I'm a college senior majoring in English, and I'm really thinking of moving to New York and making a go at this whole writing thing. Being a writer is all I've ever wanted. But I'd also like to live a comfortable lifestyle in a cool part of town with enough space in my apartment for all my books. I figure I'll have to work some kind of day or night job to support my writing. Any thoughts on where I should live and what I should do for work?
Class of '12
Dear Class of '12,
When I was in your shoes a decade ago, I had lunch with a fellow English major in my graduating class. We both wanted to be writers. My friend, probably quoting some dubious online source, said, "You know, the average salary for most writers is around $8,000 a year." I remember feeling this surge of pride, this contrarian resilience, which I expressed by means of an indifferent shrug. "Yeah," I said. "I know it's tough." Of course, what I really meant was, "How can you sully the pursuit of literature with so crass a notion as financial stability? Isn't being a writer all you ever wanted?"
That friend, who was smart enough to actually factor financial concerns into his notion of the writing life, and who had already started a college laundry service while most of us were busy trying to find the right adjectives to describe the misery of laundromats, is now a senior editor at one of the most ballerific magazines in the country, making somewhere between $55,000-$90,000 a year. Like many other self-proclaimed writers who work full-time in publishing, he doesn't get much time for his own writing. But that's the trade-off.
I guess what I'm saying, Class of '12, is that you should probably start worrying about other things besides fitting all your books into the apartment. Do you want to get writing done, or do you want to be a writer? Because there's a difference, and it's one I wish someone had told me about when I was in your New Balances. For most people, getting writing done requires time, peace, a low-impact job in a low-impact city, and a lack of distractions; "being a writer" involves all the things we associate with the contemporary, cosmopolitan literary life except writing—e.g. attending readings, perusing literary journals, working in publishing, half-assing a short story here, and not planning for your future.
The sad reality is that we are in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. New York is still a very expensive place to live and will be for the foreseeable future. Do you care about this? Do you care about getting writing done? Do you care about risking credit card debt to live in a cool city? Or that New York didn't even make National Geographic's list of Literary Cities? I ask all these questions not to dishearten you, Class of '12. I ask them only so that you may start asking them of yourself, if you haven't started to already.
A writing teacher of mine once drew a line with the words "Writer" at one end and "Reader" at the other. "Where do you fall on this line?" he asked. By which he meant, do you write more for yourself or for your readers? When a few of us raised our hands to answer, he waved us off. "No, no," he said. "That wasn't for you to answer. Just know where you stand." I could draw a similar line for you, Class of '12. A few of them, actually:
Living to Write---------------------------------Living Comfortably
Boring City-----------------------------Exciting City
Caring How I Make Money--------------------------Not Giving a Shit
No need to answer. Just know where you stand.
Send your Hustlenomics queries to mikael AT blackballoonpublishing DOT com. Next week's topic: The best (and cheapest) workspaces for writers with shitty apartments.