Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Last Box of Mac 'n Cheese

You know how it goes in the interviews with the famous writer or actor. "I was down to my last box of mac 'n cheese (or ramen), and on Monday I was going to have to start selling insurance and put writing/acting/directing aside. Then the call came, and the rest is history."

Now, really, we're doing okay. We're not quite down to the last box of mac 'n cheese, but I've been doing a bit of figuring, and the truth is that we don't have enough money. We have enough to keep living in our condo and paying our bills and buying groceries. We've been getting by on one salary for a long time, while I've been able to stay home and take care of the kids and write. It's been pretty amazing. Boston is an expensive city and we've been frugal. Until last year, I was also a landlord and did some janitorial work (and bought and sold houses a bit a few times). But those sources of income are gone.

Basically, I need to find a way to make some money, in order to visit family, pay for kids braces, emergency car repairs (and college tuition isn't quite as far away as it seems). Being numbers people, Tracy and I spend a fair amount of time counting pennies and figuring out where they all go. Our kids are getting older, so our grocery bill has risen. Medical expenses, even though we have coverage through Tracy's work, have risen. Little stuff here and there adds up.

The tough part is that writing novels and plays pays next to nothing (yes, I know I just got a royalty check for my plays this week, but it's not enough). Maybe this next novel will sell, but that's a long ways off. At first, I figured I'd either find an office job or go push a broom at one of the many hospitals near our house.

The tricky part to this is that I have two young kids (2nd and 7th grade) and I really want to be around for them after school, and due to my son's special needs, I need to go to school/teacher meetings and keep up a good level of contact with the school. And I'm the one who takes the kids to the dentist, who stays home when they're sick (like today and probably tomorrow), and all that. And I like spending time with them and my wife. I'd rather not completely gum up our lives, so that means I should find a night/evening shift. Or a half-day job in an office while the kids are in school (8am-2pm)

The funny thing is that I don't need to make a ton more money, even $300-$500 a month would make a big difference. But part-time work pays less than full-time.

My plan, though, is to make a one last ditch effort to get writing to pay off a little more, by writing freelance articles for magazines and newspapers. Writing is what I'm best at, really. (And I've been out of the regular job market for a long time. My experience is all around running theatres and playwright organizations and community gardens.) I've done a little bit of article writing in the past (though mostly for free), and understand the basics of how to do it. If I put in 5-6 hours a day researching and writing article queries (and articles, if I can get some assignments), I think I can earn what we need. (It doesn't need to happen all at once.) I know the reality is that the competition is fierce and the pay is low and slow, but my needs are modest.

The cool thing is that it'll help me improve as a writer, and if I plan it out right, I can use the research for the articles to provide research for some of the other fiction and non-fiction projects that I want to do. (And I don't need to buy a new wardrobe.)

What it does mean is that my new novel will be harder to finish, and that any new fiction/playwriting projects won't get started for quite a while. Spare time and energy will be in short supply.

I've been awfully lucky to have so much time to devote to writing projects that were of great interest to me (and sometimes to audiences and readers), without commercial pressure. I'd be lying if I said that after 20 years of writing, I feel satisfied with how much income my writing brings in (that's putting it mildly). But I wouldn't go back and undo any of the projects I've done or scripts I've written.

Blogging has been a good warm-up for some of this freelance article writing (or so I tell myself). Now I need to see if I really put in the intense effort, if I can get it to work out. I'm looking at it like starting a new job (it starts on Monday). If it doesn't pan out, then it'll be time to get a real job, I guess.

7 comments:

Malachy Walsh said...

A year ago in November I had a moment on a street here in LA when I thought I was going to have to live in a car with my wife and hope that I could find a quick fix job as a barrista.

It may still come to that. It always could. But it hasn't yet.

And right now, with a new child in the house, the question of how far we're willing to chase some "goals" has gotten very strong play.

Marina Martin said...

Never forget the Chinese proverb: "The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed."

If you're just looking to make an extra $500 a month, take up some non-creative freelance writing jobs. Pitch articles to magazines and websites. Buy a Writer's Market book. Signup on sites like Rentacoder.com, elance.com, and guru.com. Visit a random poorly-written website and offer to rewrite their copy for $100.

jde said...

Patrick,
I'm in a similar situation as you (sans children), and made the same decision to focus on freelance in a way I never have before. If you haven't, check out journalismjobs.com. It's lead me to some good, legit stuff. Competition is intense, just keep your impressive focus. :)
J.D.

patrick said...

Malachy--it is amazing how adding a child to the mix really changes things. You guys have a double challenge in both being artists. I think the essential lesson I've learned from having my own family now is the give and take and compromise that parents have to engineer to make life keep running. You get this a bit, just from being married, but once the kids are there, it's much more complex.

patrick said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Maring and J.D.! The web sites you've mentioned will be very helpful. (I definitely need all the help and guidance I can get right now.)

It's also helpful to hear about how other people have navigated these same waters.

Jeff Shattuck said...

Just learned about your blog through Malachy. Like it!

Here's a thought: you might try looking into marketing/business writing, especially annual reports. The pay would be good, definitely better than mags.

Good luck!

patrick said...

Good idea, Jeff. I have a friend who makes her living doing that sort of work and I need to call her up and ask her for some tips.

Though I have to say that I'm more drawn to the magazine stuff, because it seems like more fun and better writing practice than corporate. Though, as you say, the money for corporate is much better (thus leaving more time for the writing I really want to do).