Investing in yourself as a writer

I was out of town last week when most Alaskans had their $3269 PFD/resource rebate check direct-deposited, so I missed the crazy crowds at Best Buy as people lined up to buy big-screen TVs. Other people paid in advance for the coming winter’s utility bills or donated to political campaigns.

Most years our newspaper is full of letters to the editor telling people how they should spend — or refrain from spending — their PFD. (For non-Alaskans reading this post, the dividend is what resident Alaskans receive each year, based on investment profits from the state’s oil-revenue savings account.)
I have my own suggestion for spending the annual windfall or any other kind of unexpected cash that comes you way: invest in yourself.

Every writer is a small business owner, who – no less than a restaurateur, say – may need to spend money for many years before breaking even. Spouses and friends may not understand, and even we writers have trouble giving ourselves permission, which is why I’m writing this. I can’t promise worldly riches will come your way, but I can promise you won’t go far or find satisfaction if you don’t treat your writing like a respectable investment.

For those of you who (like me) don’t have graduate degrees in writing: imagine how much an MFA would cost. Now take one-twentieth that amount and spend it on the resources you need now to learn to write better. This was an epiphany I had about three years ago, when I was tinkering with the MFA idea. It helped me feel more comfortable buying lots of reference books and literary magazines.
You don’t have to spend your whole PFD, of course, and with the economy floundering, plenty of us will want to hold on to all that we can. But here are some ideas on how to spend a little on yourself and your literary aspirations.

$10 range.
Off and on for years when I was trying to make it as a freelance writer, I bought myself a $5 batch of flowers each time I met some weekly wordcount-related goal. They wilted in about 5 days, so if I missed a week’s goal, there were wilted flowers on my desk. If the flowers stayed fresh-looking (thanks to regular replacements), I was truckin’. And yes, I did this for myself even when funds were extremely tight.
Other worthy expenditures: a gorgeous journal for logging books read or freelance submissions. A book mark or inspirational mug. (I used to have a mug that matched each book project I was working on at the time.)

$10 to $100.
The New Yorker. The Economist or the Atlantic. Poets & Writers (a good place to find grants and residencies). Orion. Smaller literary journals. Subscriptions are essential.

And how about giving yourself permission to stock your personal library more regularly? This may seem obvious, but I went years without buying books, even when it meant borrowing the same library copy over and over for research. Bad idea. Buy them, write in them, love them, pull them down again the middle of the night in search of that favorite quote; books are meant to be owned. Also, if you don’t buy books (including new hardcovers) who is going to buy yours?

A new door, to keep the kiddies out. For too long, I worked with children on my lap, or within hearing range, because my office was connected to the kitchen. An important stage in my career was the day I set up a physical barrier, thanks to Home Depot. My kids colored in a homemade sign for that door, with my encouragement: WARNING: HARDWORKING MOMMY ON DEADLINE.

Sound-cancelling headphones, for when the door still isn’t enough.

$100+ .
Screenwriting software. Each summer I toy with the screenwriting bug, and last year I treated myself to formatting software.

How about a more ergonomic office chair? I can’t believe I tortured my back all those years, thinking I didn’t deserve one because I worked at home. That’s nuts.

Conferences: I’ve spent hundreds, rather than thousands, by using frequent flier miles and sharing hotel rooms with strangers (met a good friend this way). Networking is so valuable.

Feel guilty running away from your sweethearts? Then send them on their own short adventure while you stay home and write. (I discovered this just this year; sent the family on a 36-hour fishing trip, ordered myself pizza, and finally broke through a difficult spot in my current project.)

$1000+ .
. Again, I was one of the last people to buy a laptop, and I love it. It enables me to work at local cafes, “my happy places,” and to bring novels-in-progress along to my kids’ various classes and lessons.
A website. They’re expensive, but nowadays, it’s hard to build a career without one. Potential interviewers need to find a way to reach you, and you’ll enjoy the reader letters that come your way. (Non-customized blogs, on the other hand, are free and insanely easy to set up and use.)

Research trips/Travel. Now we’re talking about my favorite expenditures, and the ones that non-writers might not understand. (Oh, a vacation? What about your kids’ college funds?) I traveled to California twice, and to the Sea of Cortez, to write one book. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Spain and France to write my novel. I traveled to Europe and the Middle East to write one of my current books-in-progress. Funny how I always seem to travel in October.

The first trips, in particular, wouldn’t have been possible without PFD help. It took a long time for the 1990s trips to pay back, but now they have. And what about the kids? Well, I take them with me. Have they learned anything from traveling to about 20 countries? Enough to earn a future scholarship or two, I bet.

Something I can’t afford now but hope to buy myself someday: Maid service, as a reward for publishing several more books. (Just once a month, please?) A research trip to Japan. (I’ve been trying to get there for 15 years.) A coastal cottage or cabin somewhere remote, which I promise to share with other Alaska writers needing solo writing immersions. We can all dream!

Does anyone else have a story to share about a great investment they made in their writing career?

3 thoughts on “Investing in yourself as a writer”

  1. re: “if you don’t buy books, who will buy yours?”

    amen!! if there’s any such thing as karma, and i ever published a book, it would sell 8 million copies 😉

  2. Re: book karma

    I guess people will only buy the paperback version of my book – used. Let’s see, 0.00 in royalties times thousands of used books equals… uh-oh.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for the comment, Moonrat, and to 49luddite — well shucks, if you can’t afford those hardcovers, maybe you just need a Title Wave book gift certificate. See my contest post for today (9/25) and scrawl me an entry. (Even if you don’t, I still appreciated your comment…)

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