It’s National Poetry Month for at least another week and a bit so I think it’s high time I write this particular blog.
I’m gonna give you some transparency here. People ask me all the time ‘how do you do it’? I’m not sure that they’re asking specifically about how I exist as a professional writer or how I exist as a working mother or both? And if they ever wonder what kind of money I make or what costs I have regarding my writing life…
Other writers (very) often talk about money. They talk about submission and contest fees, grants, and member dues. In fact, submission fees seem to be a hot topic right now. Even literary magazines are sending out surveys to see what writers are willing to pay, and if they prefer cash prizes over free subscriptions/gifts.
Last year, I wrote a feature article for the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine ‘Write’ regarding money, granting and the ‘system’ for writers who are attempting to “make a living” as a writer. It was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written – both because of the sheer scope of research and writing, but also because of how conflicted it made me feel to present ‘the facts’ of the system. The facts are bleak at best for us.
So, since everyone else seems to be shouting their opinions via social media, I thought I’d grow some balls and tell you what my humble opinions are. I don’t usually do this, but lately, I’ve been getting frustrated when I read the threads of people responding to things regarding money, like’a $3.00 reading fee? That’s unacceptable!’….
I’m gonna give it to you straight – I cannot exist financially on what I make from my writing life. I have a part time job (like, where I leave my house and go to an office to work), I mentor (including edit, for which I charge an hourly rate), I do as many readings/lectures/workshops as my heart/body can withstand (and get paid or receive gifts), and I fill out grant applications over and over again in an effort to pay myself for all the writing I do.
I do not get paid for the writing I do. I do not get paid to write this blog. I do not let people advertise on my site/blog, which I suppose, could bring me some income (the idea kinda freaks me out…people from different companies have inquired but it has never been a company that ‘fit’ with my writing…). I do A LOT of things for free, and mostly, these are community events and/or those ‘can you just read this over?’ requests.
I put out way more money than I make in my writing life.
Here’s the breakdown and the ‘whys’ for the choices I make regarding each issue.
I pay for the following support:
Editors – I pay an hourly wage depending on the project
Graphic Design – I pay anywhere between $25/hour or up to $100 for a graphic
Web design/support – I pay an hourly wage depending on the need
*Note – I do many of these things by myself in an effort to not have to pay someone – HOWEVER – and this is extremely important – I am a writer and an editor – but I MUST hire out (or have someone else who may do it for free or an exchange) an editor for my work. It’s a must! I would never submit something without it being seen and edited by another human being. If you’re dedicated to your work and your voice – you will find a way to get/pay a reader/editor. When it comes to graphic design and web support, these two worlds I know very little about. I recognize that in order to create logos and make my site look the way it looks, I need help from a professional. If I can’t afford it – then I wait until I can.
I am a paying member of the following:
Writers’ Union of Canada – $205.00/year
The League of Canadian Poets – $185/year
The Ontario Poetry Society – $35/year
Literary Arts Windsor – Board Member (Volunteer) – $25/year
I feel empowered and inspired being a member of the above affiliations. I get information from the Writers Union that propels and informs my literary life. I feel welcome and appreciate as a member of The Ontario Poetry Society – and there are countless opportunities to be published via TOPS. The League of Canadian Poetry has been incredible. I have been paid for countless readings/workshops/events and thrice over paid for my ‘dues’ via the grants/programs available through the league.
I’m fairly new to the Literary Art Windsor board, but it’s a board that keeps me connected to BookFest and other literary events in the city. It’s an honour to learn about and participate in and cultivate the literary arts community in Windsor.
What can I really afford?
The truth is: nothing, really. There are years when my dues/fees are paid via credit card. Sometimes, I just don’t have the money to pay the dues when they’re needed, but I make it work and take the hit because I believe it’s worth it. I also think it’s important to attend workshops/conferences held by these groups so you can speak up and be heard as well as sit back and listen to what’s going on around you. With copyright laws, public lending rights, access copyright…none of which I would have heard of or known to pay attention too if it wasn’t for the Writers’ Union or the League/TOPS.
