"I sold my book for $100K and remember shrieking into the phone to my husband, “$100K!” ... But then my agent took 15% ... and I received a check for $21K a year over the course of 4 years ... 1/3rd of which went to the IRS." -Cheryl Strayed
Making money from writing is a notoriously difficult way to make money.
Elizabeth Gilbert (she of the fabulous books Eat, Pray, Love and Committed) had some interesting thoughts about money and here we focus on Cheryl Strayed (the author of Wild).
Cheryl had a very insightful conversation about money in the book Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Vulture synopsizes the interview and here are my favorite parts:
"I was paid a $100,000 advance for Torch, my first novel. It was November 2003, and I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts at a residency, and I distinctly remember yelling—shrieking—into the phone to my husband, “A hundred thousand dollars! A hundred thousand dollars!” And we were both just flipping out. We were like, Our life is changed.
First of all, you don’t just get a check for $100,000. You get four checks: one on signing, one on delivery—and that’s not just when you finish the draft, but after the editing process, when it’s going to the printer. I learned that lesson the hard way. And then you get another check on publication of the hardcover, and another check on publication of the paperback. So, I sold Torch in 2003. I got that first $25,000. My agent took fifteen percent, and then I had around $21,000.
So I sold my book for $100,000, and what I received was a check for about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the IRS. Don’t get me wrong, the book deal helped a lot—it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off. So, I guess it was a humbling lesson!
We almost lost our house before I sold Wild. I think we had about $85,000 in credit card debt by the time I sold that book. I can say that now because I don’t have any debt, but I was so ashamed of that.
We got into debt because by the time Torch was published, we had two kids under the age of two. So here I was, trying to write my second book with two babies, and we were just busting our asses. During those years we were spending more on childcare than I was making. And we would always be so broke and ashamed and putting things on the credit card. Really getting into trouble.
Here’s another thing that’s so interesting about money that people never talk about: there are all these invisible advantages and privileges people have. Parents who help out with a down payment, or a grandparent who takes the kids every Tuesday. Parents who pay for college. We didn’t have any of that. I also had student loan debt from my undergraduate degree that I finally paid off on my forty-fourth birthday, thanks to Wild.
I ended up selling Wild for $400,000 .... When I got my first check, and we spent it all on credit card bills ... We celebrated by going out and getting sushi. But our life didn’t change. We only got out of credit card debt. But it changed in that way, trust me. As anyone who’s been in severe credit card debt knows, it was a nightmare.
The only thing that’s changed is that I can pay my bills. I can afford to not be desperate anymore. I can buy boots not in thrift stores! But the culture and the community and the things I think about people and the world and the way I feel about myself and my family—none of that has changed one iota."
Who are you and how old are you?
I am a female in my early 40s working as a writer.
Tell me about your background.
I grew up in the Southern/Western region of the US and went to a top university on the West Coast where I got a BA and Masters in the mental health field. I was accepted into a top PhD program in the field but wasn’t sure if that was the right path for me. I went to my college career services office asking for help and was able to get a job as a management consultant. This was my first and only exposure to the business world. I enjoyed the work and really liked my colleagues but decided to transition out of the consulting industry.
I was then approached by someone in the medical profession who asked me to write a book proposal for an upcoming book he wanted to publish. I didn’t know anything about the book writing industry but my proposal was bought by a major publishing house (which is quite rare for both new and experienced writers) and the next thing I knew, I began working as a writer focusing on ghostwriting and freelance editing. I never dreamed about becoming a writer in any shape or form and thus felt like this career path really chose me. It’s an incredible fit for my lifestyle in many ways - I use my background in mental health for many of my writing pieces, I have total freedom in where I live and where I work, and I truly feel like every book is like getting a mini master’s degree. In the last five years I’ve really dove into blogging and have worked on honing my craft. I feel very lucky to be able to make a living through writing.
What does your financial situation look like? If you don’t earn money through a “normal job”, how do you support yourself?
I make money through my writing. I have never been in a position where I’ve made a huge salary but I don’t care about having a lot of money. I care about living a joyful life with my husband and travel. Just to be clear, writing is definitely not the best life if you want to buy a house and put money in your 401K. There’s very little stability and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Did you grow up with money? How did your childhood conditions about money affect how you behave?
I grew up in a middle class family. My mom worked in nonprofits and my dad was a public servant. They stressed that we should make enough money to get by but that it was also really important to give back to the world through community service. My upbringing had a lot to do with how I behave now - I believe in living a joyful life and giving back. It’s probably also why money is not at the top of my list!
