As promised, folks, today we're moving on from my previous three posts on boundaries and talking about money. I'm going to share a few horror stories with you, strongly advise you to not quit your day job to focus on your art right now (if ever!), and share a few resources that exist to help you out as a poet. Ugh! I feel like a dream-crusher, but there is a pandemic, and to tell you otherwise feels wrong. That's the bad news.
The good news is I'm trying my best to start from the very basics. Most forms of recognition for writers come without a dollar amount attached, and most poets are hustling at many other jobs to make this work. (If you knew this already, great. Today's post may be redundant for you, as it is mostly directed at those of you for whom this is new information.) There’s no shame in not having known! It's a major downer, and plus, the Internet is quite deceptive. (More on this later.) Writers go out of our way to avoid talking about money, because it is sad and life is precarious. I will try to put a small dent in the confusion and precarity today, but for some of you, this post might be more upsetting than the previous ones. Take breaks. I'll start us off with a quick non-horror story.
When I was the Writer-in-Residence for the Surrey School District a few years ago, I reserved the last ten minutes of each lesson for an “Ask Me Almost Anything” session, like on Reddit. I got so many wonderful questions: What do you do when writing feels hard? Do your parents read your writing? What do you do when you feel stuck? And I had one precocious student in particular, in an early class, who asked me what my “lifestyle” was like.
There was a tiny pause while the teacher and I looked at each other; this student was much too young be using “lifestyle” as a pejorative for "gay," and besides, the class already knew. After a quick moment I said “Do you mean like…in that one Future song? Like, what kind of car I drive and stuff?”
He was indeed wondering about how much money I made. (I shall treasure the look of relief on that teacher’s face forever; it was one of my finer interventions in the classroom. How do you do, fellow kids?) And it’s a sensible question, especially from a fourteen-year-old. So I told the class the amount of money I made at my nonprofit day job (it was about $50k, with dental and good benefits; never enough to cover therapy, but that's sadly normal), and the cost of my little carshare rental outside (it was about $70 a day), and then compared that to the amount of money I actually made from writing during the previous year (it had been an abnormally good year, maybe a thousand bucks). They were a bit aghast, and I was glad to hear it. I offered that information unprompted to all my students for the rest of the residency. I was hired in that district not just because of my writing, but also to do some proactive modelling as a mixed-race gay woman in the largest school district in the Lower Mainland. It felt wrong to stand in front of classrooms full of young people of colour and encourage them to pursue a career where they will not be able to reliably feed themselves or afford to look after their parents. It feels wrong to tell you otherwise, too.
Today’s post is not to say that poetry and money should be wedded together inseparably. I am not saying that capitalism is good. Quite the contrary. I am also not demanding that artists blithely disclose their income in the classroom like I did. This is absolutely not an effort to shame organizers, grantors or publishers. Please remember this is a series for emerging writers who have lost access to our typical mentorship environments due to COVID. I am already very nervous about this post because, what a time to be Jewish on the Internet, and now she's writing about money?! Tsk. I am saying that I want you to be able to go to the emergency dentist, and escape abuse of many kinds, and hug your grandchildren on the other side of the country after this horrible pandemic, and help your friends out when they have some sort of disaster, and participate fully in the arts for a long, long time. Right now, all those things require money. I would like to spare you, readers, moments of crying at the bank because even though something really good happened in your writing life this month you are somehow still going to be a bit short on rent, and you don't understand how this is possible. Here's why.
No One Is Coming & It’s Not Your Fault
If you feel like you are missing something because you are not making money from your poetry, you aren’t doing anything wrong. It has nothing to do with the quality of your work. No one will pay you an hourly wage or an annual salary in Canada for writing poems. Not me. Not someone famous. Not someone who seems rich to you. If you are wondering why a magazine or a university or a press hasn’t approached you to write poems in exchange for a regular wage and benefits, it’s because that does not happen. Let yourself be sad about this if you’re sad! There is nothing wrong with not having known this. How would you have known? For those of you who are emerging poets with many years of another career under your belt, please consider this before you leave anything that might be sustaining you and the people you love.
But Leah, you might say, I can hack it. I grew up with nothing and I'm used to living on even less. I believe you, and I trust that you can stretch that dime. The problem with writing is not the amounts of money. The problem that you might not be prepared for is the frequency with which you are paid. What?!
Poets (and freelancer writers in many genres, for that matter) are paid in chunks of money that are extremely irregular. The money is not delivered until after you are published, or after you perform, and can sometimes take between one to six to eight months to arrive. Why?! Who can live this way?