I will be attending the Writers’ Union/League joint conference in Winnipeg this summer. It will be my second union conference. I’m returning because I feel like I need to be there to ‘represent’ my people – the poets and writers I know who aren’t members – for whatever reason. If these are the places you go to learn and be heard, then I want to be there. It’s not cheap and it was definitely a financial struggle to make this trip possible, but I believe it’s a worthy cause.
I’ve blogged A LOT about grants. And as much as they pretty much screw up my life while I’m writing/organizing them, break my bank and bust my balls…then break my heart when I don’t get them…I still continue to submit. And hope. And write. This is one part of the ‘system’ that I believe in – even though it needs work and there should be more money available especially with the growing number of writers/self-published writers that exist today. (Did you know that the Writers’ Union welcomes self-published authors now?)
This is one way to pay myself for the writing. And this is why the grants exist.
When you’re a poet/novelist (not ‘working’ for a company that pays you), your income shifts into never-never land. Like being a parent – there is no ‘boss’, no ‘bank account’ that pays you for your work. I knew this going in. I know it today. And I’ll know it tomorrow. And I know that applying for grants is one way to get mama paid for the work of writing.
I’ve been on juries. I’ve been on that side. Let me tell you, it’s no prettier. Having your opinions like hands in the cookie jar filled with money is agonizing. But again, I believe in the system. And I’d rather have hope and try than not have the option to do so at all.
I’ve applied for the Arts Culture & Heritage Fund grant available through the City of Windsor. It’s in its second year (first round) – and the fact that it has returned speaks to me about the dedication and support the city has for its artists. Again, there isn’t loads of money, but there’s some. And I appreciate that. I want to try and get some of it to keep my ideas and passion for this community and its cultural diversity alive.
Over the last ten years, I’ve applied for the following grants:
Writers in the Schools – Writers’ Union of Canada
Of these, I’ve received Writers Reserve grants (until this year – when I did not receive one), Poets in the Schools/Canada Poetry Tours from the League, and WEA’s award/grant over the years.
Nothing is consistent. Nothing is known. Except…I always have hope that THIS TIME I’ll get the big one. And when I don’t, I go through the usual heartbreak, anger, frustration, tears and massive consumption of chocolate – then I get over it.
SUBMISSION FEES/CONTEST FEES/SUBMITTABLE
Folks are talking about submission/contest fees and using the (sort of) new on-line submitting system called Submittable. Also, they’re commenting on whether they’d prefer cash prizes over, say, a free literary magazine subscription.
I don’t mind fees. The largest fees I’ve had to pay are for CBC contests, but the cash prizes are also the largest as well. I don’t mind putting out $30 if I win $6,000.00. And yes, I know it’s pretty impossible for me to win, but I still take the chance. What is $30? Dinner at McDonalds for the family. Um, a movie and a popcorn (no butter or pop or candy). An almost full tank of gas.
People were getting their pencils in a scribble about a new magazine asking for a $3 reading fee to submit (per poem). They were very angry. Three bucks? It’s a Tim’s coffee and a muffin. Can you give up your coffee for a day so you can submit a poem? And get published in a magazine loads of people will read? What will drinking your Tim’s get you besides a trip to the bathroom and hunger pains in an hour?
Everything is relative. So my thoughts on the pay or not pay are such that you need to assess your financial situation and see if you can afford to submit (knowing that a lot of places it’s ‘free’ to submit, just not free to submit for contests).
I go with the flow of my writing production, my bank account, my confidence. If I can’t afford $3 for a coffee I’m not going to afford $3 for a person to read my poem. I won’t submit if I can’t afford to.
But you have to be realistic – if you want to get published, then do the work to find out where and how much it costs. It’s part of your job as a writer. If you don’t care about being published and you’re writing because it feels good and that’s all that matters, then you never have to worry about this stuff. But if you want to get ‘known’ and share your work, then submitting is part of the deal.
Whether you mail it in hardcopy (which most publishers DO NOT do anymore) or emailing or using Submittable – you’re doing it because you have a goal to be published in mind.
