Once there was a grad student. She was bright and clever. She could string words together in glorious shapes that blurred into characters and stories under tiny reading lights. She spent five years drowning in coffee behind a screen, crafting and weaving, cutting and pasting, sweating over semicolons.
Deleting. Retyping. Deleting again. Double latte, no foam. Typing. Deleting.
She graduated. Her student loan precariously auto-debited from her checking account. She sent freshly minted stories to literary journals that promised to pay her at the rate of two journals per story. In her naiveté, this seemed like a good return; two copies of ten stories for every one she gave away. Plus, she liked hearing what the editors said about her words: it was almost like workshop.
Years passed. Her loans are still not entirely repaid, but now she knows to deduct the interest charges from her taxes. She spends the bright half of each day in administrative work and only wrestles with her shiny, slippery sentences at night while the sane world is sleeping. Each year as April 15 approaches, she digs through drawers and sifts screens for receipts to tally….receipts that always show her what she wishes were not true.
She spends far more on her writing career than she can ever hope to earn.
Leaving aside her jewel-like education (can we ever really “put aside” the monetary cost of college?) she finds invoices from proofreaders she has paid (“friends and family” rates are still rates) and the fees she has paid editors to read her work (is this like servers at a restaurant? if literary magazine editors were paid a decent wage, could we stop paying reading fees?) and of course the subscription fees to all the database and software websites to which she has subscribed (how else could she track the submissions? how else could she write the manuscript in the exact proper format?) — she finds, as usual, that the outlay is far greater than the income.
No one becomes a writer for the pay, say the knowing souls, smirking over their triple espressos.
And yet…and yet!! Are you with me? There is a singular joy, one that no human except a creative can ever know, which comes of opening up the bright green (or teal, or scarlet, or whatever your favorite color) and finding inside that one check made out to your pen name and signed by the publisher who paid you for that one essay that you completely forgot you had written, way back in November two years ago, that check that finally was mailed eight months later with a truly lovely apology, citing family troubles and medical issues and begging your understanding…that check that arrived in January of this year, which you paraded on social media for laughs (but also, oh, for the pride of it) and there it lies…your income for the year.
Your real and true 100% writerly income.
There is a joy in the number, no matter how small, so long as that number exists.
And the fact that this is my secret joy every year when it comes time to do my taxes…. this is the tragedy. If only there were some other way — any other way besides cashing checks — to prove, in this country, that what we writers do with all our hearts is an actual career.