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How Do You Finance Your Writing Habit?

At Harvard’s Commencement exercises, it is oft noted that only a tenth of grads will enter communications, media, and the arts. You probably have heard how hard it is to make a living as a writer.

Some of these grads think they are the exception. On the occasion of their leap of faith, one wonders what becomes of writers after graduation.

What kinds of jobs, agents and publishing contracts do they find as they travel to the four corners of the American literary scene?

In the first corner, we have ‘the day job’, anything from Charlotte Bronte’s governess gig to Charles Bukowski’s or Lawrence Durrell’s civil servant Band-Aid. In life, there’s the work that needs to be done, which incidentally, doesn’t usually pay, and the work corporations want you to do to exploit humanity and the environment⎯that’s usually the day job.

“It’s depressing to admit that if I hadn’t had (and didn’t still have) a working husband with a steady job, the whole thing would not have been possible,” says Sheila Connolly (Harvard GSA ’79) whose mystery Buried In a Bog recently hit #14 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

“It took five years from the ‘aha! I shall write a book!’ moment to signing a contract with a publisher, and another two years before the first book was published. Sure, I began making some money, but my net profit was in the low to mid four figures for several more years.  It’s been only the past two years that I’ve made what I would consider a minimum living wage from writing alone. And in my genre, I’m considered one of the success stories!”

Author David Loftus (Harvard College’ 81) tells people, “You know how Mark Twain said he never let his schooling get in the way of his education? Well, I try not to let my job get in the way of my WORK!”

Lately he has been supporting his writing habit with an acting habit as a Grimm series spook or working as a Standardized Patient using improv to help train med students and hospital staff.

“When I was a heart patient, students not only had to listen to my heart and lungs through a stethoscope, but press their hands on various parts of my chest to search for pulsing in unfamiliar locations. If they do sense a throb in a place where there normally shouldn’t be one, that’s known in the trade as a “thrill.” So there I was, with a series of pretty young med students touching my bare chest and saying, half to themselves, “I’m not getting any thrills,” and I said to myself, ‘Works for me, honey!’”

Loftus had already worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist, and reviewer for a small daily newspaper, and proofreader and editor for a small publishing house that enabled him to author a couple books.

In the second corner, luckily, is the Internet, making it possible to tune in to a worldwide literary dialogue. One of a few university-sponsored places where alumni literati of all ages from all over the world associate is the Harvard Alumni Association’s most conversant listserv, the 747-member Harvard Writers and Publishers discussion group. Alumni writers also can be found in and around fresh alumni-driven organizations such as Harvardwood and its fiction publisher affiliate Harvard Square Editions. And Crimeds can keep in touch on the Crimson’s Facebook page.

When asked if Crimeds get together in Washington and throw parties, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Terror Courts, Jess Bravin (Harvard College ‘87) said, “You know, much as in college, I’m not cool enough to get invited to anything like that, but I’m in touch with them. Abby Nolan, for instance, was the Arts Editor on the Crimson, and she very nicely threw a little party when my book came out, for me, and a number of people came to that who were also on the Crimson and other things around campus. These are people I’ve met through similar interests, but it hasn’t been a kind of structured thing.”

In the third corner, is Harvard itself, where a growing lack support for the arts had prevailed until recently. “There’s a reason why President Faust made a push for the arts at Harvard a few years ago: because they are typically also-rans at Harvard,” says former Harvard expos teacher Dr. Lowry Pei (Harvard College, ’67), author of seven novels. “In particular, my sense is that Harvard has historically been reluctant to get its hands dirty with the actual doing of an art. You can’t study music performance, for example. There are creative writing courses, all right, but I would be very surprised if the English Department, as a department, has any official interest in career guidance for writers.

“It’s typical in English departments for there to be a great gulf between the literary theorists and the creative writers—if creative writers are welcome at all. The usual politics are that theory far outranks practice.” Now a professor at Simmons College, Pei leads faculty workshops as part of an initiative to have writing-intensive courses offered in all majors.

In the fourth corner are the victors of corporate mergers who have made writing harder by erecting barriers to entry. One ironic example is the market’s degradation of today’s authors should they try to ‘self-publish’, whereas it was authors themselves who started well-known publishing houses including Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and Sir Walter Scott’s co-financed Ballantyne, now both Random House imprints.

Similarly, it was an artist (lithographer) who started Bertelsmann, the German company that owns 100% of Random House.  The memoir written by Random House’s largest human stakeholder, Liz Mohn, who owns 19.1 % of Bertelsmann and serves on its supervisory board as well as on the board of The Bertelsmann Foundation—owner of the other 80.9% of Bertelsmann—is arguably-self-published.

If authors have to publish through a big corporation, they must write what the corporation wants to hear, which, shall we say, takes the fun out of it. It also makes it almost impossible for authors to write about the truth.

Who among today’s graduating writers will travel this lonely road without giving up their art? Harvard graduates, whether their reading of this landscape defeat or challenge be, commit one thing to memory: Veritas!

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