I’ve been on the receiving end of submissions – it is no ‘less work’ to read on-line submissions than it is to read hardcopy. The ‘job’ and workload doesn’t change – just how you read changes…and for someone like me who likes to feel paper in her hands when she reads, on-line submissions feel weird to read…but it’s better for the environment – and in the end, if your writing is ‘chosen’ – your work is getting printed out anyway.
There are ‘people’ who work at these magazines/contests…you know how it feels to write for ‘free’…why is it so maddening to put the essential publishers in the same boat? We’d all love to get paid to work – whether it’s the writing work or the reading work – so if a small fee is attached to the reading work – I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Especially, if in the end, I WIN money or I’m published. That’s what I wanted, wasn’t it?
I feel like sometimes we lose our ‘we’re in this together’-ness…our sense of ‘community’ in the broader sense as writers when it comes to money. I get it. Writing is a solitary affair. And we’re basically gooey messes on the inside…made of love and hope and passion and, if we’re being honest here, a vulnerability that is wildly eruptive. So we get pissed when we have to pay fees, and we get sad and mad when we lose contests or don’t get grants. On the flip-side, we’re ecstatic and filled up when we win or get the grant…or get a piece published or even better, a whole book.
Also, I have to tell you that a part of the process that I ADORE is the getting up on stage part…even though I’m a bag of fluttery nerves…so much so that sometimes I want to cry and/or throw up and/or I need to be near a toilet (sorry), it’s the part when I get to use my body and voice to lift my words off the page. And I have to be brave and vulnerable…and that’s scary but I need to do it to feel alive.
Believe it or not, there are grants that one can apply for to do this very thing! And there are workshops and conferences and events where this can happen – and it doesn’t make the experience any better or worse if my pockets are filled with cash when I get up on the stage.
But if we’re REAL artists – at the end of the day – at the writing time – these things…these issues…are the farthest things from our minds.
When I get in the bell jar, my writing friends tell me to get back to the words. Because the words, and the getting them out – that’s where the winnings are…I can’t say there isn’t a ‘cost’ the getting the words out because there is…but it’s not monetary.
Writing takes time. Reading takes time. And so does everything else that has to happen in life. But like any ‘job’ we love and live for, this is part and parcel. An athlete, until she gets on that coveted professional team, must work a part-time job (or two or three) around her practice/training. Yes, the ‘pay-off’ for this athlete is much bigger than say, a CBC one-time literary grant…but the core of it is the same. The getting there. The work. The passion. The dedication. And if we did it only for money…for the external tricky monster that is money…then maybe our art or our passion doesn’t really make us feel too good on the inside. I don’t know…I’ve never really lived that way. Meaning – I’ve rarely done things just for the money unless there was a goal in mind. Ex. I worked for three years at Burger King while I was in high school so I could save money to travel. It was worth it. Then it wasn’t…and I quite. But I got another job…and worked to travel and write once again. This I’ve been doing my whole life.
I think this is a massive and must-have conversation. This conversation about money and art. I think we need to ask ourselves what the correlations are and how much we’re willing to fight for our art…and to fight to get paid to do it. But assert, in fact I stand on a roof and scream from my soul, that when we’re creating our art – when we’re in the doing and the making and the outpouring of it – we are NOT thinking about money. We are living at our best. We are personifying that thing we all need and hope to be able to give and receive: love.
Is it worth a Tim’s coffee to share this art with someone who might publish it so more people can see it? I think so. Is it worth the heartache time after time of getting rejected? I think so. Am I rich? Not in money, but in everything else, I assure you. Am I being naive? Not according to my life. Do I sometimes get scared and frustrated about my financial situation? Yes. Does that affect my writing mojo? Yes. But I don’t stop. I can’t.
When you get to these parts of the conversation, the hard parts that ask you to put a worth on your talent…I wonder if you might be gentle and honest with yourself as your search for your answers. Ask yourself the hardest question of all – will you stop doing your craft because no one is paying you to do it? That’s the million-dollar question, I believe.
The answer my friends, is not blowing in the wind, it’s living in your soul.