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Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | January 2020 | 14 minutes (3,866 words)
I made the decision to write full time in the summer of 2008. I was leaving a teaching position in Beijing, and moving back to Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband’s hometown. I said I was going to “live from writing.” I had no idea what that really meant, but it was a leap I wanted to take.
We lived in a $150-a-month apartment in a scruffy colonia on the outskirts of the city. The financial bar I had set for myself was around $500 a month. I met this at first by grading practice TESOL exams online. This meant hours upon hours of listening to nervous Koreans analyze Harry Potter or explain worm digestion. I was so bored I pulled out enough of my own hair to give myself a bald spot.
From here, I moved on to writing practice TESOL exams, then practice SAT exams for a Korean contractor who worked for the Princeton Review in Asia. This took less time and paid more, leaving hours of the day free for me to write overwrought and purplish essays about my travel experiences. Nights, Jorge and I ate tlayudas in a nearby señora’s garage and drank forties of Corona. A few months into my full-time writing life, I got a gig as a blogger and editor at a travel site. I learned WordPress and basic HTML and got to publish my overwrought and purplish essays on a platform for an actual audience. In the meantime, I started my second personal blog, named for — cringe with me here — a Julio Cortázar short story. My blog allowed me to publish experimental essays in Spanglish and wax philosophical about the old man at the market who carved wooden airplanes. It allowed me, in other words, to suck.
My writing sucked for a long time in diverse ways, with the occasional sentence or paragraph or maybe even mini-essay that was half decent and resonant with the promise of the actually good. In late 2009, I went to a goat slaughter at an old hacienda in Huajuapan de Léon, a dry and dusty city a few hours from Oaxaca. The slaughter was an annual event in which local herders brought their goats to be killed en masse, their meat and skin and blood and bones all put immediately to use.
The scene at the hacienda seemed straight out of the 1700s. The killing was more humane than I’d expected; one swift knife in the throat and the animal died instantly. Hundreds of goats were killed simultaneously so that none had to anticipate suffering. In courtyards around the hacienda, women carved the skin from the bones and hung it like underwear to dry, men etched out internal organs and tossed them in blue buckets. Kids raced around playing tag in bloody huaraches. I took notes nonstop in my little notebook. We returned to the city late at night, and the next morning I woke up at six and started writing.
It took me three days to complete a narrative of the experience. I wrote with a concentration, intensity, and focus I’d never had before, but for which all the sucky writing of the past year (and the previous decade, in bits and pieces) had prepared me. On a whim, I applied to six MFA programs and submitted the goat essay as my writing sample. One by one the rejections rolled in, until only one school was left. I not only had to get in, I had to get funding, which wasn’t guaranteed, so I figured it was probably all over. Then one day I returned from my run and opened my email and there was an acceptance from the University of Pittsburgh, guaranteeing me full funding for the duration of the three-year program. I screamed. I jumped around the apartment screaming. I dragged Jorge out of bed and we ran down the street to our friends’ apartment and we all drank shots of mezcal at nine in the morning. I would have three years to write, full-time, funded.
In 2010 Jorge and I moved back to the U.S. for my program. The following year, I got an internship at Harper’s Magazine and started Vela, my own magazine of nonfiction writing by women. The idea of the magazine was to counter some of the frustration I’d felt in New York at the narrowness of what might be called the legacy literary world, its white, male Ivy-Leagueness. I invited five women writers I knew and respected to participate, and the concept was for us to have a collective portfolio of our skills. I was idealistic in the way of the clueless outsider. I just wanted our small group of women to show that we could write. We published stories about abusive relationships. About the Zapatistas. About stepparenting. About chronic illness. About gold mines in Peru and gangs in Ecuador and the lingering impacts of genocide in Cambodia. None of our work was paid. Our crew put in hours and hours of writing, of editing each other’s work, of copyediting and designing and promoting and participating in epic rambly email threads. All of us had day jobs: grad school, teaching, editing. We wanted to prove to ourselves and the gatekeepers that we could do it. And we did.
