Author and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed is doing pretty well for herself now, but she tells the explicit story of falling down a financial hole to get there.
Vulture shared an interview by Manjula Martin, excerpted from her new book Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living. If you are a writer or artist, then making a living is often a secondary challenge to making your work. Strayed’s narrative is either comforting or terrifying, depending on if you see huge commercial success at the end of your journey. Strayed says she received an unusually high advance in 2003 for her first book, Torch, but the money was heavily taxed and distributed over 4 years. She says she had also accrued $50,000 in debt to write the book in the first place:
So I sold my book for $100,000, and what I received was a check for about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the IRS. Don’t get me wrong, the book deal helped a lot—it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off. So, I guess it was a humbling lesson!
Strayed says that her family qualified during this time for food stamps, but she refused to apply for them because of a somewhat weird delineation between different kinds of poverty:
I grew up poor, and I did get food stamps as a kid, so there was a sense of shame about it. And I also acknowledged that we were poor by choice. Here we were, two people with master’s degrees, choosing to keep faith with our art, and because of that we were poor. That’s different from being poor—really poor, actually poor. And I know that because I came from those people. And I just couldn’t take in that way from our society.
At the end of the day, if I had really needed to get a job that paid the bills, I could have. And I always chose not to, because I wanted to write. So I didn’t feel entitled to public assistance.
It was in 2009 that Strayed sold Wild for $400,000. At the time, Strayed says she was about $85,000 in debt and about to lose her house. The book debuted number 7 on The New York Times bestseller list, but in April 2012, when it had been out a month, her husband called her on tour to let her know the rent check had bounced. She didn’t receive her first royalties for Wild until January 2013.
Strayed says the only difference between who she was then and now is how she is able to buy things for herself without stress, which is actually a pretty huge difference if you’ve ever experienced that transition. She does acknowledge the privileges that make making art possible, though she claims not have had them earlier in her career, saying, “Here’s another thing that’s so interesting about money that people never talk about: there are all these invisible advantages and privileges people have. Parents who help out with a down payment, or a grandparent who takes the kids every Tuesday. Parents who pay for college. We didn’t have any of that.”