The time I tried to stop writing.

Well, among the times.

Early in the summer, I wrote that I was essentially going to try to quit writing. “I’m tired,” I said, in the face of the world’s gigantic, shoulder-shrugging, years’ long meh in response to my efforts to actually pay bills with my skills.

That was only the latest time I tried to quit writing, though. I’ve wanted to throw up my hands for a really long time. As just about any sentient being can tell you (because every sentient being has had this happen to him or her): It really sucks to be good at something and have it go unnoticed. Especially if you’ve been jumping up and down for fucking years, trying to have it noticed.

But the most-recent-time-I-tired-to-quit, I wound up getting a lot of really kind, supportive feedback from people who have enjoyed my work and actually asked me to continue. I heard from people I only know online, people I know from Real Life, big authors (well – one big author) and various and sundry complete strangers, and it really, really did my heart good. In fact, I can’t rightly explain how touched I was by it all. For someone for whom the whole point of writing has always been to reach other people’s hearts, the knowledge that I had done so was a real balm, and very humbling.

As is the way of things, it also turned out that I was almost immediately given a two-week guest spot at Feministe, and in the meantime, I’ve appeared on television a second time (talking about stuff that I mostly write about), and have placed pieces in The Hairpin, BlogHer, the Foreign Policy Association blog, The Public Intellectual, and, most notably, The Atlantic online (twice). And I have of course continued to crosspost at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, an outlet that has begun to make real waves in the progressive blogosphere.

But, while all that is really top-notch, and very meaningful to me, here’s the thing: I made not one red cent off of any of it.

No, wait. I made $50. I won’t tell you which outlet was able to scrape together $50 for me, but suffice it to say, $50 doesn’t pay a lot of bills. And while all of those outlets have made clear to me that they like my writing and would like to see more of it (and have, in some cases, apologized for their inability to pay), it will never mean money (presuming that my submissions are accepted. Even in the world of Write For Free, submissions can always be [and have been] rejected).

So recently I’ve been on a “give it all up” kick again, the biggest problem being that I don’t have any noticeable skills, and can’t even find sub-optimal work (when Starbucks and Trader Joes and that preschool that occasionally needs substitute teachers don’t call back, that’s bad, right?), and last weekend I told an artist friend that “I want to be a manager at Trader Joes and never have to think about any of this again.”

And she looked at me and said “You won’t be able to.”

Which is the damn truth. I cannot seem to stop writing, no matter how hard I try, no matter how painful it is, no matter how little it avails me of cash moneys. This is who I am, this is what I do. So, I suppose, I’ll keep doing it unless and until I really, objectively can’t anymore. And I don’t mean grant-writing, or PR materials, or executive bios, or any of the other things I’ve done or have been suggested to me that are, technically, “writing.” I mean this, whatever the hell this is. Essays and nonfiction narrative? Sure, why not.

Moreover and not incidentally, there’s a Big Project that the big author suggested I take on, a Big Project in which I believe and which could, theoretically at least, produce a check at the other end. The big author has offered more kinds of help than I had any right to hope for, and I would be a fool to let that kind of help slip by.

But here’s another damn truth: I have discovered that in my personal Room of One’s Own, at least one of the walls is constructed of keeping my adult responsibilities. I cannot sit down to the Big Project — can’t even really think about it, to be honest — while I continue to haunt job boards and fill out applications and knock on doors and get bupkes (“bupkes” being what I got at a meeting with the head of a publications office just this morning, in fact).

I have to know that at least one chunk of money will be coming in, no matter what. Whether it be communications consultant money (which is pretty decent) or bookstore employee money (which probably isn’t, but I don’t know — I just filled out those applications two days ago) doesn’t seem to matter to me as much as the fact that it be regular. I mean – it matters, as does the ego-boosting or -bruising involved in the source of the money, but its sheer existence is what matters the most.