One by one, we grew more successful: We published in major magazines. We won grants. Some of us went on to write books, others got teaching jobs. Meanwhile we opened the magazine up for submissions. Had we been a standard literary journal, pay would’ve been a nonissue. Literary journals rarely pay and if they do, they pay enough to subsidize, say, a new pair of jeans. But we operated in a liminal zone — most of us didn’t consider ourselves journalists and we didn’t define our magazine or its mission as journalism, but most of our work wasn’t in the more academic or highly “literary” essayistic style either. We were somewhere between literary journalism and travel writing and essay writing and narrative, and this ambiguity of genre had been part of the point in the first place: to push on the boundaries of those categories. It seemed clear that journalism had to be funded and well-compensated. Literary writing, less so, although why wasn’t exactly clear. I got hundreds of emails after we’d opened to submissions from writers who demanded to know how much we paid. Many of these emails consisted of semi-belligerent offers to write “guest posts” about personal travel experiences for a certain fee. When I said we didn’t pay, I often got angry rants in response, once from a woman who had no significant bylines or books, but who charged upward of $2,000 for her writing workshops. She called our magazine a scam. Meanwhile, I read the explosion of think and opinion pieces on paying writers. I was about to graduate from my MFA program and become a full-time freelancer. By this point, five years into “living from writing,” I wanted to be paid for my creative work. I knew I wouldn’t write for my own magazine if it didn’t pay. And so we ran a Kickstarter exclusively with the point of paying writers, and we raised $28,000. With that money we were able to publish some extraordinary work from writers we might not have gotten otherwise: two essays led to major book deals, others led to grants and to longer, more in-depth journalistic stories with bigger magazines.
Ultimately, our biggest mistake was not budgeting any money for ourselves: We’d been bombarded with commentary about the importance of paying writers, but not editors. The latter worked for a paltry stipend or no salary at all. None of us had the time or the desire to take on a full-time business role. Instead, we put the magazine on hiatus while we tried to figure out future funding and plans. In the meantime, dozens of other magazines sprouted up, all in that space between journalism and the literary essay. Most of these advertised boldly and proudly that they paid — but upon investigation, the pay was $50. Maybe $100 or $200 for a long-form piece. The conversation about “writing for free” continued, now focused on the insult of being asked to write “for exposure,” with the usual rants on Twitter and think pieces making the rounds. The idea of an experienced writer being asked to do her professional work for a major media corporation for “exposure” is ludicrous and insulting. But all the bombast and pressure and rhetoric around writing “for free” ignores a few key realities: Many professional and experienced writers are being asked to write for very little, which is somehow celebrated as “payment” but is in fact nowhere near a functional wage; and many inexperienced and early-career writers might not be doing work that merits payment. The latter is a reality not many people want to discuss. My early work sucked. No one would have paid for it, and I wouldn’t blame them. I wrote hundreds of thousands of pages that would, were I to print them out, fill an entire room of my house. Little snippets of them ended up published. The 70,000-word book I wrote for my MFA thesis ended up as a 7,000-word Harper’s Magazine story. Bits and pieces of work I’d written about Spanglish and Mexico and my marriage ended up as an Oxford American essay. But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line. It wasn’t simply that it sucked. It was also that I wrote it for myself: to find out how I saw, what I cared about, how I strung my ideas and scenes together. I wrote it for the basic purpose of trying to figure out what mattered and how to convey that it mattered on the page.
I believe — I stake my existence on believing — that art should be compensated, and compensated with a living wage. This is not a given, which is why I live in Pittsburgh, why I have a part-time job that miraculously provides health insurance. I no longer write “for free.” I have started, in fact, demanding more pay for almost every piece, knowing that as a woman I’ll likely be offered less, and knowing that if I don’t ask I surely won’t get it. At the same time, writing with money as the end goal and predominant measure of value changes the nature of the game. Maybe this isn’t always negative; commercial pressure can work as a valuable creative restraint, forcing writers out of solipsistic indulgences. But thinking only of where a piece will sell, what I can write to make the money I need — urgently need, right now — to pay for our roof, also makes me wonder why I am still doing this. Why live this life of a writer, so poorly compensated in money and acclaim, so uncertain, so competitive, so crazy-making, if I’m not even doing it because I believe in it? If I’m not doing it because I’m writing something I have to write to figure out what it means to be human? Why do it if it’s just a job?
