Pecuniary Botheration: Plague of the Writing Life

(This essay was published in drafthorse literary journal, Winter 2015 edition. You can read here or click on the link below to read. “Pecuniary botheration” refers to how writers, even the most famous writers, have mostly struggled to make a living by their writing alone.)

Pecuniary Botheration – Plague of the Writing Life

Even in these difficult economic times the notion that art is somehow loftily and blissfully ignorant of money matters is a myth that perpetuates. Maybe because at one very visible end of the economic spectrum are the Oprah and Today show authors, writers who have hit the literary equivalent of winning the power ball. But weighing down the other end of the spectrum are the other ninety-nine percent. Those writers who toil at their craft for years, decades even, with little or no promise of remuneration.

The cultural and historical assumption has generally been that tying monetary value to literary work somehow taints it. The writer (or artist) is supposed to be above worldly considerations, creating art in a rarefied atmosphere unburdened by everyday concerns such as the plumbing bill or college tuition fees. I was reminded of the impractical nature of this outlook recently when a writer friend of mine mentioned, “I really hope I get a $700 finalist award from the Illinois Arts Council so I can pay for my daughter’s retainer.”

Seen in these terms, payment for a short story becomes this month’s groceries, an advance on the novel means a down payment on a car to replace the old clunker, sale of a poem means, if you are lucky, a cappuccino.

There should be nothing inherently wrong with looking at art as commerce. After all, in other occupations, one gets paid for one’s labor. And, one might add, a welder or a waitress engages in real labor, while a writer sits in a chair in the comfort of his or her own basement dreamily setting prose to paper. (Yeah, right…)

It is a basic economic premise that work produced has a certain value. That value might be easy to define in terms of products like copy machines or American Girl dolls. But what is a poem worth? Is there a monetary value that can be placed on a short story such as “The Lottery”? Does one’s work have no value if no one buys it and it never enters the marketplace?

Even though public perception may be that writers are removed from the gritty battlefields of commerce, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, most writers are very aware of their tenuous and precarious foothold on the economic ladder, and historically their correspondence bears this out. In one missive, Nathaniel Hawthorne called this whole messy business “pecuniary botheration.” He knew the reality – at the age of forty-one he was on his way to live in Salem, Massachusetts with a wife and baby and only ten dollars in ready cash.

Louisa May Alcott’s letters are filled with references to her financial situation, money owed to her, and possibilities of sales of her stories. In 1856, twelve years before the publication of Little Women, she wrote to her sister Anna, “You ask about funds, &c. I have eight cents in the bank at present, $10 owing me, & a fortune in prospect. I shall this week dispose of another story, & ask Jewett about a book of collected tales.”

In 1863, Alcott wrote in a letter to her editor and publisher James Redpath, “If you can let me have ten or twenty dollars, it would be a great favor…for sundry expenses must be incurred and I rather depend on ‘my works’ to supply the necessary funds.”

Five years later, in 1868, just months before starting, finishing, and publishing Little Women she wrote to her mother Abigail May Alcott, “Things look promising for the new year. Ford paid $20 for the little tales & wants two every month. Gazette $25 for the ‘Bells.’ Loring $100 for the two Proverb stories. So my plan will work well & I shall make my $1000 this year in spite of sickness & worry. Praise the Lord and keep busy sez I.” And further, “I asked Putnam if he wanted a story, & he at once said ‘yes.’ So I sent him ‘The Blue & Grey.’ He pays $7.00 a page, so there is another iron in the fire. Allyluyer!”

Not one to rest comfortably on her writing laurels, however, six years after Little Women was published she wrote to Boston Globe editor Edwin Munroe Bacon, “I find that I must make hay while my sun shines, & so wish to earn all I can before Fortune’s wheel takes a turn & carries me down again.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson would likely be a sought-after literary luminary today, fraternizing on the talk show circuit and guesting on NPR; but as America’s first lecturer known to receive a fee, he got only $5.00 for himself and oats for his horse as payment.

Bret Harte, who found fame as a writer of stories in the late 19th century American West included worries about finances in nearly all of his correspondence to his wife and others close to him. He spent many years traveling and lecturing to support his literary aspirations, as his fortunes went up and down. In a letter to his wife in 1877, at the age of forty-one, he wrote, “Dear Nan, I have had no money since I have been here (Washington, D. C.). I shall have none until the story is finished. I do not blame them. But it is hard. But it is not so terrible to me as the reflection that you are left alone, penniless, at that strange hotel, with no money. If I could do anything by being there, more than I am doing here, I would come. But I must come with money.”

