A New Book vs. a New Carton of Milk

Okay, so, for starters, here are a couple of lovely quotes to consider, ones adored and admired by every starving, aspiring writer who has to explain to his or her parents why he or she is burning through their funds at Barnes & Noble rather than at the food market:

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”  –Erasmus

“‘What do these children do without storybooks?'” Naftali asked

And Reb Zebulun replied: ‘They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.’

‘I couldn’t live without them,’ Naftali said.”  –Isaac Bashevis Singer, Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus: And Other Stories

So now we come to it: do I spend $14.99 (not including tax) on a lovely new book, brimming with beautiful words upon which to feast and upon which I may glean more for my own writing craft to boot, or do I save that money and put a piece of it toward a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, and jar of jam so I can feast upon a breakfast in the morning? Do I buy that how-to book on writing young adult novels that every aspiring young adult novelist should have, or do I stock up on laundry detergent and soap so I have clean clothes for work in the morning and I can take a shower and wash my hair? Do I spend my entire two weeks’ paycheck on a trip to a conference, or do I put that money toward rent?

As I may have mentioned in my previous blog post about the value of going to writers’ conferences, I love how these days to be a writer you have to have the money, that is you don’t want to write your best-seller out of a cardboard box. We’ve come a long way from artists gathering communally in Parisian attics and living off of philosophy and paint brushes with no heat and no idea where our next meal is going to come from–and being TOTALLY okay with it. But then la vie bohème  has always been known for its cathartic suffering through poverty with a furious embrace of the joys of life. And we’ve all heard the stories, stories of a young wretches living on the front stoops of urban dwellings somehow managing to make it from that stoop to a respectable college degree.

Why not do it that way as a writer?

It’s not impossible. But on the other hand, almost anyone can convince him or herself that he or she is a writer, and a lot of those people are those who can afford to invest the money to give themselves a leg-up in the market, whether through conferences, or connections (gained through conferences), or self-publishing, and of course by subscribing to writer community magazines and using the Internet to build personal blogs pertaining to their areas of expertise, and getting their hands on every how-to book of the highest recommendation of the industry’s top experts.

So where does it put the writer who’s in fact a struggling college kid getting by from paycheck to paycheck (and maybe even less than that), or the post-grad who can’t break into the pack of finding a decent day job, and ends up with one that sucks (which is lucky) or even worse? Where does it put us, who have just as smart, fresh, and ideal things to say as everyone else, fresh most especially because of our youth? What does it mean for us when we find ourselves having to choose between paying the bills and paying a conference fee that gives us the opportunity to break into the market?

Where does it put YOU, facing these problems?

First of all, don’t let yourself end up on the street, starving. You may think that that you can content yourself with living out of that cardboard box eating scraps from the Dumpster behind a restaurant, but your overall health will say differently. On the other hand, there are sacrifices that you can make, like choosing not to go to the movies with your friends. You can spend time with the people you care about without spending an arm and a leg. Easier said than done though, especially when you’re young.

But here’s another thought: yes you have to save your money for the Internet bill, but then use the Internet as a tool. Editors and agents today put so much stock into writers establishing an online presence (I recommend reading Christina Katz’s, Get Known Before the Book Deal). Setting up a blog on wordpress.com is free (for the 1st blog), and in the meantime, you can try out your style on websites like Fictionpress.com (see last post), as well as showcase your non-fiction expertise on Suite101.com, which if you do write enough articles and get enough hits and ad attention, you can profit from monetarily. And don’t think that Facebook and Twitter are just for socializing, they’re also great for networking, as well as Linkedin (which is also great for job hunting!). Like an editor’s Facebook page maybe and keep up to date with them with if they’re working in your industry, or follow an agent working in the same genre on Twitter. If you have to, don’t be ashamed to point out any kind of success you might have made as a fanfiction writer (see my post on writing fanfiction).

It’s easy to squander in the despair of living the life of poor student or grad. I myself have fallen prey to those flaws. It’s not easy, but on the other hand you shouldn’t kick yourself if you find yourself going to seeThe Hunger Gamesthree times in theaters because you loved the movie so much, and then still buying a how-to-write-fantasy-and-science-fiction by Orson Scott Card. We’re none of us perfect. And even to those who live on a shoe-string budget, whatever work you do, whether it’s retail, or a midnight gas station, or you were fortunate enough to land the lowest entry level position at a cubicle farm, just whatever money you spend, if you’re clever in your scrimping, you can earn that back. You may have to take a second job. You may have to make adjustments.

But if you’re willing to do the underbelly work in the meantime–building an Internet presence, as well as joining writers’ groups in your community (you shouldn’t have to pay for those, unless they’re frou frou)–you just might be able to find the ladder rungs after all and climb your way up just a little bit further towards the top–all without letting yourself end up in a cardboard box living off pizza crusts from the Dumpster.

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