Businesswoman's special

I read JD Samson’s post about the crappiness of having to psychologically and practically reconcile her early financial success with her current financial struggles with cringey mixed feelings.  It reminded me of a post I wrote for the Hairpin about a year ago. I am so embarrassed by this post that I can’t even reread it now but I think it was about how the mere existence of Tavi’s internet enterprise is somehow unfair to writers who are twice her age because, basically, it’s annoying that we’ve worked hard in various ways for years and now a teenager is judging our worthiness.   I wrote it at my desk at my temp job.   You can absolutely tell.  You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to get that what I was really saying was: “I’m temping and broke and so confused and bitter about how I got here from the places where I’ve been, I thought I was done with this but apparently I will spend the rest of my life struggling, I don’t deserve this, how did this happen?”

When you’re any kind of artist and you’re having your first taste of success, it’s easy to forget that financial success and artistic success don’t often go hand in hand—that, actually, it is super rare for someone who does work in any artistic discipline to be paid what that work is worth.   Some of the people whose writing and music have changed my life and many other people’s lives are living in rental apartments with pee-smelling hallways or drafty houses in cold upstate college towns. Some of them are living in Greenwich Village brownstones.  There’s no logic behind who gets what; we want to believe that there is because it makes us feel like we’re in control, but we’re mostly not.  Sometimes, some people will draw a winning hand.  The Internet will reliably get its collective panties in a twist whenever an author, god forbid, gets paid six figures (of which 15% goes to his agent and 25% goes to the IRS) for the novel he’s spent years working on.  When hedge fund criminals make that same amount of money in a lucky minute, it’s not the same people who get riled up, if anyone even gets riled up.

Even if you’re a big fan of capitalism, you’ll at least concede that its greatest strength is probably not its capacity to reward artistic virtue fairly.   It’s important for artists to remember this—and then it’s important for us to stop dwelling on it.  “I can’t make coffee,” Samson writes; this was probably where I sympathized with her–and also cringed–most.  I spent a lot of the past year trying to figure out what, besides writing, I could do to make money. Besides temping, I tried to trick myself into thinking that I was on the verge of becoming various kinds of consultant.  I do teach yoga, but the kind I teach is not really a cash cow.  (Cash cat-cow? Yoga joke.)  I had lunches and informational interviews. I found out about the viability of selling my eggs (I have one more year!) I kicked myself for not taking freelance assignments that would have been right for 25 year old me but would have been torture for present-day me (“Interview your exes about what went wrong” was a memorable one). Mostly, though, I wrote things no one paid me to write and borrowed lots of money just to be able to live.  Sometimes I bailed on plans with more financially stable friends because I knew we’d end up eating food  I’d be paying 16% APR on for years to come.  Other times, I didn’t bail, then didn’t enjoy my friends because I was thinking about money the whole time. I complained, complained, complained about it all to anyone who would listen (mostly Keith and Ruth, and also my therapist, to whom I also owe money.)

And then finally, long after I had given up, I had the idea for a business!(that will probably not make money anytime soon.)  But just realizing that there was something I am capable of doing besides writing was enough to give me hope that I will, piece by piece, begin to figure out the rest of my life.

Financial self-sufficiency is a big deal, especially for women, whose liberation has historically coincided with their financial freedom.  It takes courage to admit that you’re not doing okay, and to begin doing something about it.  It’s complicated, though, because I’m not at all saying “get a day job!” to people like JD who feel like making art is the only thing they’re capable of doing.  I’m more saying, keep your mind open about what you might be capable of doing.   A lot of us grew up hearing “Do what you love and the money will follow,” which is great advice for people who love neurosurgery or filing briefs.  “Do what you love 70% of the time and spend the rest of the time doing various things you hate, or that are difficult for you, and see what happens,” might be better advice.  It was for me, I think.  I don’t know! I’ll keep you posted.

18 comments to Businesswoman’s special

  • I used to think the hardest part of being a writer was writing, but it’s actually figuring out a way to pay for all the time it takes. Bravo for finding a way!

  • emily

    @rebecca, well! I am hoping that I’ve begun to find a way. Fingers crossed.

  • Katie

    It’s funny, when I was in school, my favorite journalism professor encouraged us all to become educated in a skill – like carpentry or plumbing – so that we could make money when the jobs were non-existent. It’s probably just as important to learn to make coffee, or become familiar with a job in the service industry that is the least terrible.

    Anyways, I’m very happy that you’ve started Emily Books. You have a clear revenue stream, which is more than most start-ups can say! Congratulations; I hope it’s a long-term success.

  • Max

    “Money matters to artists when they haven’t got it,” as Alasdair Gray wrote. I write from temping so will be quick: I see compelling connections between this piece, How should a person blog? and the shampoo post from earlier this year. I think you write very well about money and should develop it. No doubt you are. Good luck!

  • [...] are difficult for you, and see what happens,” might be better advice.” | Emily Gould at Emily Magazine. A writer, she has just launched Emily [...]

  • Nick Charles

    I’m guessing there are a bunch of artist-types who read this with more than a glimmer (and varying degrees depending on levels of success achieved or not) of self recognition. More specifically, maybe it even helped one of them to move on some copy–he felt beneath his dignity given his “rare, unrecognized talents”–because the assignment paid. Just a guess though. And good luck!

  • [...] its greatest strength is probably not its capacity to reward artistic virtue fairly.” – Emily Gould on writers and other artists branching out, and trying to find other avenues to make [...]

  • Yeah, I struggle pretty much 24-7 with the dilemma of ‘wasting energy at a job I don’t like but pays the bills’ vs. putting the same energy into passions that I need to develop but that don’t make much income. Can definitely identify with this passage: “I’m temping and broke and so confused and bitter about how I got here from the places where I’ve been, I thought I was done with this but apparently I will spend the rest of my life struggling, I don’t deserve this, how did this happen?”
    Great post Emily!

  • Backslider

    The day before I took the interview that lead to my current six-figure employment in the pharmaco-industrial complex, I had reached financial rock bottom. Two published kids books in the can. Production credits on a handful of movies, and I was slogging through the sleet and snow, doing day work as a messenger. A delivery boy at age 36.

    I’m telling you this because the day after I froze my ass off in the wet and cold, I sold out, really sold the fuck out. And I advise you Emily, and anyone else reading this to sell the fuck out. Do it. Find a field that no one else wants to enter, a job so drab, so horrible looking that it would probably psychologically scar you for life–or so you think as a fainting artist–and take that job. Take that job and when you get offered another job by a competing firm for 30% more money, take that one too. Repeat as much as you can.

    Not only is selling out not so bad, it’s great. The thing you need to realize is that all jobs suck. All jobs parasitically take up more space in your heart and mind than you can protect. It doesn’t matter if you’re a barista or a ticket-taker at a freak show. That job will become the entirety of your reality soon enough. You might as well do something that pays you a living wage.

  • Jill

    Please don’t sell out. For what it’s worth, your book meant a lot to me, and I hope you keep writing.

  • Frida


    Sorry this is totally off topic, but I couldn’t find an Ask Emily button, so:

    Do you listen to any podcasts? About the kind of stuff you write about (here and on TIATIL) i.e. feminism, writing, cats. Mainly the first.

    Essentially I want an audio version of Emily Books, but I’m open for suggestions.

    Thanks a lot, and keep up the good work!

  • emily

    @Frida yes! I want to make this podcast happen. I think it’s the next step in the evolution of the Cooking the Books … whatever it is. Stay tuned.

  • Gaspard

    I had a revelation while reading this, that there is so much art which is *about* selling out (or what lies on the other side of selling out), and what it means. Miranda July’s new movie, the Pale King, Chris Kraus’ Torpor, all contain this kind of, not just fear of failure, but a kind of existential horror of failing to be an artist. It made me wonder whether the factor in a lot of books by “writer’s writers” is that they speak from this fundamental artistic vulnerability, more or less obliquely, of having to constantly start over, redeem oneself, they put this into their work.

  • TC

    I just read about Emily Books in Shelf Awareness this morning. I completely love the idea, and a coworker of mine told me you also kept a blog, so here I am. Reading this post was like reading my own life (and the life of my boyfriend, and close friends, coworkers, etc). I have been lamenting the fate of independent bookselling in the digital age, but this is a bright light. Good on you!

  • Els

    Lovely to read about this – it’s an eternal battle – either you’re writing with no money, or you’re making money and writing. The first one means all those months you can’t account for on your CV while everyone else is all glossy and careerist and – ugh – keen; the second means you pretty much hate every minute of your day.

    I’m pretty sure an unhorrible part-time job is the answer. Or your own business – good luck with emily books – it looks really, really good :)

  • Els

    Whoops, i meant ‘or you’re making money and NOT writing’.

    ‘making money and writing’ – clearly a freudian slip!

  • Great post. I relate on many, many levels.

    Cash cat-cow. AHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • Lee

    I know this is five months too late, but terrific post Emily. My only quibble is I would not limit your argument to artistic types. I am not an artistic type (I’m a lawyer) but I am currently broke/poor. And I’ve experienced the exact same feelings you and your commenters have. In my mind it’s not that capitalism doesn’t “reward artistic virtue fairly.” Capitalism does not reward self-determination fairly. Fairness is simply irrelevant to free markets.

    It’s damn hard to not be bitter and resentful. But bitterness and resentment are not the answer — they are the path to misery. Which leaves what?

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