How do you pay the bills and write full-time?
You’re not the only one wondering how to earn an income while writing, advancing feminist causes, and taking on side gigs. It’s a delicate balance for us all, and that includes role models like feminist poets and activists Pat Parker and Audre Lorde. Of course, they weren’t broadcasting their budgeting issues and fear of failure. They were confessing them privately, in letters to each other that spanned their 15-year friendship.
Pat Parker's letters from the 1980s show that she was worried about money, her career path, and even time management, just like all of us.
Julie Enszer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently edited Lorde and Parker’s collection of letters into a book called Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974 - 1989. Writers, feminists, and multi-passionate women will find so much value in the book -- especially when it comes to Pat Parker’s decision to leave her job at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center and pursue writing full-time. (You know how much I love feminists taking ownership of their careers!)
On Pat Parker's Decision to Quit Her Job
As Parker tells Lorde, “I’ve never had the opportunity to write full time and that has me jumping up and down,” and she announces her decision excitedly in a letter dated November 13, 1985:
“I informed the women at the Health Center that I am leaving effective January 1st. I am going to come home to my machine and do what I’ve always wanted. Write. I’ve talked this over and over with [my partner] Marty and she is being absolutely wonderful and supportive. She’s helping me compile a mailing list to try and get readings to supplement my income and we’ve worked out a budget and looked at where we can cut back and cut out and off to make it, so that the pressure of earning money isn’t so great that I have to spend all my time hustling gigs and still not get the writing done...”
What I love is that Parker brings up such a common conundrum for creative freelancers. She knows she should diversify her income (i.e. earn money not only through her writing, but also by giving public readings of her work), but she’s weary of supplementing her earnings to such an extent that she sells away all of her time.
Even though Parker has a lot of clarity around her priorities -- writing first, all else second -- she still struggles to motivate herself, as I imagine most freelancers do. She joins a softball league and then gets caught up in some issues at the Health Center after she quits, because she doesn’t want the last eight years of her life working there to go to waste. Meanwhile, her ‘80s-era computer “smiles and winks” at her… but she can’t seem to get the work done.
Audre Lorde tells it to Parker straight:
“You don’t want to tie yourself with so many gigs you don’t have good solid time to stare at the walls and read the words stitched into the cracks between the nail holes.”
Her advice is timeless.
On Financial Independence as a Driving Force
Ultimately, what gets Parker into her studio to write is her fear of being economically dependent on her partner Marty. Parker writes to Lorde about how uncomfortable she is being economically dependent on Marty. She says she feels like she’s “being kept.” Her drive for financial independence is the force behind her progress, more so even than her fear of failure. And yes, she’s afraid of failing:
“I’m so pumped up from the excitement that my confidence is soaring, but still have the other voice that says “what if?” Working full time at the Health Center has always been a built-in excuse for not producing.If I fall on my ass, I’m not real sure how I’ll handle it.”
How does she make sure that she’s building a structure she can support? She treats her freelancing like a business. Parker writes:
“I’m reading everything I can find in the library about starting a small business and taxes, and agents and markets. I would be really appreciate if you could tell me everything you think I need to know around any of these issues…Promoting myself has never been one of my strong points, and I know I’ll have to do a certain amount of it to make this work.”
I wish I could reach through the book and high five her!
How awesome is it to hear about an esteemed literary figure assessing her strengths and weakness as a free agent, asking for help navigating the industry, and researching best practices about small businesses?
In my experience, most successful writers and creatives obscure the work they’ve done on their careers to make it seem like they’ve effortlessly succeeded in their careers. It’s really inspiring that Parker, a revered poet, was so transparent about her efforts to build a financially viable future for herself.