This Wanting Business: On the Cost and Labor of Writing
Just How Expensive Can the Writing Life Be?
Lose Weight Now. Ask Me How. It was a button the size of a donut with bold red lettering. I wore it front and center as I rode the number 166 MTA bus down Nordhoff Boulevard. My small one-bedroom apartment, complete with crap-colored carpeting and cottage cheese ceilings, was behind me. The air in there always smelled of food. I hung a sheet behind the desk in my room to try to give it the feel of an office—instead it made my bed appear to be a place to dress wounds. I drank Folgers instant coffee with sweetened condensed milk. The bus took me to Cal State Northridge; obliterated by the earthquakes, the campus was just a bundle of bungalows.
I often say that whenever I feel the urge to complain about the work of writing, I think about a woman who has to take five buses to work. The truth is I’m likely thinking of my younger self. She’s always at my heels. In college, I sold Herbalife, called people to refinance the mortgage on their homes, worked as a data entry clerk on campus, and telemarketed selling timeshares. Struggling to get by at school, I eventually dropped out, moved back to Los Angeles, and worked the switchboard at a large law firm in Century City.
These weren’t my first jobs. I’ve worked as far back as I can remember. Before I was school age, I stayed with my grandmother in Monterey. She lived five miles north of the cannery that stank of sardines and cotton candy from the Edgewater Carousel across the street; it was a curious blend of the soaking of flesh and the cooking of flesh and the deboning and tomato-ing, the root beer float drinking and old-time photo-taking, where round the clock in the summertime thousands of silvery fish were being sorted and scooped into cans by family-oriented workingmen, heavily aproned, armed with hooks and staves, who were driven like animals through the stink and sweat of the day that comprised all of this little sea town’s pride and joy. A tourist attraction, a carnival of labor, and this is where I might say I was from.
In Monterey I’d go door to door trying my best to sell pages I’d colored. To the Torikawas in the small white house beside ours. My hair freshly curled like Shirley Temple, I’d smile and show off my Japanese: Ohayo Gozaimasu! Oganki desu ka? My father had been stationed in Okinawa when I was a toddler, and I was told I spoke Japanese before English. I assumed I still was fluent. Impressed with my effort, the Torikawas always bought a page. I let them set the price, a nickel or a quarter depending. Across the street there was a Filipino family, and I’d sometimes ring their bell multiple times, hoping a different person would answer each time.
One summer, I was at my cousin Tyrone’s house in Oakland; we wanted cash for candy bars and went door to door selling his mom’s weed. We only had to hit one house and got like five bucks. That was really dope.
But my first real job was at Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt. I lied about my age, and one day my mom found out and called them screaming about how could they let a 13-year-old work? I went back, shoved my chest out, and said, “She’s crazy. Do you actually believe that I’m only 13?” Nevertheless, they asked me to return with proof of age. I never went back.
My birth mother was an accountant. I remember visiting her at work in a business office, taking reams of that green and white striped paper and writing stories on it. They were extensions of the stories I was already reading: Ramona Quimby, Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club. One day it was her boss’s birthday, so everyone surprised him with a stripper. We ate cake and went to a dark room and watched a woman change into a bathing suit and rub her butt on him. I remember thinking that office jobs threw strange birthday parties.
Later, I graduated to clerical work. I worked answering phones, as a file clerk, as an appointment scheduler. I worked for temp agencies. I wanted so badly to be offered a full-time job, and the carrot was always dangled—one day, if I worked hard enough, when Susie returned from maternity leave, they’d keep me on.“Writing is a tool and a coping mechanism. It’s what I do to survive—not for money, but for my insides.”
I had experience with boardrooms too. In high school I donned a suit and went to my foster mother’s ad agency and shared with her and her husband all the reasons they should take me in. All the ways I would contribute to the house and be out of the way. Being useful and invisible was my aim. With my birth mother, I never knew which cyclone would come in, and so I made a point of cleaning whenever she was around. No matter what else I was doing, when I heard those heels mount the steps to our apartment, I’d grab a sponge—wipe stuff off.
I worked in a piercing studio, I was a dancer, I was a video ho, I wrote copy for a florist, I worked in social services, I went to law school, a small commie law school. I processed child support modifications and homeless court applications for homeless vets, I worked in a transitional housing program for homeless women, I worked in a legal clinic, I worked in a residential treatment center for teenage boys, I worked in a firm that sold annuities, I was a phone hostess (which meant I worked a 976 number for something called muscle chat), and eventually I got a job as a union organizer.
I have had some combination of that job ever since, whether organizing workers or running communications for various campaigns that affect workers and workers’ rights. I also teach. I also write. But I’ve written all along. That’s never been my primary job. Writing is a tool and a coping mechanism. It’s what I do to survive—not for money, but for my insides.