Harte had friends and supporters who tried to secure him various positions to help free him from financial worry. Writing from England in 1878, he wrote of a dreaded lecture tour procured for him by a London agent, “If I can only get a couple of thousand dollars in this way, ahead, I’ll go through the agony and misery of the lecture work.”

Another writer who was also a first class adventurer, and who also loved the American West was Robert Louis Stevenson. Although Scottish by birth, Stevenson saw himself as a true citizen of the world. He decided to write about his travels at an early age, despite the lack of a personal fortune, and a family that was less than supportive. His closest friend and publisher, Sir Sidney Colvin, later published many of Stevenson’s letters – out of a truly voluminous correspondence (one wonders what the advent of e-mail has done to this unique and fascinating literary genre of authorial correspondence). And Stevenson’s letters often mention his financial problems, especially in his early years when his writing did not yet support him.

In a letter to his mother in 1879 (Stevenson would have been twenty-nine years old then, and was temporarily living in London – he had just published Travels With A Donkey) he writes: “After a desperate struggle with the elements of every sort and principally money, I arrived last night in London, the possessor of 4 shillings. You can count on me for Friday next absolutely; but unless some money is sent I shall probably have died of hunger in the meanwhile. You will laugh when you hear my troubles; I have lain in pawn and lived on charity most free. I think you are wrong about my work; I believe there is an element of idleness in my present collapse, which I mean to evince as soon as I arrive. I am astonished at the reviews I have seen; they are very kind.”

Several months later, arriving in Monterey, California, where he hoped to marry, and would spend a good deal of time, Stevenson wrote to another of his publishers, W. E. Henley, “At times I get terribly frightened about my work, which seems to advance too slowly. I hope soon to have a greater burthen to support, and must make money a great deal quicker than I used. I may get nothing for the Vendetta; I may only get some forty for the Emigrant; I cannot hope to have them both done much before the end of November.”

In a collection of letters from Katherine Mansfield to her lover and then husband John Middleton Murry, dating from 1913-1922, Mansfield continually bemoans their lack of financial resources. Her letters are exquisite in their attention to the details of her surroundings, and very intimately frank and charming with her unabashed love for Murry; but most of the letters also discuss in detail their penury as it relates to their chosen careers as writers. On March 25, 1915 Mansfield wrote to Murry, “I had a great day yesterday. The Muses descended in a ring, like the angels Botticelli Nativity roof – or so it seemed to ‘humble’ little Tig, and I fell into the open arms of my first novel. I have finished a huge chunk.”

Just two days later Mansfield anxiously writes again, “I am really worried about money for you. Will you have got another cheque by now? I do hope to Heaven that you have. I always feel you become wicked and don’t spend enough on food if you’re hard up and you are really rather dependent on good meals – if you only knew it. I shall be eating chestnut buds if Kay doesn’t send me my money some time next week.” Until her premature death at the age of thirty-four from tuberculosis and other serious illnesses, Mansfield’s anxiety over practicing her art and having to worry about money often consumed her.

Ernest Hemingway was considered a successful writer during his lifetime, but his correspondence also shows that his literary success didn’t provide immunity from money problems. In a 1928 letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins he wrote detailing his problems with advances and concerns about getting enough cash for his work, “I worry about the whole business…and am prevented from writing the stories I wanted to do now in between by worrying about these bloody matters.”

Dawn Powell, a writer who worked at her craft steadily, while on the brink of the economic abyss her whole life, died in obscurity and poverty. On April 12, 1935 she wrote in her diary, “Fear is such an utterly disrupting force – fear of no publisher, fear of cringing once more before debtors, fear of being trapped in the Middle West again and dependent on relatives – so that this panic creeps in my pen or typewriter, and nothing is possible.”

Things hadn’t improved much by 1959, when she wrote, again in her diary, “We have about sixty cents between us, and Post check doesn’t come.”

