In creative fields where labor is undervalued, writers and artists are asked to work for “exposure” in lieu of compensation that would address our most critical needs for survival. When we factor in more than $1.3 trillion in American student debt accumulated by those with access to post-secondary education, the sprawling medical expenses some writers are saddled with, and rising rents, the financial picture for creatives appears bleak. But how often do we talk about money and the struggles we face, and why are these conversations even more scarce amongst women working in creative fields when these issues affect women the most? As a writer, these are questions that have troubled me for some time. I often feel as though there are rivers of molten lava rushing beneath us but we are told to look instead toward clear sky. When the volcano erupts, we are doomed to suffer the burning wounds in silence.
All things are not equal in the literary world. Most writers hold a day job and most lit-mags are staffed by volunteers. Smaller publications rarely make a profit. They are lucky to break even. I know because I’m fortunate to work with one, and I see how people on both sides of the submission process sacrifice time and money for their passions. But when there is money to be made, there are still challenges to face. To survive this world, we scale barriers for equal representation, compete for paid positions, and submit work to paying (and non-paying) markets when it fits our budgets. Maybe we can swing that $3 submission fee from time to time, but the lit world is also full of opportunities that come with a larger cost.
I think about money more than I’d like to. This most likely owes to my experiences with homelessness and living in a shelter when I was younger. Homelessness, growing up poor, living without knowing how you’ll afford the next meal – these experiences stay with you and re-shape every “next phase” of your life. My life has changed. I’ve collected degrees, found work, and started a family. I’m by no means swimming in money, but I recognize how much of a privilege it is to have a credit card with a robust credit line. I’m still paying off loans in that grand American tradition of living in debt, and my spouse’s chronic illness means unending confrontations with the realities of U.S. healthcare, but I’m not worried I’ll starve and I have a bed to sleep in each night. On the spectrum of living conditions, I know these necessities aren’t a given for everyone.
It’s taken me years to overcome the fear of asking for money when I know there is money to be made, to value my time and energy. Given how much the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and how women are significantly underpaid compared to their male co-workers, this reluctance to discuss money only seems to benefit 49% of the population. When we consider how much women of color earn, the gap widens further, and yet further still for the transgender community, especially for transgender women after transitioning. Yet, the conditioning many women grew up with prevents us from asking our worth. Though my family struggled to get by when I was a child, I was repeatedly told that to discuss money – and by default, to discuss how I value my time – was uncouth and un-ladylike. Valuing my time means enduring, and it is also recognizing when I can volunteer and support the people creating inclusive spaces for writers. It means finding a balance in a historically unbalanced world where the scales of unpaid labor tip unevenly between men and women.
My tendency to over-think money means I often weigh my choices for weeks before deciding on potential expenditures. I didn’t attend this year’s AWP conference, that holy gathering where the literature-loving world converges to share stories, bond, discover new journals, and sit in awe of featured presenters. I wanted to go and support the fantastic lit-mag I help edit, see old friends, and beam at one of my literary heroes while surrounded by like-minded writers. But AWP also means registration fees, a hotel room, a round-trip flight, meals, maybe a drink or two at an off-site event, and all the little purchases one is bound to forget when planning a trip. I could’ve managed it, although that would mean a month or two without much progress on the debt I’ve finally made a substantial dent in. It’s a trade-off, but I appreciate how just having the option to make that choice is a massive privilege –a choice I didn’t always have and one that many writers currently live without. When we add in the complications of childcare and other caregiving duties (which fall largely on women’s shoulders ) or the accommodations a disability might require, we get a fuller understanding of the challenges that often prevent attendance.
This isn’t to say I hold anything against AWP or the other events, workshops, and retreats that sometimes feel beyond reach. I’m thrilled for my friends and love seeing their smiling faces huddled together in Instagram photos. We can feel both sad about missing out and happy for those who attend – the two are not mutually exclusive. But what I return to when I read about these gatherings is a desire to tear off the veil obscuring the issue of money surrounding the work we do and what it affords us, to undo the decades of reticence women, in particular, are expected to perform.
Writers and artists are often urged to keep away from creative fields because they are rarely considered lucrative, and this thinking only furthers our disinclination to discuss money. When we do make the leap, we are told to keep money out of mind, as though our valid concerns will corrupt our talents and the creative process itself. The partitioning of creativity and the necessities of living leaves little room for nuance – it’s a traditional mode of thinking that needs to die. We’re not calculating the line-by-line worth of each sentence as we write, but the aftermath (Where might we publish? Will it pay?) is part of the process as well. We need to create and we need to survive. To bear both necessities in mind is not selling out, and to be called out for doing so is merely another tool to maintain current parameters and prevent change, including the gender pay gap in creative work.
After all, how are we to overcome these issues if we can’t discuss them freely? I don’t have the answers to the problems of access built into creative opportunities, but I might make a dent in this problem too if I begin with myself. And so, between writing and teaching, I spent much of my non-AWP downtime thinking about what I can do to start, with my own manifesto:
*I will not be afraid to openly discuss money. I am not ashamed.
*I will value my time and what it’s worth.
*I will seek out opportunities that benefit those who are financially challenged, particularly marginalized groups, and support organizations that offer those opportunities.
*I will be honest about my own challenges and advantages. I will use my privilege to help others whenever I can.
*I will actively support individuals facing financial hardships by donating my time and energy to lift them up.
What these declarations look like in action will depend on the reader. Valuing my time and worth, for me, is asking for fair payment when I know an organization can afford to do so, but also continuing to volunteer my time with a publication whose mission I believe in. Seeking out and sharing opportunities, for me, means blasting out scholarships and grants on my social media accounts and in my writing groups. Supporting individuals facing hardships, for me, means mentoring and editing writers who can’t afford to pay for professional services.
I often picture Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as a simple, unadorned place of creative sanctuary –but one that exists somewhere far away. It is a luxury not many of us have. Yet, we rise before the sun and write. We find a quiet corner after sunset and create. With our heads down, we write a few sentences or the skeleton of a poem in the moments between day jobs and childcare, and still we hear the constant, low hum of opportunities just out of reach. We must lift our heads and find the places where we can meet, even if we don’t see the problems and solutions in precisely the same way. What I’m sure of is we get nowhere without having the difficult conversations, if we don’t find the words to begin.
Dorothy Bendel’s work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and additional publications. See more of her work at: dorothybendel.com and follow her on Twitter: @DorothyBendel