Monday, April 23, 2012

On Bartending and Writing

When asked what other jobs they’ve had, novelists usually have an oddball list. They may dream of job security and a health plan by night, but by day they are seduced by interesting experiences, diverse characters, a bit of income, and the flexibility to write.

Most of my jobs have had to do with writing, though. Shame inspired me.

My first husband, Ron, a bar manager with a keen sense of what his time was worth in cash, called my writing my “volunteer work.” This maddened me because I was a newspaper dance critic and always paid—although at the peak of this career, writing some 50 articles per year, I managed to pull in no more than $2,500. My husband could make the bulk of that tending bar on New Year’s Eve alone.

To preserve my self-respect as much as to show Ron I could do it, I had to find a way to use my writing skills to bring in more respectable money.

So I started a desktop publishing business, producing newsletters, custom-designed written communications, and resumes for businesses and non-profits. I thrived on the diversity and flexibility of the work, as it allowed me to stay involved with my school-age sons while tucking in the laundry and other chores.

This flexibility proved vital to my family’s survival when, two years into this proud display of my writing’s worth, Ron committed suicide.

The work sustained me an additional six years
while I re-sorted my motivations and priorities. I had to maximize the use of my time—not just the hours in a day, but the days that would add up to my life.

Once remarried to Dave, who was more supportive, I felt called to a higher purpose with my writing.

First, I left the paper. After 19 years, I decided I wouldn’t write for such low pay any more. That worked well: I’ve basically written for free ever since, powering up new skills as a novelist.

Then, too distracted by its multitasking nature to write, I closed my business. I thought, with conferences and classes and concentrated effort, I could sell a novel within a couple of years. Who knew it might take ten years to get the agent that could usher me to the starting line of a paid career?

As the years dragged on it got harder and harder to look Dave in the eye. Yet I was so close I could taste success. I couldn’t quit now—but I had to find a way to fund what was now a serious writing habit.

Harnessing my analytical nature, the skills I’d honed as a critic, my love of (and two degrees in) teaching, my lifelong love of reading, and an intense self-education in story craft, I started, my developmental editing service.

Over the past six years, through editing, speaking, and hosting writing retreats for women, I've once again made money to support my writing—just not enough to impress my younger son. In his college application essay he cited both Ron and me as negative influences: he would never allow hidden financial woes to drag him into a life-ending depression, as he sensed happened with his alcoholic father, and he would never acquire a master’s degree and countless years of continuing education only to work for peanuts, like his mother.

Ah well, we can’t always control the ways in which we inspire our children to their own heights.

But I’m pretty sure he’s noticed one thing: turning long, dreaded hours into cash by serving cocktails did not sustain his father. I, on the other hand, do work that feeds my soul. Each afternoon I sit by a sunny downstairs window, nurturing the development of another writer, so I might earn the right to spend the following morning at the computer in my loft office, writing stories that inspire others to think about what makes life worth living. My writing uses every single one of my natural and developed talents. I feel plugged in.

Yes, I still make less than Ron did as a bartender, and yes, I hope that my agent can sell my book and that its sales will one day improve my lot.

But for me, the most important thing is that I love my life and I’m here to write about it—and that’s priceless.

What kind of odd jobs have you held to support your writing habit?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. Wow! An extraordinary essay, Kathryn, to which I can add admiration and nothing more.

  2. Thanks for sharing your take on the writing life and the force of creativity keeping us moving toward our goals because we love to pursue them. I struggle with that element right now. Close but no cigar doesn't pay for the writing, but the hubby is supportive most of the time. It's been 8 years. I have interest, but even that doesn't push me into the chair. The characters do that for me. Can't stop writing even if I want to -- it's in my blood.

  3. Christine: I would have loved to say I was rolling in the dough from my writing, but I had the sense that if I told the truth, others might relate. Thanks for your honesty!

  4. Heartfelt essay, Kathryn ... and I could relate to parts ... especially the part where you decided you 'wouldn't write for such low pay' ... I made that decision, too, and with same outcome.

  5. Thanks for sharing some important parts of your life with us, Kathryn. One thing's for sure - you're an excellent writer! Keep on doing what you love!

