Money, Money, Money

It’s flattering when folks learn you’re a writer and assume your income is in the Dan Brown league. Reality is another story, as featured author Ann Chandonnet explains.

In my second blog post, “Make It New,” I didn’t mean to say that I would not like to make money as a writer. I’ve been writing since I was ten years old, writing seriously since I was sixteen, and freelancing on-and-off for nearly forty years. I sharpened my pen writing food articles for a California weekly, a California women’s magazine and The Greatlander (an Anchorage shopping tabloid). For ten years (1972-1982), I stayed home with my two sons. During that time I wrote food columns for the Anchorage Daily News. Later I wrote a travel column for the ADN, and then a children’s book review column. I did a few things for the Kodiak Fish Wrapper and Litter Box Liner, and eventually settled into a “Frontier Fare” column for Alaska magazine. Whenever possible, I recycle, and I wrote some of the “Frontier Fare” columns with the aim of putting them into a food history of the West Coast gold rushes. That food history is Gold Rush Grub—my first book with a university press.

All these dribs and drabs of freelance work did not amount to a whole lot of cash. But since I had no full-time job for ten years, and only a few adjunct faculty jobs in the evening (one at the Eagle River prison), even $35 meant something to me. Here’s an example: One day my older son decided to play with my manual typewriter. He couldn’t be persuaded it wasn’t a toy. With my next $35 from an Alaska wild edibles piece, I bought him a Big Wheel. I carefully explained that my work on the typewriter had generated this toy. Taking that to heart, my acquisitive boy no longer played with the typewriter.

I’m retired from the job market now, but when I was still a player in that arena I planned to write books that would help finance my retirement. One of them was the Alaska Heritage Seafood Cookbook. I figured that I could write a classic, and it would sell for twenty years or more, buying me the occasional day in Tuscany. Although it treats Pacific fish only, Seafood received sixteen positive reviews from all over the United States, several of them raves such as, “Of all the books about seafood published this year, this one stands out…”

But the best laid plans of writers oft go astray. I never imagined that the publisher of Seafood would decide to let it go out of print—especially after a year in which sales were up!

Before Seafood, I wrote a children’s book that is used by the Anchorage School District as a supplement to its unit about Athabascan Indians. That book, which you have probably never heard of, is Chief Stephen’s Parky. It’s historical fiction, detailing a year in the subsistence lifestyle of the only Athabascans to live on Cook Inlet, a year when thousands of prospectors arrived. I sold the rights twice; the second publisher is no more, and the first publisher doesn’t advertise. Need I say the book got great reviews? Did I say that it took me seven years to find the first publisher?

Yes, it would be nice to make a living wage as a writer. But I confess that I would be writing if I never made a cent. I enjoy writing. It’s my bliss. I decided to pursue poetry when I was sixteen, knowing even then that it would be unlikely that I could make a living at it.

I have a basic drive to express myself in words. I believe some painters would paint even if they never sold a canvas. That’s the kind of artist I am.

I consider myself a literary artist. No one could possibly disabuse me of that belief. Once I described a poem, in a poem, as “An interoffice memo you hope reaches the right desk.” I am compelled to write that memo even if it is never read. The value of the memo to me is that I put something elusive down precisely, and that if I re-read the memo—even ten years from now—it will mean the same thing.

Each artist has to decide how important remuneration is. When my kids were growing up, I wanted to be able to buy Big Wheels and snow tires and the occasional meal of steak and merlot. I wanted to save all their dividends for their college tuition.

My sons are grown. I still like a glass of wine, and now I’m stockpiling Big Wheels and wonderful books for my granddaughters. But I’ve trimmed my jib to fit my talent, and I’m happy working on projects that may not yield a month in Tuscany.

1 thought on “Money, Money, Money”

  1. Nice posting, Ann. Though I didn't notice my "calling" as a writer until I was nearly 30, I can identify with much of what you express, especially the perspectives on freelancing (which I've done since 1992, YIKES!). Being a freelancer who lives in Alaska and works primarily in the genre of nature writing, I learned early on that I would have to work hard to eke out a living. But like you, I've come to the conclusion that writing would be a big part of my life even if I no longer could make "a living wage." It's become that important to me. I guess I too am a "literary artist," though I generally think of myself simply as a writer. It's a great way to make a living and also to be in this world. Thanks again for your reflections.
    p.s. to others who might read this. Ann and I both worked at The Anchorage Times when it wasn't an especially fun place to work, but we both loved the opportunities our jobs provided. I think that was true for Ann; definitely true for me.

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