Or would, if I could get it. So far, and despite a great deal of effort, it hasn’t happened. I continue to get contract writing work, but that is a very unreliable thing, and (for reasons that have nothing to do with me) recently became much more so. Unless something drastic happens between now and Monday, I will have made $500 in all of October. September was better – I made $1050. July and August were sucktastic, however: I averaged $300 a month. That’s not nearly enough for me to enter my metaphorical room and Be A Writer.

So. No real point here — other than, I suppose, that the economy is terrible, and it’s even worse for professional creatives than it is for a lot of the professional class. And I will apparently keep writing anyway.

And if you know of anyone who needs a writer, a shelf-stocker, a preschool assistant, an adjunct history/communications/journalism instructor, or someone who could probably work a cash register if taught – please do let me know (why look! Here’s my online portfolio!). One is growing weary.

/end whine.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.



  1. I know you can’t stop, even when you say you will or even want to (and when you say you want to, you aren’t telling the truth).

    The thing about writing is that it is so very, very hard to tell the truth, and yet it’s something we absolutely have to do, and try harder with each piece to do that. Tell the truth.

    I’m glad you’ve made friends again with your self. You are a writer. You will never get away from that.

  2. Darth Thulhu

     /  October 28, 2011

    Best of luck with the struggle. Your writing does matter to people.

    If I may give a sense of the retail environment, since I have recent and current experience with the bookstore employee angle, as well as personal experience with a former boss who is now a First Mate (2nd in command training for Captain, aka Manager) at Trader Joe’s.

    First: you won’t be able to become a Manager of a Trader Joe’s this decade. The parent company, Aldi, is systematic and methodical, and you will not jump the queue, at all, without massive retail experience. My former boss Managed a Big Box (for the better part of a decade, she managed a Borders). When the writing was on the wall, she was able to use a professional connection to enter the Trader Joe’s Captain Training program. She, a Big Box manager with decades of retail experience, was able to “jump the line” only so far as to enter training for second-in-command, then after six months of that begin to serve a two year apprenticeship as second-in-command, before finally being offered a Captain position in another seven months … and she signed on the dotted line, up front, that if she is told “we are opening a store in Lubbock, TX and you will move there in two months to run it” that she has agreed to do exactly that.

    It will be great money. It will be most of her life.

    On the other end: entry-level bookseller is non-unionized and pays horribly. Eight dollars an hour without experience. Nine to nine-fifty if you have years upon years of bookselling experience. Add another dollar to dollar fifty for living in a metropolis, even if you don’t have an explicitly higher living wage law. You’ll be given ten to twenty hours a week most weeks, then suddenly expected to commit to 40, week upon week, at the end of December. Furthermore, any job being offered now will *explicitly* be seasonal. As in, you won’t actually have a commitment to a job after the holidays wrap up, and you and every single other part-time hire will be scrambling to shine to possibly be amazing enough to be retained (part-time and lacking benefits and requiring close to fully open availability on your part, of course) when the holidays conclude.

    Making $300 to $1000 a month hopefully doesn’t look as bad, in comparison.

    I know it’s personal, but one key to Making It, from what I have seen and read, lies with your family and your husband and you. Can your partner make enough to support the family if you devote yourself to a year or two of Writing Fulltime and Some Very Modest Amount of Housework on the Side? How comfortable will your children and partner be with that situation, should it be necessary? Finally, how comfortable can you be “leeching off” the monetary support of others for as long as it takes to Make It?

    The writer Larry Niven once wrote that the best key to his success as a writer trying to break out … was having a trust fund to live on while he made no real money but became more and more Known. Writers who haven’t Made It have rarely made real money.

    If the once-in-a-lifetime writing contacts and author guidance are really that good, and truly that timely, I think you all owe that Rare Opportunity the willingness to consider and weigh some potentially uncomfortable ways of Making It Work. Even if, in the end, you all reject the ideas, I think the conversation is nonetheless one that would bring clarity, put everything on the table, and benefit everyone.

  3. 1. My smartphone e-mail client blows.

    2. When you are called to write, you have to. And I can’t do anything but admit it’s a calling. You just _have_ to do this.

