In my writer circles online, this Slate post is getting a lot of attention: “Sponsored” by my husband — Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from: The truth is, my husband’s hefty salary makes my life as a writer easy. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone.
Novelist and essayist Ann Bauer details how she was able to break out as a successful writer only after she married her corporate-working husband who pays the bills and supplies the benefits — leaving her to a full-time creative writing career that nets only small advances and low sales. Before that, she aspired to life as a writer but instead struggled through a bad marriage to an addict, and years of scraping by as a single mom of three. Meanwhile she bemoans celebrated writers who dance around questions about their large trust funds or literati heritages which Bauer attributes for their breakout success. She writes:
Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them. There’s a special version of this masquerade that we writers put on.
I applaud the writer’s unmasking of this very real phenomenon, but I take issue with her assertion that her own success was impossible without special, privileged circumstances, mainly, a man:
I published my first novel at 39, but only after a teaching stint where I met some influential writers and three months living with my parents while I completed the first draft. After turning in that manuscript, I landed a pretty cushy magazine editor’s job. A year later, I met my second husband. For the first time I had a true partner, someone I could rely on who was there in every way for me and our kids. Life got easier. I produced a nonfiction book, a second novel and about 30 essays within a relatively short time.
One cannot deny that all roads lead here. She found herself in some cushy situations and success ensued. Artists have always depended on patrons for their success — usually the church or royalty. But there is another part of the equation. For some of us, when you are down and out you are motivated to get your ass in gear. You hustle and take risk in ways you don’t when you have the luxury of time and money and the emotional support of a loving, rich spouse. And if you are like me, desperation means you to find your voice — your art — and that discovery barrels you towards success.
I’m not all the way there yet, but here is my story: I was a pretty successful writer. A newspaper reporter when I was young, then when I got married I quit a staff job at the Associated Press and went full-time freelance, about 10 years ago. The security of my husband’s high staff salary and excellent benefits helped me find the confidence to make that jump. But my income about doubled the first year, and went up from there. It was fun. The work — a mix of journalism and corporate writing — was satisfying. So was making money. Setting financial goals, exceeding them, having money in the bank — this is good stuff. Also: I now believe that if you cannot have an equal partnership if you don’t have financial power in your romantic relationship. That was important.
Fast forward five years and all hell broke out. We had a baby, and shortly after my husband suffered a debilitating accident. I got pregnant again. We separated and eventually divorced. My ex lost that job and the benefits and I had to do it all — no small task since when my oldest was born I’d scaled my freelance business way back to about 12 hours a week and a quarter of the income I’d earned beforehand.
Shit got real.
I had no choice. I stepped up.
Now, most of what I did all day was not art. No way. Most of it was corporate work. Or service journalism. I enjoyed it. And I thrived on the challenge and my relationships with clients. But this work was not an expression of my soul.
You know what is an expression of my soul? This blog. The trauma of that time inspired in me work that I did not know I was capable of. And that work was so satisfying and powerful that something magical happened: I found energy and focus and time and faith I did not know existed to nurture this project.
The writing I do here is the best work I have done. It has spawned other passion projects. None of it is lucrative, yet. But I consider it successful in terms of attracting an audience, media and the attention of people and organizations with deep pockets. I promise to revisit this post in a year. Naysayers, be warned!
But the takeaway is this:
I did not have any success creating art until I had the fewest resource and the most responsibility of my life.
This project — as with all art — requires risk. Risk in creating something personal. Risk in being rejected. It requires risk in spending time and resources on something that does not automatically come with a paycheck. It takes risk that this may backfire and somehow sabotage my paying work, or steal billable hours from my corporate writing, or otherwise render me poorer than when I started.
But I take that risk every day. I take that risk because I see no other choice. I have fewer resources than I did when I was married because I do not have a spouse of any income level to depend on. That is a risky proposition. And so like any investment, I must take risk. Historically, over the aggregate of a long-term investment, risk is rewarded. Just like the stock market. And so, too with my career. So, too, with my art.
And I take the risk because I face the steaks of not being the woman, the writer, the artist that I want my children to know me to be. I want to feel proud of my work. I want them to be proud of me.
And so to you, my fellow single moms, and my fellow moms and dads and artists — all of you! Reject the notion that you cannot do great things unless you have someone else to take care of you. Harness that fear and threat of living on the streets when you are tempted to focus only on earning enough to pay this month’s bills. Take that risk to create your art. It will be hard. You will fail. And it may set you back from other, more easily attained and lesser goals. But you are certain to fail if you do not.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.