drinking water or taking a crap equals less money in the bank.
I say all this not as a complaint. I know that if I wanted more money I should have become a doctor or a lawyer or, as one ex told me, the daughter of an oil magnate. But seeing as life is what it is, I am none of those things. So, think of this as a guide, from one broke-ass bitch writer to another.
1. Buy books from local indie bookstores!
I generally consider myself a fairly intelligent, rational human being, but I display an extraordinary lack of good sense when I enter one of those small, beautiful indie bookstores (e.g., Oblong Books, City Lights, McNally Jackson, Room of One’s Own) and find myself among all those sexy beasts that purr and coddle and titillate until I’m breathless with want. I fondle those smooth hardcovers and think about the hours of pleasure that could be mine. Just one book and I could be satisfied for days, weeks, months, even years. Take The Private Lives of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra. I’d stopped in at 192 Books on 10th Avenue “just to take a look.” On the display table, there was a stack of mustard-yellow slim paperbacks by an author I’d never heard of. I don’t remember why I decided to buy it, if it was the first sentence or the blurbs or just because of the title, but I did, and it has become a cherished, “top shelf” tome, reserved for those moments of despair when I feel that real life and real friends are distant, lacking, or incomplete. I adore the first line, the second line, and everything that follows, but it’s also the object itself that I cherish, because holding it reminds me of walking around NYC with time to spare, it reminds me of when my husband read it out loud to me back when he wasn’t yet my husband, and it reminds me of re-reading it again, after I became, just like the narrator, a parent of a child I adore beyond my comprehension.
So, yes, buy books from indie brick-and-mortar bookstores. But the truth of the matter is that for some, perhaps many, of us aspiring writers, sometimes there isn’t enough money for rent. Sometimes you are on food stamps and WIC and Medicaid and all your credit cards are maxed out and you and your husband and infant daughter are living in the living room of your mother’s one-bedroom townhouse, and even you recognize how fucking idiotic it would be to buy anything that doesn’t feed your family. What can be done?
Work hard. Use your hard-earned, shitty paycheck to buy baby food and bread, and then take your sorry ass to the local library. Gorge yourself on free books. Take home ten or take home twenty. They don’t care! Out of twenty books, you may fall head over heels in love with one or two of them and feel like you absolutely must own them. Start a list. Some day you will not be quite as awfully, terribly hard-up for cash, and when that day comes, put forty bucks in your pocket, head out to your favorite local bookstore (or to your favorite online independent digs [hello, Powell’s, I’m looking at you!]), and buy yourself a couple books. You’ve earned it.
2. Subscribe to journals!
You don’t have enough money for rent, but you really love getting stories and poems sent directly to you in the mail. The journals feel like love letters from editors and authors that you hope you’ll someday meet in person. These missives from the trenches tell you its all going to be OK, that you are not wasting your life James Wright style. The only problem is that your Converse are so old that your soles have come undone and are flapping in the wind like Charlie Chaplin’s boots in The Kid, and even though you’ve tried all sorts of tape (Duck, electric, washi), the water still seeps in on rainy days.
Journals are notoriously cash poor themselves, and yes, you should subscribe to as many as you can, but no, you don’t have to subscribe to twenty every year. Pick one or two that interest you and see what you think. The idea is to get a sense of each of their style. Think of it as a conversation among new friends. You have to take turns talking and listening. Subscribing to journals is the listening part, but don’t worry about making besties with the entire school. You can avoid many of them by your superior powers of intuition. That pale, sickly kid who has a fetish for snakes? You don’t have to talk to him, unless, of course, that’s your sort of thing.
3. Blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc.
A lot of authors will disagree with me on this one, but here goes: When you are dirt poor and angry about it (which you have a right to be), it’s not always helpful to be up on what every Jack and Jill writer is doing with themselves. Perhaps I am the only one writer who tends to be an envious, occasionally uncharitable person; however, when I see: Hi! I’m on the Today Show this morning talking about my Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Who says literature is dead? from that daughter of the oil baron who lives in the pristine, fully paid-off mansion with ocean views (expansive and plural), my first thought is not: Yay, community!
I reluctantly admit that social media is the easiest way to have some sense of what’s happening, and that when good things happens to good people whose work you admire, it’s really, really lovely to know about. You get direct links to poems and stories from authors you love that would otherwise be hard to locate, and you get up-to-date news from the magazines and bookstores you love. That said, social media is a horrible time suck, and as the saying goes, time is money, and I don’t have much of either.
So, here’s a test: Let’s say you suddenly find yourself with a spare half-hour. The baby’s asleep. You’ve just handed in that enormous, god-awful proofread on Marx. Here’s the choice: You can (a) do the dishes, because the kitchen is a nightmare (the cockroaches have discovered the peanut butter); (b) go on Facebook and find out about all the wonderful things your talented, wildly successful writer friends are doing this week; or (c) sit at your desk and write. Which do you choose?