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And yet at the same time, of course it’s just a job — this is the secret I didn’t know when I began. It requires the same grind and tedium as a job. The same negotiations for pay and promotion. The same boredom and frustration. But sometimes I need to remember that if it is just this, the meaning can bottom out — then I wonder, why do it at all. There has to be some risk, some leap that may not necessarily be compensated. That is uncertain and scary. Writing that matters is often risky — its saleability may not be immediately obvious, its style may be unconventional, it may break with standard forms and narratives. It does what it has to do to figure itself out. Certainly, there is phenomenal writing that doesn’t necessarily follow these rules, that may pop up within very familiar genres and categories. There is also plenty of writing that flaunts convention and fails to achieve anything of importance. Yet writing for a living often means writing, ultimately, what the market will bear. It means internalizing the stylistic and rhetorical and intellectual underpinnings of the literary behemoths, then shaping one’s work in their image. It means putting the cart of audience — and the style of “high magazine-ese” — before the horse of the idea, of the struggle to make sense of the intractable. It can shrink the work into manageable and predictable frames, and this can explain why so much of what is published and shared feels so familiar, and fails to generate that feeling of the whole world having been rattled and made new.
The other day, I went to a talk by a well-known writer who has become a guru on the business of writing, and she talked quite a bit about audience: She hinted that writers who don’t consider their audience aren’t savvy enough businesspeople, and maybe even self-centered or obsessed with prestige. But I wondered how it is possible to create authentic work, with that essential spark of the urgent and the curious, that is centered first and foremost on an audience’s imagined desires. Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.
I Skyped the other day with my little brother, a fellow artist who lives in Sweden and works as a barista and reaps all the benefits of the Scandanavian welfare state while flailing around trying to make a career out of music. “I know it’s bad when you’re Skypeing me at 1:30 p.m.,” he told me, meaning productivity, career-obsessed me, normally squeezing every last drop of potential wordage and progress out of the day, must be having a crisis if I am sitting in slippers in my backyard at 1 p.m. talking to him. He grinned through a mouthful of frozen pizza. I went on one of the flights of what-is-this-life fancy I can only indulge with him. I talked about Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and how after I read it I had that uncanny feeling of both how limited my work and life are and how profound and big the true mission and scope of art can be. It simultaneously made me want to give up — if I can never do that, why bother? — and to forget all my woes and keep going, with a realigned compass focused not on publication but on that feeling I had each night I put The Overstory down. Why live this life, why embark on this madness of writing full-time, constant rejection, constant financial stress, the constant tug of pettiness and ego, if I’m not doing it because I’m trying to get at that essence of connection or meaning or mystery that makes a reader put down a book and just sit for a while and stare, or cry, or call her mother? Why do it if not for that? That, at the end of the day, has very little to do with money.
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At the same time, when I have finished a piece of writing now, I am fully aware of the skill and the expertise required to create it — I cannot imagine publishing it for free. It is my livelihood. I need it to be recognized with adequate pay. I need the pay to fund my existence. The pay becomes the recognition and validation that reinforces the meaning of the work. The job and the passion blur in confusing ways, helixed so tightly it’s hard to unwind them. The irony is that the further I get into my career and the more I really need and demand money, the more I come to question what this means for my writing, what I believe and care about as a writer, what I am exchanging for what. It becomes harder and harder to write in that pure void of ideas and perseverance without knowing when the money will come and from where, trusting that eventually, if the work is good enough, it will come. Trusting that if and when it does, it means I’m doing it right. That it’s “worth it.” Eventually, the money has always come, but it has always not been enough, and I have always kept at it anyway believing eventually it will be, and on and on.
Recently, I started a newsletter. I did it in part because of all the pressure to kick off the promotion process for my second book, but also because for years now I’ve been wanting to write the kinds of essays I used to write: introspective, heartfelt, unabashedly Midwestern in spirit, with guest appearances by my dad and Annie Dillard. I didn’t write them and didn’t start the newsletter for years because I wouldn’t be paid, and I thought I should be concentrating only on what I could sell. Yet in starting the newsletter I rediscovered the joy of writing as a fundamental way of being in and moving through the world. It felt so unexpectedly good. I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.