First of all, no one—unless you have another income stream or had a huge safety net to begin with. As for the why: because most of the money in the arts in Canada comes from a granting cycle that delivers money about once a year; because publishers have rigorous schedules about when they issue royalties; and because universities and non-profits have an absolutely labyrinthine bureaucracy that relies on cheques and usually prohibits e-transfers. (Aforementioned beloved Amber Dawn had a great thread on this recently on Twitter for folks who work in higher ed who are trying to pay artists on time.)
This is obviously not good. But it is real, and I want you to understand that it isn’t your fault, or because your work isn’t ‘good’ enough. No one is coming! Or, they’re coming to publish your writing, but it’s not coming with a liveable wage. (Incidentally: I've always heard that the expression "no one is coming" originates from our similarly long-suffering friends in the dance community, but if you have another sense of the source, do let me know.)
Instagram Is Lying to You & Your Brain
The reason I feel so strongly about creating this post for you is because the Internet has made it easier than ever to fool ourselves into believing that other people are indeed making a sustainable living off their art. Social media for writers is like social media for everyone else in your life: you are probably seeing the highlight reel. (I know many people are trying to destigmatize this - myself included - but I also think the highlight reel is fine a lot of the time. You don’t actually know most writers personally, so you are not entitled to details. Remember the details are probably in their art, and not on socials.) Please don’t torment yourself because someone has better tools, or more windows in their apartment and thus better lighting, or more friends who are photographers. You can still be a successful poet without a slick grid or whatever it is you’re envying; remember my earlier post. You will help yourself and others sleep at night by learning to differentiate between receiving recognition, creating a good online presence, and being paid.
Unfortunately, in this genre of writing in particular and in Canada, you really can get a lot of recognition and public attention without any money. This includes awards. (Did you see someone win an award that comes with money? That money probably went to pay off debt.) Depending on who you are, this might be extremely confusing not only for your family—you got this big award and for what? It may also confuse the people at your other job. I once had a client Google me and say “If this is you, then why do you work here?!” The answer was dental.
If it looks like someone is able to be an artist full-time, they are probably being paid by a residency, or temporarily living off a Canada Council grant, or they have a teaching job, or just not telling you where they work. All of this is fine, and the latter is the most likely. This is not necessarily information that you are not obligated to have access to. In some cases, it may also be that people are independently wealthy, or are supported by their partner. You have no way of knowing for many, many reasons. Don’t be hard on yourself. If you are hooked on getting a residency or a teaching position for “the security,” please remember that these are not the university jobs of yore. They may not in fact be secure at all; there might not be any benefits or any pension, and the programs can be cut at any time. I know! I’m sorry; I hate it too. Talk to someone who is an adjunct before making any sudden moves.
The Readings Might Actually Cost You
But Leah, if people have a lot of events on the go, aren't they being paid for those events? Not necessarily, and not usually proportionately to the work required by the event. The money that pays people for readings (when they do pay) is usually coming from the same limited, once-a-year pool. After you perform at a couple of events and get your feet under you, it might help you to start doing a cost-benefit analysis. Does that term freak you out? If so, forget I said it, and think of this instead as “figuring out if this reading will cost me.” If an event is going to cost an expensive transit fare, or make you take a whole vacation day from your day job, or be about a subject that is so activating you will likely require a therapy appointment afterwards, it might be useful for you to pause and do some math. Does transit fare + therapy cost + lost vacation day = reading fee? If not, decide accordingly. You might also factor in how badly you want to perform, how big the audience will be, if you will meet someone extremely cool that you admire, and if it’s a good or bad month for groceries. There is nothing wrong with saying no because you actually can't afford to do the reading or it will hurt you.
A Few Resources, With Gratitude
That was a lot of bad news at once. Let's talk about some of the structures that exist to support you. Look into some of the grants and professional memberships that are available to you depending on your genre and your province or territory. See if there is a way to offset the cost of the membership fees if you can’t afford it; you can write the fees off on your aforementioned taxes, and there is also usually a waiver program for people in financial need. (Thank you so much for the waiver programs, folks!) The Writer’s Union and the League of Canadian Poets both have programs that can pay you, retroactively, for events where you read. They can also help you track down money you are owed, support you if someone steals your work, help you set your fees, and connect you programs in schools and with other writers in your region.
