Andromeda Romano-Lax | Investing In Yourself as a Writer

The wonderful new web design here  at 49 Writers prompted me to wonder what Deb and I were blogging about way back when it started, to see whether thoughts from 2008 still ring true today. As it happens, one of my first dips into the memory pool took me to a post during dividend time 8 years ago—perfectly timely this week, when many of you will be planning on how to spend the windfall. I myself haven’t received a check in several years. Especially this fall, when funds are tight, it pains me!

Still, I can hope for other windfalls: IRS returns, royalties. And the question is still valid: what’s the best way to spend them? Here’s what I wrote eight years ago…

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 – 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. 2016 update: I now have an MFA and I teach in an MFA program. I still think it’s possible to organize your own DIY MFA at a fraction of the cost.

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.) 2016 update: I now believe this is the very best money you can spend! Go away or plan a writing staycation once or twice a year. You’ll never regret it.

$1000+ .
Laptop. Again, I was one of the last people to buy a laptop, and I love it. (2016: Oh my God! I didn’t own a laptop eight years ago? How the world has changed! Couldn’t bare to delete this anachronism.)

A website. They’re expensive (2016: not anymore!), 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. (2016 update: Yup. It’s true. Two kids, one done with college and one just starting. Both received lots of scholarships. I’m absolutely certain foreign travel helped. Don’t feel guilty about spending your PFD to better educate your children. The ROI is huge.)

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. (2016: after 20 years of waiting, finally did it!) 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?

1 thought on “Andromeda Romano-Lax | Investing In Yourself as a Writer”

  1. Hi Andromeda! I have done some of the things you suggested, and agree it’s worth it. One more to add to the list: I went on a shopping spree at Value Village and bought some “author outfits” to wear to book readings and such. It was only about $50 and gave me a big morale boost to think of how professional I’ll look at those events. 🙂

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