Did your parents give you money when you were growing up? What about for school?
I did chores but didn’t get paid for it - my parents expected it from my brother and I. I did get a weekly allowance, however. My parents contributed some money when I went off to college but because they had two kids who went to top universities, it was a bit of a strain for them and I took on some financial aid. I paid for extra expenses and worked two jobs the whole way through college.
Do you still have school loans?
No - I was very diligent about paying off my loans every month and paid my last one when I turned 35!
Do you invest money?
I don’t invest or save money now. My husband and I had twins a year ago and those expenses (in addition to our nanny) has put a temporary halt on that. I was married once before to someone else who was quite wealthy. During our divorce, I got a small settlement but lost half of it in the 2008 market crash.
What does your family situation look like?
I’m married to my husband and we have twin babies. My husband works in the entertainment industry and lucky enough, is also able to work from wherever. We recently moved back to my hometown to be closer to my family who can help us with raising our twins.
Do you and your spouse/partner have similar financial habits?
We have very similar financial habits in the sense that money is not at the top of our priority list but I sometimes wish one of us were more financially conservative. When we had our twins, everyone asked us how our children would fit with our lifestyle but we’ve made it work.
Have you started to put money away for their college tuition? If so, how much is it?
Not at the moment. We spent a lot of money on getting pregnant and unfortunately had to pay for all that out of pocket. I joke that we spent their college fund on getting them here into the world!
How did your financial lifestyle change when you had children?
We moved to back to my hometown to save money. The rent is cheaper, and we receive a lot of help from my parents. We’re consciously trying to cut back and live a simpler life.
What was your most regrettable purchase?
I don’t really have any regrettable purchases because I’m not a big shopper. If I had to give an answer, I’d say buying a piece of clothing that I never wore. I’m very much a minimalist and don’t like the accumulation of stuff. Every once in a while, I’ll look at what I have and if I haven’t worn it in a year, I’ll give it away to Goodwill.
What was your best purchase?
My twins, my college degree, and money spent on travel.
Do you feel like you have a financial habit that’s out of the norm (or at least something that others have commented on)?
99 out of 100, my husband and I will choose travel over possessions. We believe in great and joyful life experiences.
Do you talk to your peers and family about money?
I just talk to my family and to my best friend.
In terms of money, what was something you did in the past that you could do differently?
I would have been a lot more conscious about saving money!
"When I was 8 or 9, my parents sat me down and drew a chart explaining how expensive college was, what % they would pay and how I'd have to make the rest of it myself. So by the time I was 9, I was already like, I've got to make some money."
I just came across a fantastic article on Wealthsimple where Andrew Goldman interviews Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) about money and how it plays a factor in her life.
I am a HUGE Elizabeth Gilbert fan. I love her books and love listening to her interviews. She is delightful, funny, smart, and very, very charming. I've been aware of her thoughts about money for a while since she has spoken honestly and openly about this in both Eat, Pray, Love and in various interviews. We have very similar thoughts about money and I personally relate to what she says.
Here are some of my favorite parts of the interview:
I've thought about money my entire conscious life. Both my parents had real anxiety about money. My mother grew up on a very financially strapped dairy farm in Minnesota, and every season her family wondered if they were going to lose the farm. So she developed a particular fear of debt and financial dependency, and a fear of raising a woman in the world who would not be able to take care of herself. So to me the message was: You have to find a way to support yourself in the world. We'll take care of you until you're 18, and then that's it; you're an adult. The biggest lesson of our childhood was frugality plus self-sufficiency.
When I was eight or nine, my parents actually sat me down and drew a chart explaining how expensive college was, and they explained what percentage they would be able to pay and how I would have to make the rest of it myself. So by the time I was nine, I was already like, Damn, I’ve got to make some money. Eat, Pray, Love definitely gave me a financial independence that very few creative people get to have. But it also came with a sense of great responsibility.
Rule number one for me was: Don't lose it; don’t pull a Mike Tyson. Don’t go crazy. There is no amount of money so huge that a person can't blow through it if they aren't thinking straight. I think I inherited in my DNA a deep constitutional fear of losing the farm, and every once in a while I still have to remind myself that there is no farm to lose.
Read the rest of the interview here!
What is this?
An anthropological look at how people think about money. Created and edited by Star Li.