Taxes! Everything I ever learned about writer taxes I learned from Billeh Nickerson when he was a guest speaker in one of my MFA courses. Thank you so, so much, Billeh! Everyone please order his new book. Taxes are unexpectedly kind of a good thing for writers. (Except for the part where they are tool of the colony, and require math.) You can claim a lot of poetry things as expenses on your taxes. That means if you had to spend money on things like books, or printing, or workshop fees, or cab fare (remember our good friend cab fare?!), for your work as a self-employed poet, you can get some of this money back at tax time. I do not trust myself to do this accurately and without crying uncontrollably about the math, so I pay an accountant and I try to be good about keeping my receipts in separate envelopes (“cab fare,” “books,” “food at events”, “library printing costs”) in a special drawer. That is my elaborate system. Behold, my many secrets.
Similarly, in More Things I Learned from Billeh (did I mention that you should order his new book?): If you have at least one book in print, register for the Public Lending Rights program, which will send you a cheque based on the presence of your book in the library system. Put the deadline for the program in your Google Calendar and set it to remind you a week in advance every year. (There is also usually a joyful chorus on Twitter to remind you.) If you have at least one book or other published work in print, consider signing up for the Access Copyright Payback program, which will send you a cheque based on an estimate of how many times your work was probably photocopied. (My apologies to PLR and Access for my truly gross oversimplification of your extremely important programs.) This money really adds up the more you publish and usually arrives in the spring, which is an expensive time of year and you’ll be glad for it.
Everything That Makes You A Good Artist Makes You Less Employable & Makes Work Weird
More bad news! I hate this so much. I feel awful telling you. I am pushing past it, because I want to prepare you for this next-level cognitive dissonance. Am I kicking myself for writing this, knowing it probably won’t help my own case? I am kicking myself so hard. Are all the ancestors yelling at me for making a shonda for the goyim? They are yelling at me so loudly. But here we go.
If you have an established mentor or savvy parents or are in an MFA program, they have perhaps done a very good job of telling you that if you’re not going to freelance in a viable genre other than poetry, you’ll need to focus on another career, in another industry, to support your writing. Indeed, I have just recommended this to you in paragraphs above. But it is important to me to emphasize this additional cautionary fact: so many of the things that make you a compelling artist will make you seem less employable and make your workplaces really weird at best or risky to you as a person at worst.
The first problem is that your life outside of work looks too exciting to people who are not in the arts, and that means they suspect you will eventually leave your day job. The second problem is that people have bad boundaries. They are going to lurk you beyond even a reasonable amount of contemporary lurking, and that will have consequences. I have approached every workplace with the benefit of the doubt and have then learned this the hard way so, so many times.
Perhaps this will sound naïve to you, in which case, congratulations on your prescience and/or I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll think, Horlick, what do you mean you didn’t understand there would be consequences? Listen. I have worked since I was a teenager. I was prepared for the necessity of working full-time in another field. I was game to have a fulfilling, if not financially sustainable artistic life, and I was prepared as you can ever be to deal with harassment in the workplace. What I was not prepared for was how the harassment and the consequences scaled according to how things were going with my writing. I was not prepared for things like winning an award for my book on surviving an extremely stigmatized form of abuse, and then enduring a two-step formal disciplinary process on the job because someone thought my day job itself, supporting abuse survivors, was now a conflict of interest. (Yes, I grieved it.) Or the boss who loved having an out, lesbian artist on staff but had a breakdown in the office after the annual holiday party, terrified that everyone somehow thought I was her partner. (Don't flatter yourself, lady.) I was not prepared to be brought to the interview stage of a recruitment process, only to be humiliated about how my Twitter feed had already jeopardized the success of the interview. I was not prepared for jealousy from management (why aren’t you writing our grants?!), or for the shop steward who told me that since I had written a book about experiencing violence, people actually were entitled to ask me questions about my personal experiences on the clock. (He’s wrong, by the way.) I had read entire books on how to keep your day job from sabotaging your writing time, but nothing about the writing sabotaging your day job. (Of course, it’s not the writing. It’s a horrible series of intersecting forms of discrimination that disproportionately impact some people over others. But you know what I mean.)
Ok, Horlick, why didn’t you just keep your mouth shut about writing at work? Looking back, sure, I might have left a few things off my resume, and told a couple more people to buzz off sooner rather than later. But at a certain point a person needs to ask for time off for book tour or a big event, or that notice about your award runs in the newspaper, or some man will merely Google you because he has no life, and by that point the jig is up. This exceeds the bounds of any personal responsibility; this is about the rise of the cursed “personal brand,” the burden of respectability on young women of colour and queer and trans people, the collapse of full-time permanent positions and job security, and other erosions of the labour movement in this country.
