The Maddening Math of Being a Writer

By October 2, 2012 no comments Permalink

As a creative person, I’ve always had a distaste for math. Me and numbers just never got along. If there was a numerical equivalent of dyslexia, I’d have it. Two times. I’ve often joked that my talents lie so heavily on the right side of my brain, my head tilts in that direction. Thankfully, I’ve not chosen the field of accounting (or comedy) for my profession. I’m, appropriately, a writer and teacher of English, though the irony of all this is that — despite my talents and effort — the numbers of my respective professions just don’t add up.

As a writer, I’m still fairly new at this (it’s a second career, after all), but I’m good. In the last five years, I’ve earned an advanced degree and written hundreds of thousands of words. My work is represented by a major literary agency. I’ve had two novels published as well as nearly 50 articles (also, like most writers, I have a hard drive bursting with work yet to see the light of day). The work that has been published has earned me an award, invitations to read at prestigious books fairs, book stores and universities, hundreds of rave reviews from journals and readers alike, and a tally of social media friends/fans/followers that well exceeds 10,000. You’d think that this type of accomplishment would come with some decent financial reward. Think again. If I divided the revenue earned by the hours I’ve spent both writing and promoting my work, it would come out to be somewhere way, way south of minimum wage. Forgive my French, but that’s fucked up.

Thankfully, I’m also a teacher. I work in both institutions of higher learning and the public schools of New York City. I’ve won two awards and have across the board rave evaluations from students and administrators alike. I happen to teach A LOT because I’m “part time” or an “adjunct instructor,” and the part-time/adjunct pay happens to suck. So, I work 12 months, at three different places, teaching seven to eight classes at a time (“part-time” my ass). There’s little overlap on the courses, so — yeah — I do a shitload of prepping. I also do a shitload of grading, not to mention a shitload of applying for full-time jobs. The type of job I’m looking for is your traditional faculty teaching position; you know, the ones at a single place with between two to four sections per semester, summers off, benefits, time for professional enhancement (i.e. writing), maybe the potential sabbatical someday. A job that pays more than what I currently make working (roughly) twice as much. In the past five years, I’ve applied for over 100 full-time faculty positions; I’ve had one interview. I know, being an English teacher in New York City is like being a songwriter in Nashville or an actor in LA. But still, teaching should trump waiting tables when it comes to pay. It doesn’t in this town.

I’m not alone. Everywhere I look I see both writers and teachers struggling to make a living. And for the writers, I’m not only talking relative newbies like me struggling mightily to break through, but established, critically-acclaimed writers wondering how in the hell are they going to survive? I don’t know what’s going on out there with the publishing industry or readers or both, but if writers can’t make a living, there’s not going to be very many of them left. The same goes for teachers. All this part-time madness can’t be sustained since throwing together three jobs (if you’re lucky enough to find three jobs) to make one living will result in burnout. The world does not need burned out teachers. Hell, even those I know working for the NYC Department of Education (with their so-called high salaries and other union benefits) are required to work far more hours, under incredibly difficult conditions, than could be considered fair. It’s grueling work, and I wonder what are the consequences in the classroom, and — like authors — what will happen to today’s teachers and from where will the next generation come?

I don’t need an accountant to tell me that the numbers just don’t add up.

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