    I also love my work - nurturing authors to make their book the best it can be, and to improve their writing skills in the process. I find it very rewarding.

  6. I'm fortunate having been paid well enough for my artwork over the years, and my husband still does rather well as a liturgical artist. So I never came into writing with the idea of earning anything but a decent wage. But that for me is different from most folks. I'm a guerrilla environmentalist, so living the SMALLEST life I can and still being comfortable and happy is what I try to achieve. Making as MUCH money as possible doesn't work into that equation well, because the more we make, the more stuff we buy, and that is very, very bad for the planet and future generations, no matter how our society elevates the rich lifestyle as being the goal. Reality is reality. Wealth is consumptive. So my model is a bit different: do what I love and just make sure there's enough money to keep doing what I care about - which should involve creativity and not cars, houses, wardrobes, and the other trappings of mankind. Right? Kathryn, I encourage you to consider influence (power) over writers as part of your due. It's much cooler than money, and you already have a fan club that deeply respects you for your writing and expertise. Is it so bad to be a Merlin? I don't think so.

  7. Thanks, Kathryn, for sharing so openly about your journey. Once your memoir sells, I think you will find a lot more people who benefit from your insights.

    Dani, I so agree with your take, too. The more money one makes, the more one is supposed to "show" the world how successful they are.

  8. Kathryn, it's not too early to plan your blog book tour and line up reviews for your memoir. You know about Story Circle Book Reviews, right? We bate (or is it bait?) with waited breath. ;)

  9. Thanks, Christopher. That was the comic relief in this essay, but oh so true!

  10. Jodie: Thanks, nice to hear that you like my writing today, as the first rejections from publishers roll in through my agent. ;)

  11. Dani, I too have scaled downy life to fit my income. Suits me just fine, although affording more travel would be fun (sending my husband to his daughter's wedding in Hungary this June alone, for example). And I assume the jet will still consume its fuel whether I'm on it or not. :(

  12. Dani and Maryann: You two crack me up. Yes, it IS too soon to set up the blog tour for my memoir, and it's also too soon for it to be published—because it's not written! When I started to get action on the novel I set the projects aside, and am following up with another novel in case I'm so lucky to be offered that two-book deal.

    But it's nice to know I have such ardent fans for my memoir, when I get around to writing the second half. :)

  13. Kathryn,
    I love your honesty and your persistence. I've been writing since I could hold a pencil. It's in my blood, it feeds my soul, and it keeps me awake at night.

    For years I worked as a nurse with very little time to write. I enjoyed being a nurse, but my passion for writing always called to me. So, I hung up the RN credentials and now I write full time.

    I've made a little money at it--no where near a nursing salary, but I am happy. The lines are gone from my forehead, the bags under my eyes are no longer there, the bills get strung out a little longer, but I love my life.

    No one gets to tell another what to do with our passion. Some men fish, some women get their nails done, I write. So what if I'm wearing worn out pants and an old T-shirt. My happiness is at stake.

    Thanks for sharing.

  14. Thanks, Laura, for sharing your perspective. I have never in my life gotten my nails done, I've stopped coloring my hair, although—God forgive me— I did order a sweater today through Talbot's 90% off sale, because my "new" sweaters, I just realized, were eight years old!

    Sounds like you "get" me. Let's commiserate and lift each other up when the outside world bears down on us, okay?

    And Heidi: thanks!

  15. Wonderful essay Kathryn - keep plugging away. You are a fantastic editor and a great writer.

  16. Wow, thanks for stopping by, Janice! Anyone interested in thrillers should definitely check out the great interviews at Janice's popular blog, This Writing Life, at

  17. Kathryn, your story is both poignant and uplifting. I never had the courage to keep on writing in the same way you did. I worked for big companies until I was able to retire, then began to write seriously. The problem is, life is very short. We shouldn't postpone our dreams too long.

  18. Thanks, Pat. I can't lie, I often dream of some corporate giant looking at me and saying, "I think you are worth $75,000 per year to me, and I'd like to buy you health insurance as well!" It's hard always dipping into the well of self for some semblance of worth. But I feel certain it's what I have to do.


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