Knowing what we know today about the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s talent and fame, one might be surprised that she too was beset throughout her life with financial woes. Much of her correspondence discusses poetry that she sold, and how much she sold it for. In June 1941, she wrote to her friend Charlotte Russell, “I was so touched by your offer of a LOAN. Thank you very much… I’m gradually getting out of the red now, although I have a bill collector on my tail.”
Much of Bishop’s authorial correspondence is taken up by talk of Guggenheims, fellowships to Yaddo or Bread Loaf, Fulbright grants, and other arts awards with monetary value. In 1978, when Elizabeth Bishop was sixty-seven she wrote to her friend – professor and lecturer Ashley Brown, “This weekend I go to Washington, in two weeks or so to Durham, and from there to Arkansas – then Storrs, Conn., and later on Bennington. This is all to earn $$$, I’m afraid – because I’m not teaching now – and hope never to again! If I get a Guggenheim (I think I may) I can probably just make it for a year – and then I hope ‘something will turn up.’ I want desperately to do some work of my own.”

A year later, on June 3, 1979, Bishop wrote to publisher Robert Giroux asking him for a recommendation for a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (she didn’t get the Fellowship). “I have lived on handouts for so long I hesitate to send you this. However, I hope you’ll be willing to recommend me. I’m afraid I live beyond my means in Massachusetts & should probably move to Utah or Florida – but I don’t want to!” She died four months later.

Much of Anne Sexton’s voluminous correspondence deals with money matters. She never shied away from the importance of getting paid for her work. In 1961 she wrote to her friend, the poet W. D. Snodgrass, “I signed a first reading contract with the New Yorker. You get $100 just for signing…but it hasn’t changed my poetry at all.”

A few years later (1968) Sexton wrote a terse note to Howard Moss at the New Yorker asking him, “Why does Ed Sissman get $300 for signing his contract and I get $100? What more is there to say?”

In 1962 she wrote to poet, teacher, and friend George Starbuck, “…read a script a few weeks ago and got 25 bucks reading fee…reading bad poems. I now make (if you can stand this) $250 bucks a reading plus expenses. Keee rist!!!

Ten years later she again wrote to George Starbuck, about teaching at Boston University. “…If John Barth doesn’t come back next year and you pay his replacement four grand per course more than I am getting I’m going to wonder if a woman’s fist shouldn’t be painted on my classroom door!!! Even if John Barth stays at his same salary I’m going to wonder. I know it is a desperate time of money at B. U. but if a man gets it then why doesn’t a woman? Need I list my qualifications as a writer, teacher etc? If I’m important I want to be paid importantly.”

Sylvia Plath, another prolific letter and journal writer, candidly mentions the link between her writing and financial considerations throughout her adult life. Her correspondence is peppered with references to prize money (and what it would pay for), amount of payment for her poems, and the constant struggle she and her husband the poet Ted Hughes had balancing a creative life with the realities of household economics.

On November 13, 1956, shortly after her marriage to Hughes, Plath wrote dispiritedly to her mother about, “…two rejections of poems and stories from the disdainful New Yorker.” In the same letter, Plath wrote, “The next two months will be very hard… Ted has not yet got a job… He may have to take a laboring job for these first few months to cover coal, electricity, gas and food bills.”

Success at the New Yorker did come eventually, and with it the promise of money for hard work done. In a 1958 letter to her brother Warren, Plath was joyous, “VERY GOOD NEWS: In the mail I just got my first acceptance from the New Yorker! In our materialistic way, Ted and I figured, amid much jumping up and down, this should mean close to $350, or three full months of Boston rent! For two poems!”

A scant five years later, on January 16, 1963, Plath wrote to her mother Aurelia, after the devastating breakup of her marriage. “…if only I could have some windfall, like doing a really successful novel, and buy this house, this ghastly vision of rent bleeding away year after year would vanish, and I could almost be self-supporting with rent from the other two flats – that is my dream. How I would like to be self-supporting on my writing! But I need time.”

One month later Sylvia Plath died by her own hand.

The following books were used for quotations:
“The Literary Life and Other Curiosities;” Robert Hendrickson (1994)
“Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals;” Ed. By Ednah D. Cheney (1889)
“The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott;” Ed. By Joel Myerson & Daniel Shealy (1987)
“The Letters of Bret Harte;” Assembled and Ed. By Geoffrey Bret Harte (1926)
“The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson;” Ed. By Sir Sidney Colvin (1899)
“Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913-1922;” Ed. By John Middleton Murry (1951)
“Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961;” Ed. By Carlos Baker (1981)
“Dawn Powell: A Biography;” by Tim Page (1998)
“Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters;” Ed. By Linda Gray Sexton & Lois Ames (1977)
“One Art: Elizabeth Bishop – Letters;” Selected & Edited by Robert Giroux (1995)
“Letters Home, Correspondence 1950-1963,” by Sylvia Plath; Selected and Edited with commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (1975)


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