The Writer’s Desk: Must Be the Money

My current employment contract ends in mid-August, and my wife and I are expecting a baby in early September, which means that it’s time for me to look hard for a next job. Perhaps because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about money. I realize that in a crowd of Mormon writers, this can be a rather sensitive topic. This is not to say that we’re all impoverished–just that there’s a prevailing sense that if we understood money, we’d probably be in different fields.

Obviously, there is some money available to subsidize the creation of Mormon literature. Were it not so, it seems highly unlikely that much Mormon literature would exist. But where does this money come from and how does one obtain it? Today, I present a handful of plans for funding one’s own work:

PLAN ONE: BECOME YOUR OWN BEST PATRON

In this plan, one makes an honest living by day, thus providing housing and food for an alter-ego who produces literature by night. This system is employed, with varying degrees of success, by thousands of Mormon novelists, essayists, and bloggers, and by a handful of theatre company proprieters (assuming you have a hand big enough to hold Scott Bronson). The beauty of this plan is that the artist depends very little on outside institutions’ view of his/her work or on the ups and downs of the economy. One sweats one’s way into creative freedom at the expense of fourty or so hours a week.

This plan has major drawbacks, of course, for those who like to sleep at night, and for those who don’t multitask well and need more of their attention free for their creative works.

PLAN TWO: LIVE OFF THE AUDIENCE

Let’s suppose a writer wants to focus on his/her work full-time. Why not make a living selling it, just like, say, BP does with petrol? The writer, after all, has a clear advantage over BP: most sources of literary inspiration don’t burst and wreak havok on the Gulf of Mexico. The writer also has one clear disadvantage: people don’t make their cars go by burning books.

The “live off the audience” plan is further complicated by the relatively small audience, by the extremely limited number of large distributors, and by the need to produce marketable work before one is able to sell it (never knowing for sure in advance what will sell). The “live off the audience” plan proves extremely stressful for many: Richard Dutcher, for example, surprised everyone with his ability to do so on his first film without a major niche distributor, only to find himself stressing and agonizing over whether he could continue to do so through the next two films. At some point, the live-or-die-by-popularity dynamics of this plan seem to put most of its practitioners more than a little on edge. How can one keep from resenting an audience which holds the reins of one’s financial life? When Writer is in an economic relationship with Audience, sooner or later it’s almost always Complicated.

PLAN THREE: FIND A LONG-TERM PATRON (NOT YOURSELF)

In order to free oneself from the ups and downs of marketing and audience, it’s possible to search for a long-term patron. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the Middle Ages, when rich people routinely hired entourages of artsy folk to hang out with them, probably because rich people can now watch movies just like everybody else instead. The only institutions I can think of, in fact, which have survived from the golden age of hired entourages are the Catholic church and the university. Understandably, the Catholic Church is not a major funding option for the average Mormon writer, but in the University there is hope. Get hired, get tenured, and then, I am told, one can do whatever one wants!

The main beauty of this plan is that someone else is raising the money which will support you. The main disadvantage is that it’s a little embarrassing to get advanced degrees in Creative Writing and then revert to Plan One: Be Your Own Patron in the likely event that you don’t actually get an academic job. Also: if you do get hired at a University, that means you have to work in a University. And there’s more than one way in which they can still run a little Medieval.

PLAN FOUR: RAISE YOUR OWN D–N MONEY (Please note that I’ve omitted the “AR” in the heading so as not to offend prospective contributors)

I’m not entirely sure that anyone actually does this, but it’s theoretically possible to raise money from an idealistic public for one’s own literary or artistic plans. This is different from Plan Two: Live off the Audience in a significant way: in attempting to live off the audience, one’s point of negotiation is the value of the concrete product or experience being sold, whereas in this plan the vision itself is the investment point. No one can “buy” the vision per se, but they can make themselves a part of it through their investment.

This can work. It would have been hard to sell Larry H. Miller an unwritten series of books for millions of dollars, but he bought into the vision of the Joseph Smith Papers Project enough that his economic commitment to it has continued even after his death. Larry Miller gets to be a key player in a historic documentary editing project without any background in documentary editing, and the project gets to exists because Larry Miller believed in its value. The alliance works well for both parties.

On a much smaller scale, aimed at the average contributor, my friend Dave Mortensen is currently doing this online for a planned Salt Lake City production of Mel Larson’s Little Happy Secrets. He’s found a website called Kickstarter which collects pledges: if he raises the money for the show by August, my credit card will get charged my share of the vision; if he fails to raise the money, no one pays anything and the project doesn’t happen. He’s added donation perks (a complimentary script, a CD of the audio play with a bonus commentary track), but he’s not really selling them as products, in which we gauge the value of the good against the price of the perk. He’s selling us the vision of an important play reaching a Salt Lake audience instead.

I am not aware, however, of any case in which a Mormon writer raises money for him/herself through this system enough to produce extra art. It seems like successful fundraising attempts, online or otherwise, almost invariably succeed through the efforts of someone who sees fundraising as his/her primary responsibility. In many cases, this means that some charity or council raises money (m), which takes a certain amount of fundraising work (x), and then a number of individuals or artistic groups (y) has to do a significant amount of work (z) just to apply for a piece of that money awarded in a grant. This means that m isn’t very efficient, since x+yz amount of begging work goes into getting it to the actual artists–work that could be better spent writing. (Contests are much better in a way, since z is mostly creative rather than begging work, although it still sucks to do z amount of work again and again without ever knowing if you’ll get any m out of it.) Maybe someday I’ll learn to circumvent the m=x+yz system and do my own direct fundraising work while still finding time to pursue my own writing work. When that day comes, I think I will ride my flying pig to fundraising events.

