How One Alaskan Has Made a Living as a Writer: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

Occasionally, people congratulate me for beating the odds and making my living as a writer. It used to be that I’d try to explain that while I indeed wrote, and have had some success, earning money was more complicated than that, and I wasn’t exactly “making my living as a writer.” Now, when people congratulate me, I’ll usually just nod, say thank you, and go about my way. But ever since I’ve had a memoir come out about my work as a touring artist, I’ve been tempted to answer my well-wishers by showing them a copy the book and suggesting they buy it, and then read it. That would answer what kind of living I make, and more.

Last week I wrote about how I got started writing poetry. Here’s some more of my background as a writer. Between 2000-2006, I had six full-length poetry collections come out. In 2008, I had the memoir. And in 2009, a children’s book. Since 1990, I’ve had over 400 poems and stories in literary journals. While the first two books went into second printings and the children’s book is soon to be reprinted, they were all published by small presses in runs of between 1,000 and 2,000 copies. The past eleven years, my eight books have sold, at most, maybe 6,000 copies. Then, because my CDs include poetry, I’ll add 8,000 CD sales (the music sells better than the poetry and prose, but once you include those sales, I’m no longer just a writer, but a writer and musician).

Here’s some of what I mean about making a living doing this work. First, subtract the costs of buying copies from the small presses which published my books, and the cost of manufacturing and marketing the self-released CDs. What you come up with is little more than gas money for the past decade, plus a few motel rooms. But that’s hardly the whole story. Late 1994, when I moved to Juneau after an illness necessitated a leave of absence, then resignation, from a tenure-track job in Nome—a time I touched upon last week—I started landing occasional jobs as a visiting artist in schools. Though I wasn’t on the officially approved state roster for teaching artists, I did have an MFA, had taught writing in various settings in Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Nome, and Bering Straits villages, had poems and stories in over a hundred journals, and could also play fiddle. The next three years I spent weeks hosted by the Bering Straits School District, Lower Kuskokwim School District, North Slope School District, as well as in other schools in other districts throughout the road system. I didn’t get everywhere, but I did get to a fair number of places, including up and down the I-5 corridor on my trips South. As I continued this work, my fees rose from $250/day to $500/day and up. Though I didn’t have any published books when I began, I’d started to self-publish chapbooks, eventually self-publishing 26 of them, which I could sell. That gave me some of the skills I needed to record and manufacture two solo cassettes (which gave me the skills to eventually record CDs).

Though I was making money, I wasn’t making enough. It was only my 1996 plane crash, which slowed me down for months and which led to a 1997 settlement, that bailed me out. The settlement wasn’t huge, but it erased my debt, and gave me a second chance. In 1998, I moved to Anchorage. It made no sense to live in Juneau when I rarely worked locally.

By the time my first book and first CD came out in spring 2000, I’d started going to conferences with acronyms like AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and names like Folk Alliance (an organization for musicians and others involved in folk music-related enterprises) and Arts Northwest (an organization that facilitates a process where presenting organizations in the Pacific NW can meet artists and agents).

Of course, attending those events cost money. Sometimes those expenses could be met, in part, through Career Opportunity Grants from the Alaska State Council of the Arts. (Virtually every state has resources to enable emerging artists to attend.) Other times, I’d pay the full cost, which could be expensive, so I tried to arrange paying jobs around the conference participation.

There were obvious benefits in attending these conferences, which is why I’ve continued to attend some of them for years. I might meet someone who would hire me to come to their community, a job which might then lead to an additional job or two. Still, even if no work directly came from attending, I’d meet colleagues, and at the very least we’d exchange information. Along the way, I picked up my first $1,000 job, then my first $1,500 job. Once my first book and then first CD came out, my opportunities increased.

I’m writing this post on Saturday, April 2, 2011, and am several days ahead of deadline because I’m soon to go on tour. Friday, April 8, I’ll be at a boarding school in south central Pennsylvania, where I’ll visit three English classes, meet with interested students and faculty, and perform for the whole school, an audience of approximately 500. The next day, joined by an accompanist, I’ll play music and be interviewed on a popular Pittsburgh radio program, and then we’ll do two short sets at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. The next day, my accompanist and I will be driving to western Maryland for a two-day residency at Frostburg State University. There, we’ll visit three local schools, visit a juvenile detention center, do a show on campus, and another at a nearby arts center. A few days later I’ll fly to Juneau to do two short sets and offer a workshop at the Alaska Folk Festival. Then I’m off solo to Southern California for a week of school outreach visits facilitated by Whittier College. The end of the month I’ll spend three days in Phoenix, joined by another accompanist. We’ll offer workshops and performances at the The Musical Instrument Museum, then head to Flagstaff to do a concert at someone’s house. After a month off from the touring, in early June I’ll fly to Denver to begin five weeks of Colorado jobs, including twenty-five library shows. When I leave Colorado, I’ll fly to Louisiana for a few days of work.

These next round of jobs have all come my way through various means, the majority through attending conferences. Based on past experience, maybe I’ll sell $2,500 of books and CDs at these events. I’ll earn approximately ten times that, though, through the appearances.

Some seasons I’ve earned more. Some I’ve earned (far) less. It would be great to make my living as a writer, getting paid to write books that sell in quantity, the income augmented by winning contests and grants. But that’s not how it’s worked for me. Yes, I’ve written books. But I earn money because I can also teach writing, play fiddle, and have put myself in position to meet people with budgets who, in theory, should be interested in someone with my mix of talents.

The longer I do this, the more I know, which makes this path both easier, and more daunting. I’m not so much writer, as perpetual job-hunter who has happened to have written books. There’s never a shortage of people to contact, whether to pick up a gig at a bookstore, reading series, concert series, or festival, or to get a manuscript read by an agent, editor, or publisher. But virtually all of those people are already inundated with requests. Having the books and CDs is all well and good, as is a relatively full touring schedule and the ability to sell approximately a thousand books and CDs a year. But so far all that hasn’t helped me find homes for the yet-unpublished manuscripts: the four more poetry collections, the second memoir, the long-completed short story volume, the Alaska-set novel.

I’ve been doing this long enough, and have had enough positive feedback over the years, to know that, at least in my case, publication isn’t so much about the quality of the work as about persistence. If I’d have quit after the earlier rejections, none of my books or CDs would have existed. And without the books and CDs, I couldn’t possibly have continued touring. My life would have been completely different. Maybe I’d have written more. Probably I’d have written less.

For years now, the greatest challenge has been finding time for an ever-expanding list of writing projects. It’s in the writing, and living a life that’s dedicated to the writing, that there’s the greatest satisfaction and reward.

2 thoughts on “How One Alaskan Has Made a Living as a Writer: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman”

  1. Thanks, Ken,
    I think it's always edifying to see the actual nuts and bolts work that an artist does in order to live the life. You sure do get around! Enjoy Folk Fest in Juneau.

  2. Love this with a caveat: women + kids + earning a living to support a family + women generally burning the candle at both ends = lots of unfinished writing projects, fewer options for cobbling together a living that includes writing (travel is way more challenging, for instance). Still, an inspiring post, but not a reality for everyone. Grateful for women writer sorts of retreats and workshops.

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