Eventually, I got an MFA. I attended a low-residency program because I thought it was my only option. I didn’t know there were such things as fully funded programs, and I knew I’d have to work; the only way to maintain both was to attend a low-residency program. I ended up supplementing my education with summer workshops. Summer workshops that I saved money for from these various jobs. I went reluctantly, full of gratitude. My wife, then girlfriend, cared for my dog, helped cover my portion of the cost of things, sent me off to Tin House with a kiss on the head . . . go . . . go.
I’ve always thought it suspect for people to crowdfund for these things. And yet, what is a poor person to do? I’m hearing a lot these days that I ought to avoid the word “poor,” that poor doesn’t trend well. That people don’t identify as poor. Every year there’s a study, and, regardless of income, we all identify as middle class.
My mom was poor. She had witchy nails. She loved mauve. She spoke nine languages. She held on to me too tightly, with a vise grip, until a man came along. Then she’d disappear. She was raped while I faked sleep in a twin bed beside her. She believes in the GOP. She believes in Jesus. She taught me to disco. She taught me to kick a guy where it counts. She taught me to read. She’s a terrible driver. She locked me in her closet. She demanded I clean the apartment at all hours. She made the best white gravy for shit on a shingle. She made homemade salami. She kept one bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum in the cupboard and took it down only once a year to make rum balls for Christmas. Those were some watered-down rum balls.
But the thing I most respected her for was how hard she worked for us. She raised me on her own. At night we took the bus to Ship’s diners across town so I could order and make my own toast. She worked all the time in nice offices with nothing to show for it. We had shitty roach-infested apartments. I wanted McDonald’s when we ate smoked oysters from the can. My friends had money, and I was ashamed of my mother sometimes. I was ashamed of how round and nerdy and poor we were. I had some baseless adolescent resentments. There was a brief period when I tried acting or modeling, but we were taken advantage of. The guy who posed as my manager took money from my mom. She handed over hard-earned cash for headshots, and I thought she stopped the process after because she was jealous, because she was always competing with me. Later I learned it was because the guy was a fraud. He took our money and closed up shop.
When eventually I entered foster care, I thought we’d failed each other in a way that maybe could have been solved with money. My mom worked at Ross Dress For Less, and Toys R’ Us; she worked for a music manager, and as an accountant for some kind of firm, and at a women’s college, and at a church, and as a home health care aide. And I knew every day I was in her care that I was expensive. In the same way my writing life has proven to be expensive.“As a labor organizer by trade, I know that very few people beat the odds, and yet the greatest piece of fiction I feed myself is that I will be one of them.”
To date, counting my MFA, workshops, and consultations, I’ve spent $44,995 on my writing life. I sold my first novel for $10,000. That’s $5,000 upon signing, another $5,000 once it’s published, and an additional $1,000 for recording the audio book. And I am the exception. It is an American dream come true. I know it because when I saw the email from my agent the week before Christmas that my novel had sold, I wanted to fucking burn the house down, jump out of my skin and bones, get pummeled on the side of the road somewhere, and disappear from this scorched earth. I left my beloved and got a bullshit apartment in Highland Park and wrote three bad drafts from my garage. Then I had to clean my life up, get back together with my beloved, quit drinking, and try again with the words.
As a labor organizer by trade, I know that very few people beat the odds, and yet the greatest piece of fiction I feed myself is that I will be one of them. I cling to that belief despite the knowledge that it’s harmful.
I know that writing, for the most part, writing essays and literary fiction, publishing mostly in online journals, running feminist blogs, is no cash cow. I know that people who appear to be making a lot of money from their art alone for long periods of time are often people who received an inheritance, or married into wealth, or are quietly running side hustles. Or worse. It seems that The Institution of Literature, or rather, The Institution of Publishing, still runs on some archaic machine built by old white men, and we Third World Others are still puzzling out how to retrofit ourselves and our stories to fit this model.
My part, the part I’m most ashamed of, is perpetrating the myth that we are all each other’s competition. I am constantly fighting the urge to isolate, to hide and work on my own, to hoard information, access to editors or journals. This secrecy leaves other writers to lean on rumor because so many people are elusive, or obscure the truth. This has left our community of dreamers, particularly women and writers of color, ripe for exploitation.
Initially, I’d turned to language because of its subversive nature. A thing my people were once denied access to, a key to freedom, and now here I was scrapping for the gate code. But to my own befuddlement, I’d shifted my aim from freedom to a publisher’s back door. A back door that I found in workshops in Aspen and Vermont, places where I spent thousands of dollars I didn’t have, that hardly anyone has, to be among writers and meet agents and editors. There are a lot of folks who look for outside solutions to internal problems, and count me among them. Over time it seems, something deadened in us, that curious part, that part that would help us find the truth. I know that feeling so well of wanting to write and to be seen, of thinking that maybe if I went to a certain retreat or fellowship, if I won an award, if I paid for a consultation . . .
Whatifwhatifwhatif? What if that penny, dandelion, wishbone, black-eyed peas in my wallet, fairy dust, Hail Mary, lit candle, oooh baby baby please, wish came true? It’s a dangerous gamble we play with our hearts—this Wanting Business.