Sure, some writers might never encounter trouble on the job like this, but many of you will have even a much harder time than I described above. There is truly so much working against emerging artists who have to maintain some vestige of professionalism to make a living: all that social media you might feel pressured to use publicly; the algorithms that prioritize photos of your face and body but also shadowban you; the likelihood that you will be both hired as a token and then punished by The Chart; the high level of public vulnerability expected from an audience; the concept of professionalism itself. For more on this by people far wiser and established than me, buy My Art Is Killing Me by Amber Dawn and check out the Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living anthology edited by Manjula Martin.
Only you can decide how to approach this and only you can anticipate—to the best of your ability, and imperfectly—how this might affect you in whatever your other career(s) might be. I went back to school and started a business to try avoid this kind of trouble in future, but some days it still really hurts. I hope you will talk to people you trust about how this impacts you individually, and ask for help when you need it. Remember my previous post about online safety. Don’t be afraid to block now and save yourself trouble later. Take breaks and lock your accounts down if you need to. Get the health care. Get your money. We’ll be here for you when you’re able to resurface. Writing will be there for you later, too.
If Somehow None Of This Applies To You And You Are Feeling Guilty for any reason, as a result of today’s column:
Here is a short list of proactive things that you could consider doing! These will be much more useful than beating yourself up, subtweeting, writing a long Facebook post, or apologizing to no one in particular. This is a non-exhaustive list! Ultimately your community will advise you far better than me, so follow their lead.
- Buy a lot of books! Buy so many books, please. From people in your community, from an independent bookstore, and the books I have linked in this post.
- Give some money away. Is there a reading series that couldn’t pay their contributors this year or lost out because of the pandemic? Is there a magazine that lost their funding? Does someone need their legal fees covered? How about a bail fund?
- Perhaps you can’t give any money away. I get it! Do you have other skills or resources that could be supportive of your community when we can get together in person again? Can you build a safe, best practices-compliant wheelchair ramp for your local low-cost venue? Do you have a driver’s license and a car or a carshare membership? Can you offer people rides to and from events? Can you stick around to stack chairs? (Honestly, I will always remember the people who stayed to stack chairs at REVERB. You made the world go ‘round. Thanks, friends.)
- Maybe you can’t give any money away, and your skills are spoken for. That's fine! Can you make some thoughtful interventions, or perhaps say something when you see something? Maybe you could be the person to say “I will front the money so we can pay the elder for the traditional welcome in cash,” or “Surely we can find a venue without so many stairs. Would it help if I checked out some other options?”
- Ok, so you can’t give any money away, and your skills are spoken for, and you’re not positioned to intervene at the moment. I hear you! One other thing you could do is to request books by new, local, and marginalized writers at your library. Librarians are amazing and busy and not every book that comes out each season is immediately put on order. There’s typically a form on the library website you can find and fill out with the desired book’s information, and you usually have a select number of books you can request each month.
Are you ready for some more good news? Probably, after all that! Here it is: I front-loaded all of the difficult, potentially dream-crushing but hopefully protective, future-sustaining information in this residency. This concludes the very challenging posts! Next week we'll talk to artists in other genres about transferable skills, focus on playing to our strengths to cope with all the administrative work required of you, and get into our bodies a little bit. The last two weeks of posts are lighter and very applicable despite the pandemic. If you've stuck with me thus far, I'm very grateful to you, and I'm so looking forward to continuing our discussions next week. I'll see you on Monday, and hopefully also Monday night at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon, for the closing night of my virtual book tour for "Moldovan Hotel."
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leah Horlick is a writer and poet who grew up as a settler on Treaty Six Cree Territory & the homelands of the Métis in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her long-awaited third collection of poems, "Moldovan Hotel," is available now from Brick Books. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), was named a 2016 Stonewall Honour Book by the American Library Association. She is also the author of wreckoning, a chapbook produced with Alison Roth Cooley and JackPine Press. She lived on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver for nearly ten years, during which time she and her dear friend Estlin McPhee ran REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. In 2016, Leah was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. In 2018, her piece "You Are My Hiding Place" was named Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year. She lives on Treaty Seven Territory & Region 3 of the Métis Nation in Calgary.