With the publication of my second book, ‘Little Known Facts,’ lightning seemed to strike. This novel was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to receive other good reviews. Not long after ‘Little Known Fact’s’ publication date, Bloomsbury acquired a second novel and a story collection. The advance for these two manuscripts was $10,000 more than what they paid for ‘Little Known Facts.’
The open secret is that literary fiction does not pay big dividends. At least not to most of its writers and publishers. Even with excellent reviews, there’s no guarantee that your book will sell. ‘Little Known Facts’ had a mid-five-figure advance and it has earned about three-fifths of it back so far. It was reviewed in several major-market newspapers and won a couple of awards. I did readings in cities all over the country to promote it, wrote many guest blog posts, and all told, it has probably sold about 23,000 copies. That figure includes paperback, hardcover, and e-books. Not bad, but by the publishing world’s yardstick, not a standout, not at all.
— Author Christine Sneed, writing in the Billfold about the difficulty of earning a living as a writer of literary fiction—even with multiple book deals.
Joanna Petrone | Longreads | August 2017 | 28 minutes (7,729 words)
It comes on suddenly as a gas main explosion, the feeling of being grabbed tightly from within and twisted. I am standing at the front of my classroom, at one, almost, with its beige institutional carpeting and faint but pervasive smell of damp paper. I’m instructing sixth-graders — sleepy and vaguely conspiratorial-looking, the way they often are on Fridays in January just after lunch — when that blue flash of pain rips through me. I stop talking. I freeze, hand on belly, and wait to find out if I’ll vomit.
Inside me everything is lightening bolts and banshee wails and chaos. Outside, obedient, slightly bored students print in marble composition notebooks. Not one of my charges says anything — no one has noticed — so I steady my breathing and shuffle next door to find another teacher to cover for me.
On the toilet, I check my underpants. There is no new red blood — only the same smear of tacky rust-colored discharge that’s been soiling my pads for weeks. The bathroom light, set to a motion-sensitive timer, blinks out into darkness while I sit stock still, afraid and in pain, replaying the highlights of the last two weeks: positive pee sticks, phone calls and doctor’s offices, a sequence of blood tests, an ultrasound confirming a mass in my right adnexa (a uterine appendage), and, last night, a duo of cheerful ER nurses sheathed in full-body, bright orange hazmat suits injecting an abortifacient into my backside.
To turn the light back on, I need to move, but I am immobilized by pain so intense I can no longer tell where in my body it is coming from. After a time, the pain quiets enough for me to think over it and will my body into action. I flail my hands to trigger the light, stand up, wash. Maybe this is cramps from the methotrexate working, I think, just very bad cramps, signaling the welcome end of a doomed, rogue pregnancy.
I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.
But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.
And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?
On The Billfold, Emily Meg Weinstein compares Girls creator Lena Dunham’s own experience with that of her main character, Hannah Horvath. Weinstein provides real world economic context for what it means to be a working creative and — spoiler alert — single mother.
Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.
In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)
TL;DR: It ain’t happening.
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:
- “Here’s What It’s Like to Travel While Wearing a Hijab.” (Sarah Hagi, Fusion)
- “The Extreme Travelers Who Self-Exile in Siberia.” (Yann Laubscher & Albertine Bourget, Narratively)
- “What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe.” (Allison P. Davis, Travel & Leisure)
- “Meet a Man Who Took 14 Cross-Country Flights in 7 Days for the Miles.” (Ester Bloom, The Billfold)
- “Temples for the Literary Pilgrim.” (The New York Times)
I suppose it’s fitting to begin a piece about personal finance by talking about my own situation: I owe the IRS and the Comptroller of Maryland a substantial part of my tenuous savings. This is the first year I’ve owed more than I’ve expected.
When I first learned how much money I owed, I had a panic attack and vowed to never leave my apartment again. I eventually emerged, sodden and pathetic, from my blanket cocoon. I discovered no one was judging me for my unfortunate situation. One friend admitted that she, too, owed an inordinate, unforeseen amount to the IRS and turned to her parents for help.
This summer, I turned 26, which means—in the good ol’ US-of-A—I’m off my parents’ health insurance. Luckily, I qualify for free coverage. It’s a huge relief. I’m proud of myself for overcoming my anxiety about signing up in the first place. This is the sort of task that feels insurmountable when I’m deep in that generalized anxiety. Again, I have to thank my dad for staying on the phone with me for 45 minutes, while I sat in the foyer of the public library, swearing about the confusing wording on the health care website.
Taxes and health insurance—what could be worse? I also owe about thirty grand in student loans; those I’ve accepted as part of life. My dad (who, I’m realizing, is basically my financial advisor), has been on my case to consolidate those puppies, but, oh my God, I don’t even really know what that means because none of us learned this in school?! Where is the manual?!
I think all of us, on some level, harbor an obsession with money—it shapes our habits, opportunities, social and familial interactions, and futures. Honest discussions about income, rent, budgets, taxes—all that stuff—force us to reckon with our privilege. For so long, conversations about money were considered gauche. With every essay and podcast episode, that taboo is broken down. Read more…
Bullies, teachers, classmates—it’s time to head back to school with these six stories from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Los Angeles Times and more.
1. “Twice Exceptional.” (Hana Schank, The Big Roundtable, July 2015)
Hana Schank navigates a disturbingly complex bureaucracy to advocate for her four-year-old daughter, Nora, who is exceptionally bright and low-vision. Read more…
The question of whether or not it’s appropriate to refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” has been unresolved for at least a decade now. It’s offensive, argues Peggy Drexler. It’s fine, says Peter Beinart. It’s complicated, shrugs McClatchy DC.
Back in 2007, the Chicago Tribune’s public editor wondered whether use of the former first lady’s first name was overly familiar, even provocative: “Mrs. Clinton or Sen. Clinton or former First Lady Hillary Clinton are all proper ways to address or refer to her, but just plain Hillary is almost guaranteed to trigger a reaction.” Editor Jane Fritsch told him via email that she disliked the double-standard: “The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names.” Read more…
There’s something about Star Wars: The Force Awakens that feels both delightful and urgent, as if it were both a joy to create and a story that must be told at this particular moment in history. People who lined up to see the film when it released last December—and then immediately bought tickets to see it again—are now buying the DVD or Blu-Ray or streaming version so they can watch The Force Awakens for the fifth (or tenth) time at home. They’re also creating fanart, writing their own narratives, and celebrating the idea that the Hero’s Journey has been opened up to a new group of heroes. Read more…