No professional writer or artist should be working for free. But neither should they be writing for $50 or $150 or $200, or for a paltry monthly stipend. Instead of painting a stark dichotomy between paid and unpaid work, I wonder if we could think of artistic careers as moving along a spectrum or timeline, from early work that might be funded by other means — MFAs, day jobs — to beginning work that might be paid a small amount, to professional work that should be paid a living wage. A publication offering $50 for an essay can’t announce “We pay!” as a sort of uniform accomplishment; the mere act of paying doesn’t necessarily make the work more valid nor does it properly compensate the work. When the focus becomes so much on the act of payment as a type of validation, not only do other metrics of value get lost — creative freedom and exploration and support — but what it means to pay meaningfully and fairly gets lost as well.
I don’t regret writing for free all those years when I was figuring out how to write. But I have more complicated feelings about writing full-time now for what amounts to barely a living wage. I find it much harder in the early middle of my career to sustain and justify this work — I’m not a 28-year-old graduate student who can live on the same pizza for a week anymore. I have a child. I have a freaking mortgage. I went out for a beer the other night with a friend, also about 10 years into her writing and editing career, very accomplished and very financially unstable, and she said, “We’re too far in now to back out!” It’s true. It feels like we can’t give up. But the path forward is so uncertain — success looks so distinct for each particular artist and may not have any correlation with money. I was whining and moaning with my husband the other night about my career and when I would “make it” and he said, “Maybe you have made it,” and I realized that yes, maybe I have. Had anyone told me in graduate school I’d be writing for the magazines I write for and publishing my second book, I’d have let my head fill with self-congratulatory fantasies of greatness. Now, I spend most mornings writing at a plastic table on our front porch with a fitted sheet as a tablecloth. I am constantly hustling. Sometimes I am fulfilled in the way people can be fulfilled by a single word: writer. Often I am keening anxiously toward the future. This is an object lesson in the human condition of forever wanting more and never being aware of what is going on right here right now, but it’s also a lesson in the improbability and uncertainty of “living from writing” or from any art, of how really going at it with passion and dedication offers no guarantees or certainty or promise of stability. Yes, many artists and writers accept this as common knowledge — perhaps even as a badge of honor — starting out, but there is a very big difference between knowing it at an idealistic 28 and knowing it at 36 with a child, uncertain health insurance, and a house. I am fully aware now of the precise contours, dimensions, nooks, crannies of the gap between my ideals and financial and commercial realities. Much time is spent navigating that gap, possibly as much time as I spend writing.
Writing for free, or for very little, is something I would not and cannot do now — and yet at the same time, I long for the inhibition of that time when my writing wasn’t so hitched to my ability to pay for childcare or buy groceries. I have found it the most difficult to sustain my belief in the larger purpose of what I am doing when I am also desperately trying to get it to pay me and pay me enough. Yet at the same time, I do see progress: I am making a living. I am living from writing, my writing, still the writing I want to do and also writing I sell. But the balance is delicate and fragile. It is not so much between writing for free and writing for pay: it is between writing that makes the act of writing worthwhile, that feels somehow essential to deeper human understanding, and receiving sufficient money for this writing — between the very solitary act of making something I need to make out of a personal urgency and the needs and desires and economic whims of thousands of other people. This is the cost and the meaning of “living from writing.” I keep doing it, because I don’t know what else to do, because I am not qualified to do anything else, because I have come this far and I don’t want to give up now. I keep doing it in the hopes that someday that elusive balance will be struck between financial stability and creative freedom. In the meantime, I try to keep my compass as finely tuned to the north of what troubles me, moves me, confuses me, even as I draw up Google spreadsheets, as I write the tentative notes to editors asking for just a little more, as I cling to that ledge of living from writing and keep trying to peek over the top.
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Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, forthcoming from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at www.sarahmenkedick.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross