| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life What It Takes to Make a Living As a Working-Class Writer
I was often housing insecure; sometimes even homeless. I’ve had fewer opportunities to publish and I do so at a higher cost.
I’m standing on a little concrete-and-glass balcony, watching the commuters come and go, coffee in hand, when the thought comes to me.
I’m so tired.
I close my eyes and I can see the sentence spelled out, letter by letter, on the dark backs of my lids. There’s an ache in my chest; a deep, terrible ache. I’m surprised to find that I’m crying.
The apartment where I’m staying—a short-term rental in downtown Victoria, British Columbia—is a single room with a kitchen, a bathroom, a Murphy bed, and a desk. It has a lovely view of the harbor; the soft, undulating blue of the sea, with its scattered handful of white gulls drifting light and easy over the docked boats, is soothing, almost tender, like slipping into bed late at night beside someone you love very much.
I’ve been here for a few days now. Normally, my time in such a fancy city would be limited to a night or two, or even sleeping in my van, but I’d had credits from a flight canceled early in the pandemic and I’d been able to rent the room at a tremendous discount for similar reasons. With only a week left until the submission deadline for my first book, This Has Always Been A War , I knew I needed a change of pace—and, moreover, to keep myself as far away as possible from everyone who loved me. I feared I’d be an insufferable, neurotic mess as I obsessed over commas and paragraph breaks, overcome with the strain of turning over such an incredibly personal project first to an editor and then, eventually, to the public. As such, I was happy to be in the Victoria apartment, even if it meant eating a lot of ramen noodles and taking on extra assignments to afford it.
My work on the manuscript was going well. The stack of papers on the coffee table, as thick as a Klondike bar, was growing smaller as I worked through it line by line, hour by hour, discarding pages as I went. I still had a lot to do before handing it in but I felt, if not confident, then at least good about it. I planned to break up my workday with walks along the harbor, and then, later, an inexpensive dinner of wonton soup or noodles in Chinatown, maybe a cold beer or a cocktail on a patio in the evening. The artist’s dream. I should have been happy.
I am not happy. What I am, now, is crying in earnest: big ugly sobs, short breaths, my nose running uncontrollably. I set the coffee aside and cover my face with my hands.
I am so tired. I’m so, so, so fucking tired.
For the last nine months, I’ve been working—writing the book, continuing my full-time job as an editor, freelancing, and taking distance classes at the University of British Columbia— constantly . Every waking hour has been devoted to writing, school, or keeping myself financially afloat as a working class person without job security, health benefits, or family to fall back on, all during an ongoing global pandemic.
I often found myself returning emails in bed. I worked every day, including weekends and holidays.
I’d start working first thing in the morning, checking emails as I drank my coffee, working steadily, eating lunch at my desk, maybe having a thirty-minute nap and then a workout before I started again in the evening. If I didn’t accomplish everything that needed to be done by 10:00 p.m.—which happened often—then I’d go to a bar and sit at the rail, nursing a pint or two and working until it closed. I often found myself returning emails in bed. I worked every day, including weekends and holidays. Living in the North, where the summers are short and the culture built largely around outdoor activities, I devised a “portable office”—a fairy-like cone of mosquito netting, a milk crate for a desk, and a power pack that could charge my laptop three times—so I could accompany my friends out camping without sacrificing precious working hours.
Now, I am exhausted. I am depleted. I am empty .
It helped to know, at least, why I was crying. It let me take a deep breath and pull myself together. Which was good, because not pulling myself together wasn’t an option. Yes, I was a wreck; yes, I was exhausted almost to the point of collapse; yes, my mental health had declined so much that I would wake each day, sweating and anxious, several hours before my alarm went off because the mere idea of going through yet another steeplechase of unending demands was causing attacks in my sleep—but there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I finished my coffee, came back inside, and poured myself another. I took it over to the desk, sat down and opened my laptop. I logged in. It was what had to be done.
I began, again, to write.
There are two kinds of writers in the world: the writer who looks at the litany of things I was trying to accomplish all at the same goddamn time and asks why the absolute hell I would do that, and the writer who understands exactly why I had to do that.
The first kind of writer is likely comfortably middle or even upper-middle class. Statistically, they have a higher chance of being white, cis – heterosexual, partnered , and Gen X or older . They have a stable living situation; perhaps they even own their home. What it means to be working class—a moniker that once conjured images of blue-collar jobs and unions and coming from families where your parents worked with their hands—has shifted considerably in the last thirty years. Even if this kind of writer thinks of themselves as working class, they’re probably not, or have not been for quite some time.
The second writer is almost certainly working class, perhaps millennial or Gen Z. They most likely rent, and have several jobs (“gigs”) simultaneously, either because no one job pays enough to live on or because they don’t offer enough hours individually. They can be of any race, orientation, or gender, but are more likely to be a person of color , disabled, have a mental illness , or any combination of the above, all of which have been shown to negatively impact an individual’s ability to be gainfully employed—or, in other words, to not be working sixty hours a week and living paycheck to paycheck because most of what you earn goes to your landlord to pay for an apartment you only get to see in the brief spaces of time between your day job and the side hustle you picked up driving nights for Grubhub.
In my case, I am a white, queer, visibly nonbinary person with mental health issues. I have been working class, even “poor,” for most of my adult life. Often, I was housing insecure, sometimes even homeless, living and working out of my beater van—a situation, I might add, that tends not to help a person develop a good credit rating, making a financial cushion of any kind unlikely. When the pandemic first struck in December 2019, I had been securely housed, with both running water and electricit y, for the first time in three years.
My editing job paid just enough for rent and essentials and was constantly under threat of dissolving should the magazine fold, a daily possibility during the pandemic. I freelanced—writing news stories, op-eds, features, profiles and literally anything else I was offered—to create some small security and pay for school and incidentals, like a laptop cord, an oil change, or a new pair of socks. I was (and still am) in an MFA program that I struggle to afford but stay in because it offers the long-term payoff of making me eligible to teach, which, at least in principle, might allow me an iota of stability.
All this to say, my workload was equally the result of financial necessity and poverty mindset.
When I describe the working-class necessity to say yes to as many gigs as possible, I like to use the term trotlining . It’s a fishing practice used in survival situations in which a weighted line is strung across a river with as many baited hooks as possible, increasing your odds of success (eating) both by sheer volume of chance and by being indiscriminate about what kind of fish you catch. I am a very good trotliner. Working-class writers have to be.
The middle-to-upper class writer, however, doesn’t need to trotline; they’ve got enough food in reserve. Sometimes it’s that they’ve inherited a fully stocked larder, sometimes they’ve simply been born into families and classes and bodies that don’t need these tools for survival because they can pay other people to fish for them, but either way, when they fish—if they choose to fish—they have method and tools available to them that a working class angler does not. They can afford to fail, because there’s always something waiting for them at home in the pan.
It’s understandable, then, that when the rest of us scramble among the reeds, trying to keep all our hooks baited, it can look to them like equal parts poor planning and insanity.
So: writing a book is hard. The publishing industry is hard. Capitalism is a short-dicked godling with delusions of grandeur, but until the revolution comes or climate change kills us all, it’s what we’re working with, as writers.
My workload was equally the result of financial necessity and poverty mindset.
Selling my first book had been a lifelong goal. It was a major professional milestone representing the evolution from journalist and essayist to author. Finding time to research and prepare a proposal was yet another task in an unending litany, but it was one I prioritized because it was important, if to no one else but me. Selling a book isn’t easy, and I wasn’t about to delay such an opportunity—especially when my (wonderful) agent had pulled off the sale during the upheaval of a pandemic—so I made (borrowed, stole, fabricated, siphoned, sucked, mortgaged) the time to write it. No matter what it cost me.
The financial reality of publishing a book is this: you can’t count on your advance to feed you.
For one thing, advances vary wildly (and often disproportionately along racial lines ).You could be one of the very small percentage of people who gets a six-figure advance, but most likely you won’t be; in the US, the median income for a writer is $67,000 , with the lowest ten percent earning less than $36,000 and the upper ten percent earning more than $133,000. In Canada, where I live, and which has a smaller literary market, the odds of a large advance are even lower—in fact, the average Canadian writer’s income from their creative work was approximately $13,000 CAD ($10,100 USD) in 2015.
As for the advance on my own book, after my agent’s ( extremely well deserved) cut and taxes, it came to about $6,800 CAD ($5,000 USD). Like most advances, it’s delivered in sets—in my case, half up front and half when the book prints, which means I had $3,400 to sustain me over the nine months it took to write the book, and I won’t see the other half until May when it prints. That’s not a knock on my publisher, who has been amazing, and certainly not on my agent; my advance and its conditions are perfectly normal, even good, for a first book with an independent press (or even a major press) in Canada.
But it does mean that it’s way, way, way harder to write a book and keep bread on the table as a working-class writer.
This isn’t to say middle-class writers make more money when they publish—just that they have more opportunities to become published writers by virtue of the resources their class affords them. If you have two writers of precisely equal talent and drive, and one is working class and the other middle class, you can see why the wealthier one has a better chance of success: they can afford to invest more time and money in themselves and their work. By contrast, because the stakes for a working-class writer are higher, they have fewer opportunities to publish and do so at a higher cost. If you take your shot and fail, you’re deeper in the hole, both timewise and financially, than someone who’s better off, and so your odds of rebounding are smaller.
In addition to skewing what stories get told and how, this middle-class advantage actually creates incentives to pay all writers less, because the financial stability of the middle class writer makes it easier to buy into that most insidious of lies young writers are told—that you must suffer for your art.
Which is bullshit.
When we think, for example, of young Ernest Hemingway, muttering about how “hunger is good discipline” and waxing poetic about being “very poor but very happy” living in Paris in A Moveable Feast , you’d be forgiven for thinking him a “working-class” writer “paying his dues.” Hemingway’s version of “poor,” however, was quitting his job in journalism to write fiction full-time, while, by his own admission, eating excellently, drinking good wine, going out to cafés and bars and still making his rent. In one passage, Hemingway explains that he and his wife mostly eat at home—because they have “an excellent cook.” Personally, I’ve never lived anywhere that had a working dishwasher.
The romantic notion of the poor artist suffering patiently for their work is just that—a romantic notion. A wealthier writer can afford to buy into this daydream in part because their metric for “suffering” is different from a working-class person’s. For Hemingway, it meant being able to buy new clothes or new paintings, but not both; for his contemporary equivalent, it might mean postponing an upgrade on a vehicle, eating in more, or nixing a vacation. This is certainly not what it means for a working-class person: a sixty-hour workweek, not calling in sick when you need to, or choosing between buying groceries and having a cavity filled.
Only now that my book is out—now that it’s a real, physical object in the world, both separate but still a part of me, something for other people to hold and read and think about—can I truly appreciate the personal cost it took me to write it. Those costs were not only financial and physical, but psychic and emotional: all those nights alone in my apartment, all those hours editing and re-editing, the dates I didn’t go on, the dinners I didn’t go to, the canoe trips I didn’t take. All the early mornings torn from sleep by anxiety and panic attacks, all the times I slunk guiltily out of bed while my then-partner slept, crying in the bathroom with the door pulled tight and a towel over my mouth to quiet my sobbing, distraught and overwhelmed because I was revisiting traumas to write about them.
People keep asking me, now, how it feels to have the book on the shelves. While it’s an amazing feeling to see it in print, the truth is, for the most part, what I feel is— nothing . It’s taken me a while to understand that this is because publishing a book as a working-class writer, for you and for the publishing house, is not unlike horse racing: You assess the odds, consult your intuition, say your prayers, and put your money on the table.
In my case, I’ve chosen to gamble with everything I’ve got. All the strain, work, sacrifice and pain that came before was only in preparation for the race. Only time will tell if the horse I bet on—myself—was the right one.