Tag Archives | Writing

A Time to Eat: On Making a Living as a Writer

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.

I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).

I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP  I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.

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Response to the Words, Writers Should …

Do you disagree that writers should read a lot, that it’s good to spend time with one’s writing alone without oversharing, that writing students should meet their deadlines, and that it’s good to write with the reader’s enjoyment in mind?

Well it is good we don’t need to agree with each other, because I don’t agree. Mainly, it boils down to the concept of need to or should. I guess I don’t really see need to or should really be relevant to me as a writer. Who is another writer to tell me how I should or need write? And conversely who am I to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. I’ll read (or not read) their writing.

On the surface what you are saying here (aside from need to/should) sounds reasonable, but they are not things I agree with.


Kerry Fox as Janet Frame in “Angel at My Table.” The last scene of the movie is to me the scene of the writer at work. But then, so is someone with a laptop in a room full of other people typing.

Writers do not need to read a lot. If it were at all true that they did, then the widely read would often be great writers. (and the under-read poor writers; and how in the hell could Cicero or Lucretius be good writers at all considering the scant number of book in existence at the time?) I have experienced that the the widely read are almost always insufferable unless they just love books and read a lot of trash. For some reason I love talking to someone with a super sweet tooth as a reader. Consumers of junk for some reason are infectious when talking about lit. Personally I read a lot but also feel under read at all times.

Writing can be done in an iterative, constantly sharing confessional loop just as it can be done completely alone. This is one of the things I found fascinating about Tao Lin, and I find fascinating about my daughter’s generation. My daughter writes constantly. She is a fantastic writer. Her writing always includes feedback; she is always writing to an audience. I have been learning a lot about how to create a writing practice that includes this type of feedback. In my day job, where I am a writer, the good writing is done in short bursts that is constantly feed through a feedback loop. Like you, I read about the writer in their garrett, and when I went to school the model of production as a writer was one where the writer alone sat with their thoughts and wrote. When I started writing I read in the introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin’s collection the Winds Four Quarters that she wrote 40 stories before she published her first one, and so I spent the first five years of my writing doing just that; writing stories trying to get that number of 40 stories. My first book took 8 years to write and I did nearly all of that alone. (Like most writers I wrote manuscripts that will never see the light of day.) One book took 13 years to write and before it was ready to send out I didn’t show it to anyone. I like working alone. For me it is how I work; but I can see that is not the only way to work.

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About Story Units

Story Units

Story units in my brain.

I have a review coming out in a couple of days where I use the term “story unit.” And I’m putting this here is a kind of footnote so I can link back to this spot when the review is posted.

A story unit is my way of referring to a granular chunk of narrative that is separate from the words used to tell the story. You can think of a story occupying layers. There is subtext, text, and then narrative wrapped up in a pretty package of context. As a writer I find very simple schemes useful as long as they are kind of right. For instance, the mantra: “subject, verb, direct object” has been very helpful for me as a kind of writerly Prozac.

These pieces of narrative are called different things by different people depending on their discipline. I have tried several times to read about narratology. Since I write stories it would seem to make sense that studying the “science of narration” would have something useful to say about the writing of stories. I believe it does, but the texts I’ve read came from a discipline intent on distancing itself from the various competing forms of linguistic theory and an assortment of structural, post-structural, formalist, and neo-formalists theories. These various academic and ideological fights were so old and entrenched that I couldn’t make any sense out of what I was reading. A few times I’ve met writers and academics who have know their narratology, such as Trevor Dodge and Peter Donahue. But when I mention, okay, help! I want to know what is in these books. They seem kind of exahusted by it and change the subject. These are both reasonable people and I figure they would tell me what was there if from a writing stand point there was anything there.

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Launch of Reading Local: Seattle

Yesler Lit

Yesler Lit

I posted my first, I hope of many posts, for Reading Local: Seattle, a book site that aims to cover locally produced events and books with profiles, reviews, and event aggregation. I’ll be writing material and working with editors and writers such as Roger Weaver, Amy Schrader, Chris Dusterhoff, and John Olson.

About the site I said:

I read at a small press fair in Portland this last spring, and was grateful for the coverage of the event and curious about the other events in Portland that Gabe Barber posted on his Reading Local: Portland site. Gabe seemed aware of the fact that things are in a transitional state, that somehow whatever happens is going to involve what they call social media, that is Web tools that allow for the instantaneous sharing of information. And he had built a site with a specificity of mission that matched my own interest: books written by people who live near me.

If you are a producer of lit events, coordinate a reading series, an open mic, please include me [matt(dot)briggs(at)gmail(dot)com] in your notices. I would like to help get the word out about your event. You can also contact me about your upcoming book, magazine, zine, Web site. Thanks.

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