PLAN FIVE: DISCOVER RICH ABANDONED SPANISH TREASURE MINE

In our generally rationalist age, it’s easy to scoff at people who see the inevitable economic barriers to producing important work of whatever kind and hope instead that God will lead them to abandoned Spanish mines or treasures hidden in some house in Massachussettes in order to fund their worthy dreams instead. I feel humbled enough by economic reality, however, to realize that the hope of an abandoned mine is really a noble dream: one in which you don’t have to ask anyone else to sacrifice their means to support work which you believe will be good for the world.

How do I justify my continuing dream of Mormon writing despite the limited economic infrastructure for such work? I tell myself to keep going with the consolation that if things ever get truly bad, maybe somewhere in Pennsylvania there’s still that abandoned mine. Sometimes, I think, it’s possible to fuel improbable dreams on nothing but the still-more-improbable dreams history has been kind enough to give us.

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7 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Must Be the Money

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Note to any lurking multimillionaires: I figure that I can make things work for $40 million. I know that sounds like a lot, but in order to get a real endowment going and pay all the salaries and give out all the grants I want to be able to give out, I need $40 million. I could do it for $20mil so if that’s a possibility, just let me know.

    —-

    The thing with Plan One (and hey, it was the plan Kafka was on so it can work) is that I think we need to experiment more with how we can help each other make sure that the fruits of those late-night labors meet with more success.

    It seems as if a lot of writers these days are opting for Plan Two, especially by writing YA. Thus the fake Publisher’s Weekly headline I posted to the motleyvision Twitter account earlier today: Glut of Mormon YA authors leads to plural novel writing

    Not that there is anything wrong with going after the YA market. I’m a big fan of the genre. But it is limited in how it can deal with certain issues, esp. those related to Mormonism and/or the Mormon experience, that I’m interested in experiencing via fiction. In fact, it seems as if Plan One and Plan Three are the only options for writers of Mormon fiction and theater.

  2. I’ll underbid William. Next year, I need $18,000. In subsequent years, I’ll need $30,000 annually.

    Technically speaking, of course, I won’t be launching any new grants or lasting endowments. But that would fund me. And I’m…uh…I’m pretty cool, so…

    Yeah.

  3. Gamila says:

    Hey there can be other plans like marry a spouse who will support your fiction writing habit! :) :)

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    That marry a spouse thing…Leslie Norris advised us girls at BYU to do precisely that. I took his advice. Married a dentist so I wouldn’t have to worry excessively about pressure to move into the work force. (Well, okay, I also loved the guy. What can I say?) But then these darn kids came along. (Who invited them?) For years they cramp daytime and (late) nighttime, so that Marry a Supportive Spouse thing? For Mormons? Well, it isn’t likely to free you to write any sooner than acheiving tenure will, but (hopefully) its a lot more fun.

    I am extremely fortunate because my husband is very supportive, though he’s made it abundantly clear that he’d rather I was making money at this than not. I’m with him on that.

    I do worry sometimes about the fathers out there who work so dang hard all week and then try to squeeze in both family time and writing time. I’ve always had more time to squeeze out of a day by virtue of being home. I really admire you men–and feel for your plight. Its a shame, I think, that we spend so much time discussing the sacrifices of women who raise children but don’t give the same attention to the amazing men who make sacrifices to provide for their families. Add to that that these men give us art? Wow.

  5. Wm Morris says:

    Thanks, Lisa. I appreciate hearing it from someone even if I know.

    I have to admit to some resentment at times for the writer moms. I know I appear to be prolific, but that’s because the demands of blogging and commenting fit in to the time and energy I have — the breaks at work, the 20 minutes in the evening, the composing a post in my head on the bus. And, sadly, it would appear that I’m one of those writers who needs a solid 45-80 minutes of straight writing time to do any real fiction writing — and I need 8-9 hours of sleep a night. I’m not happy about that at all. Not that Mormon women, yes, even Mormon mothers, can’t be dentists or lawyers or executives, but that’s not how it worked out with me and my wife. We both pursued degrees in fields that would lead to rewarding but low-paying jobs (her early childhood development/me teaching literature and comp at a community college), and I ended up being the one who got lucky and fell in to a career with at least a steady paycheck and full benefits.

    I made my own career choices — choices which give me time to engage but don’t hold out the hope for an early retirement in which to write. And I’m also not that interested in pursuing the kind of writing that would, if I was successful at it, pay the bills. But even though I made my own bed, it warms my heart to hear that Lisa, at least, feels my plight.

    Although at least my day job isn’t crazy demanding. I feel for Theric. A high school teacher’s life and salary and he still manages to write, blog, tweet and edit? That’s impressive.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    You are welcome, William. No matter our gender or our life situation, it is tough to chip out those blocks of time that are required to see our art front to back and inside out. But the truth is, when I let something slide in order to write, its a clean kitchen floor (which truthfully is something you’d stick to, rather than slide over). But when you men–the bearers of our cultural burden to provide–let something slide…Well, you simply can’t. Your families need to be feed and clothed. And yes, I know many of our women are working. I teach comp PT like many who hang here, but I don’t and never have shouldered the principle burden of providing. My hats off to all of you writers–male or female–who do have that responsibility and meet it in some way other than through your art.

    If I ever strike it rich (and I don’t play the lotto so it aint likely), I’ll keep these grant requests in mind. And hope you’ll do the same. :)

  7. Th. says:

    .

    Thanks for the props, but something’s gotta give and, culturally (as an American), that something is generally the art. Or the family. What a world, what a world.

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