I’ve gotten in trouble (a lot) by speaking my mind since I was, like, five, so that makes me a little afraid to, believe it or not. There’s always a danger that speaking my mind will translate into arrogance and I don’t want folks to think that about me.
Also many southern ladies—what we call women below the Mason-Dixon Line—are reared that talking about money is downright rude. Actually, talking about anything owed us southern ladies is considered rude, whether it’s money, cakes for our birthdays, or wedding rings after we’ve had four babies and been living together since President Clinton took office. Southern ladies have been reared to just wait politely and maybe throw hints.
But you gotta be up front when talking about money, unfortunately. So let me put things in my characteristically blunt manner: over the past few years, I’ve encountered a problem talking about money when negotiating for reading fees, meaning money paid to me to come present my work before an audience. I know this is not a new subject, but I think it bears revisiting, especially since the economy crashed, recessed, whatever you want to call it.
To wit: I have noticed that organizations started offering less money for readings by authors. I still get good fees from people—sometimes, as in the case of my recent Witter Bynner Fellowship, phenomenal reading fees. (To God be the glory, as always.)
But there’re always these organizations that will roll on me, asking me to come read for say, $500—what I used to charge when my first book came out fourteen years ago—and invariably, this fee also is supposed to cover my travel, an honorarium, and incidentals. When this happens I always say no, but I always feel, well, defensive when I do.
I shouldn’t feel defensive, but here’s why I do: in the Creative Writing world people will say things like, “I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love,” or “ I don’t even need to get paid, I just want to see my work published.” These are the folks I would call The Spiritualist Writers.
I’m not throwing shade on The Spiritualist Writers, but with those above comments they are throwing shade on writers who expect to get paid. Writers like me. And this shade implies that there is something lacking in the souls of folks who practice art but also expect to earn money through that art.
Then, there are The Proletariat Writers who say things like, “Literature is for the people.” Okay, I agree. But are the people going to pay my light bill (plus reconnection charges) when my electricity gets cut off?
Then, there are those people who fall into the Mean Girl/Guy Writer category, people who say things like, “Well, Such and Such Writer is worth that much money,” when I look at the list of writers for a reading series and spot a name of someone who I know makes at least $5000 a reading. Not anyone who has won four times the awards that I have or has three times the number of books. Just another, regular writer (clearly with better negotiation skills than I have). But I’m not getting near that amount, though I’m reading on the same series.
What Mean Girl/Guy Writers are saying is that Such and Such Writer is just better than I am, for no apparent reason. They don’t say why, other than, “Oh, s/he gives a heck of a reading.” You know what? I give a heck of a reading. (Ask about me, okay?) And I’m wearing a cute outfit, Spanx underneath while doing it, plus gold, dangly earrings.
So what you got to say about that, Mean Girl/Guy Writer?
Then, there are The Grim Reaper Writers who remind you that “Zora Neale Hurston died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave, so what do you have to complain about?”
I’m convinced these are zombie hybrids of the Mean Girl/Guy Writers Category, only worse: they’re trying to get me so deep into depression about my finances (and whether I will have enough money to pay for a nice funeral) that I stop writing and that will clear the field for them. Also: addicted to Xanax or something.
Then, there are The Keep Cool and Copacetic About It Writers who say, “Look, there are many fine writers out there, so let’s spread the wealth around.”
I completely agree with this sentiment.—But how is paying someone $500 spreading the wealth? Because if someone offers me $500, which is supposed to cover my honorarium and travel as well, they’re actually asking me, “Can you read for free?” But yet, the organization is misrepresenting the offer as if I’m actually getting paid real money, instead of in moral currency or whatnot.
Explanation: first, the IRS is going to take a third of my $500 honorarium. So that’s now $335 after taxes.
Then, I have to pay for my own travel. But in order for me to fly to a reading series from where I live in Oklahoma that’s $400-$600, so now I’m $65 to $265 out of my pocket–unless the reading is the next county over and I can make it there in my thirteen-year- old hoopty.
Then, I have to park at the airport, so that’s another $10 out of my pocket.
Then, I have to buy me a sandwich—or the gluten free equivalent—at the airport on the way there and on the way back. That’s another $14 of my money.
Four bottles of the expensive airport water are $21. Also, my own money.
Finally, I have to give my emotional and spiritual energy to do a reading, because even if the series has asked me to pay my own money to read my work, the audience doesn’t know that and I’m going to give the best I can because that’s my duty. I have to wait until I return home to get swole.
I understand that institutional budgets are low these days for readings series. Things are tough all over financially. But the deal is that’s why I expect to get paid—because things are tough all over. I know there are a lot of writers out there who are not even getting published in the first place. I know they are working hard. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not working hard, too. And, I’m not independently wealthy. I do not have a trust fund. I must work for a living. (My husband works, too.) And part of my work includes my writing.
And when one looks at the number of writers for a yearly series and sees fifteen writers—who are being paid $500 apiece—it is difficult not to wonder how much fairer it would have been to cut the number of readers to five and pay them all $1000 plus travel expenses. This would send the message that writers count in the world, and render a necessary and important service in society. And there would be actual money in someone’s pocket–and equally important, a feeling of good will all around.
Let’s also remember that many of us writers have student loan debt because we borrowed money (with interest) to pay for our training as writers. Are we now supposed to pay to deliver our work to audiences, too? Last I heard, writers did not go into training to be Literary Sharecroppers, always in the hole.