The first time I was ever paid for my writing was when I was in the third or fourth grade: I had made a comic strip for the Just Say No to Drugs campaign and won first place. The local ice cream shop and burger joint in the little town of Folsom, Louisiana, where I grew up gave me a check for fifty dollars and my comic was displayed at the parish fair.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I received money again for my creative work: this time I was given one hundred dollars for the D Vickers Award for creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I was then an undergraduate. My nominating professor joked during the award ceremony that that would probably be the most money I’d ever get for making poems.
He was right: I later started writing short stories, then moved on to novels (I’m nearing the halfway point of my third novel as I’m typing this). I didn’t make this move for monetary reasons, you see, but because it felt like a natural transition for me as an artist–to move from the shorter, more compact forms of poems and stories to the more open form of novel-writing.
When my first novel won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize, I was awarded two hundred dollars, but more importantly a contract from a university press in Texas promising to subsequently publish my book. The following year when the book was released, I asked for two hundred dollars worth of my own books instead of the cash: I figured that by selling copies of my books at readings, etc. I would eventually make more than the two hundred dollars in prize money. Since I got a generous author’s discount on the books I received, I did make a little, but not much. I still have a box with about fifteen books sitting in my closet behind my workboots (which I haven’t had to wear in a long while, thankfully). Then late last year, I received a royalty check from my publisher for one-hundred and fifty two dollars. It’s not much, but it helped pay for Christmas last year.
Now my second novel is coming out from the same small university press, and although I’m not getting paid for it, per se, I have recently had an excerpt of the book accepted for publication by a quarterly magazine which is going to pay me three hundred and fifty dollars for the piece. A book festival in Nashville is paying me a five hundred dollar honorarium to attend their event this October.
With all of that said, I have made a little over thirteen hundred dollars for my writing so far in my life. I’m thirty-three years old with a wife, two kids, and a mother for whom I am financially responsible. Certainly that is not enough money. It wouldn’t even be enough for me alone. Faulkner called this “the old thrill and despair of a penny more or less.” And he was right. There is something thrilling about trying to figure out how you’re going to put bread and milk on the table: I’ve had to pawn my shot guns many times (a habit I learned from my father) in order to buy groceries. A welfare officer once told me a few years ago (after denying my claim for assistance) that I was one of the most creative earners he’d ever seen, meaning that I found some pretty interesting ways to make money: I was pleased for the compliment, but would have rather gotten the assistance.
Of course, I have a full time job as a teacher (two teaching jobs, in fact), but that still doesn’t cut it. This summer, it looks as if I won’t be teaching at all, and although I’m happy to be unencumbered by teaching so that I can finish my next book, I worry how far I can stretch my federal tax refund to pay the mortgage and feed my family until I resume teaching in August. My wife’s birthday is coming up, then there’s Mother’s Day, and now my little boy needs a crown on one of his teeth (which will cost about three hundred dollars). It will be a trying time, but we’ll make it. If I have to dig ditches, we’ll make it. I’m figuring on trying to collect unemployment, if I can. Maybe food stamps.
But it’s hard when people think that because you’ve published two books that you must be doing well for yourself, when in fact you’re struggling, and when you see opportunities dwindle as a result of what people think of as your “success,” when you’d think it’d be the other way around. This has been the case for me. But you keep going. You have to. I was talking to someone today who told me to just think really hard about how much money I need to get through the summer–the exact amount, he said–and keep thinking about it, just focus on that amount, really hard: he said that if I did that, the money would come to me in some way. And I believe him, I really do. It’s about having faith and trust in the workings of the universe.
What got me thinking about all of this was that I just finished reading a short story called “Elephant” by Raymond Carver, one I was surprised that I hadn’t read before since I was sure I had read everything he ever wrote, and in it the narrator is talking about his financial burdens and the stress it causes him, but you could feel how that stress moved him as well: like Faulkner said, that old thrill and despair. In the story, the narrator remembers a dream he had in which his father was holding him on his shoulders, but then the father lets go of the boy’s legs, and the boy keeps his balance by putting his arms out and riding on his father’s shoulders like that: there’s a sense that trust and faith are in play here, and that’s why the boy doesn’t fall.
So that’s what I’ll do: put my arms out for balance and just have faith that I won’t fall down. I do have faith that things will turn around, and I feel pretty damned lucky to have made the thirteen hundred and some odd dollars by just making up stories and poems: who would’ve ever thought that could happen?