Money’s not the only measure of success

Where have I been, you wonder. Me too. So much has changed in the last few months that I hardly know where to start. My father died. My childhood home was sold. My first book of poems was published, and another is coming soon. I got my ears pierced and changed my hairdo. I left my job at Sacred Heart Church and joined a new church where, instead of piano, I’m playing mandolin and I don’t get paid (but it’s a lot more fun).

The pellet stove that used to heat my house is gone, replaced by a gas fireplace and a propane tank in the yard. I just got a new phone last week to replace the one that couldn’t hold a charge anymore. Even the laptop on which I am typing this is new.

So many evenings, I still think: gotta call Dad. Then I remember: I can’t do that anymore.

What isn’t new is that I still get up, feed the dog, say my prayers, shower, eat breakfast, and report to work in my home office, where I write, rewrite, send work out to publishers, and manage my book promotion activities. What do I do? I’m a writer. Yes, I’m also a musician, but forced to choose one vocation, it’s writing. How long have I been doing it? Since I could grip a pencil and make squiggles on a page.

The new chapbook coming in March will be my 10th book. I have long ago lost track of how many articles, essays, and poems I have published. That means I’m a success, right? Well, it depends on how you measure success.

My dad left me a little money, enough that I’m talking to the bank’s investment people and I’m not doing my own taxes this year. Adios, Turbotax. I wish Dad had spent the money on himself, but here it is. The first investment guy I talked to—who quit soon after—dismissed my writing as a hobby. He said since it wasn’t bringing in much income, I don’t have to do it anymore. Say what?

When I met with the second investment person, I led with the news that I am professional writer and it’s important to me, and money isn’t the only measure of success. She was like, “Yes ma’am. Noted. Now, what other income do you have . . . . ?”

My father thought it was a hobby, too. Like Mom’s knitting. For him, money was the only measure of success.

The third investment advisor, a friendly guy young enough to be my grandson, was impressed by my achievements and by how long I’d been doing the writing thing for pay—1973!—but he repeated that the numbers were too small to affect my “portfolio.” Considering that I left my church job and am not looking for another paying job, he asked, “Can we say you’re retired?”

“Yikes. I guess so.” I have always said I am not retiring until I die, but whatever. You can’t argue with numbers, and I’m too busy with my writing and music to get a job.

When I met with my new tax person, a woman named Sharon, stylish and in her 70s, she did not mince words. When was the last year you made a profit on your writing, she asked, staring at my 2018 Schedule C (profit and loss for sole proprietor business). Um . . . not in recent history, not since I traded journalism for “creative writing.” She proceeded to tell me what I already knew, that the IRS would consider my writing a hobby and would not allow me to deduct my expenses. Looking more closely, she said I could use some of it as “volunteer” expenses and “volunteer” miles. What about those spreadsheets on which I so diligently record my income and expenses? Oh, keep it up; it’s a good thing to do. But forget the Schedule C. My writing income will now be listed under “miscellaneous income.”

She was a lot more excited about the dribs and drabs I give to charity. Oh yeah, make a list of those.

When it comes to being a writer, the whole money question is irrelevant. You can write your heart out and not earn much money, whether your work is published extensively or not at all. There’s always a chance that your book will become a best-seller and money will come pouring in, but most of the writers I admire have day jobs teaching or coaching or editing. Remember, William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Agatha Christie was a pharmacist. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Kurt Vonnegut worked in PR, sold cars, and taught English.

In “Making a Living as a Writer,” Jennifer Ellis tells the hard financial truths of the writing biz. Fewer than 1,000 fiction writers in North America make a living at it, she says. The odds are better than they are for winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning, but not much. It’s worse for poets.

If I weren’t as old as I am, and if I didn’t have Social Security and a portion of my late husband’s pension, I would still be churning out newspaper articles–if I could find a job–or, God forbid, working as a secretary somewhere and resenting every minute it took away from my writing.

I don’t write for the money. Otherwise, I’d do something else, something that pays. Nor do I sing and play for the money. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as I have enough to pay my bills. But I live in a world where money is supposed to matter. So I meet with the money people, do what they say, and then show up for work in my office every morning except Sunday because that’s what I intend to do until I can’t do it anymore.

So there.

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