    I got the most unusual comment this week. I was talking about my RL job, and someone stopped me to say, “You are so lucky to do what you love.” She was right. I’ve always done that because I cannot do anything else. I mean, I can maybe do otjer jobs, but what I always end up doing is what I love.

    And you, too.

    I am not trying to give you the Gipper speech. Just this: no matter what else, you’ll always be putting words out there. You might as well reconcile yourself to that.

    I am glad Darth Thulu says what he says, because the obstacles are there, and they hurt.

    But here’s what you’re doing: you’re doing an awesome job, moving the needle ever so slightly in the way of righteousness, abd you are showing your children whst an honest, loving human looks like.

    I don’t know which is better of the two.

  4. corkingiron

     /  October 29, 2011

    You write that you have a: ” Big Project in which I believe “. Nice that you have the support of a big author to help guide you through it, but this is the nub of it, no?

    It’s also nice that you have a lot of fans -myself included – telling you that you are a talented writer, but you already knew that. If we were all screaming “Emily sucks!” you would still know that you are a talented writer. The wee demons that claw at you in the privacy of your night-time thoughts are just that, wee demons with dull teeth that annoy but do not harm.

    You talk about your “adult” responsibilities. I fail to see how not applying your talent to a project that you believe is important makes you more “adult”. A failure to use our gifts when the opportunity arises is hardly “adult” behaviour. Would you advise your child to make such a choice?

    Which is the better legacy; Mom worked as a _________________? Or Mom tried very hard to write a great book and from time to time was forced to work as a _____________?

    Now, if you choosing to go down this road means you and yours will live a life of abject poverty, then you don’t have a choice and hence there is no issue to grapple with.. Disappointment? Yup – the same disappointment that the great majority of people endure and learn to live with.

    On the other hand, if it is mere financial uncertainty that you seek to avoid, then to walk away from an opportunity for such a trifling reason will be a bitter pill I think. Very few opportunities come gift-wrapped. And talents aren’t guaranteed to be risk-free. If you had the courage to bring a child into this world, knowing what you were risking, then you have the courage to do this.

    And if you glower at me, excoriate me or ban me, I’ll still be an admirer.

  5. Susan

     /  October 30, 2011

    I am in exactly the same situation. Well. Not quite exactly. I did the tech writing thing expecting to make enough money to get by and do my “real” writing–essays, creative non-fiction–on my time. Come to find that there is no such thing as “my” time. The creative ability sits at the top of Maslow, not the bottom. Does that mean I’m not a real writer? I’m starting to think so. Is there a difference between having a skill and having a story?

    I have a project, and it’s been stuck in neutral for a year.

    Thirty years ago I swore I would not Starve in a Garret, and here I am: still unable to focus on anything that doesn’t bring in a paycheck. I have a skill, but no story. There are times when I feel as if I personify the title of a Harlan Ellison short story: I have no mouth, and I must scream. And then I hit the blogs until the feeling goes away, because wanting to write and not being able to is painful.

    • Susan – I am sorry to hear this.

      I hope you find a way to respond to your muse. If there is a story in you, it has to come out.

      If I can help in any way, I’d be happy to be there to help.

  6. CitizenE

     /  October 31, 2011

    Ah being a writer, a job with a future. Here is a good luck story, sort of: my 74 year old sister, having written novels, articles, short stories, and plays for close to half a century now, just for the very first time in all that time had a novel solicited by a publisher.

    People who go into the arts, writers, musicians, painters, all, must know this: Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave; Van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime, and that through his brother. And like Larry McMurtry’s character says about a woman’s love–like the morning dew, artistic success is as apt to fall on a horse turd as a flower.

  7. Lisa

     /  October 31, 2011

    It would be a damn shame if you leave the blogosphere, Emily. Your posts are nutritive.

    We’re all in bad shape if someone as talented and wise as yourself has a hard time piecing together a stable income. If I hear of any opportunities, it would be my privilege to refer you.