How do we measure success?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A friend of mine told me about a recent conversation she had with her husband which struck a cord with me. She is a published writer with a couple of books under her belt and, like me, she has young preschoolers. After spending a number of weeks in final editing mode, she had to work a couple of weekends straight leaving her husband in charge of the kids. He wasn’t, she told me, all that impressed about doing so and when she confronted him he said that while he was happy to help out he just hoped “she would be successful after all her hard work” (NB. The manuscript she was working on was not under contract). “Hmm…” she said, “But I thought I already was ‘successful’ – so far my books have been published!” Then she realized her mistake…what her husband was talking about, what for him was the true measure of success, was financial. He meant “let’s hope you finally make some money this time!”

When she pressed him further he basically said that he justified her staying home to write while he was the primary bread-winner on the basis that she was really a ‘stay at home mum.’ In other words, at least she was doing something useful – namely raising their children- while she tiddled around writing her novels. Okay, okay, I admit maybe I’m overreacting a bit:) but this started me wondering – if their roles had been reversed would the same be true? Would a women who was the primary breadwinner in the family supporting an author husband think the same way?

Given that a career in fiction writing rarely leads to financial success, how should we measure success for a writer? How should the financially supportive spouse view their ‘other half’s’ career? Is it merely a hobby until it earns real money?

Don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful to be financially supported so I can pursue my writing career – but like my friend I am also a ‘stay at home mum’ – my deadlines certainly get dropped if the boys get sick and, like every other working parent, I have to balance the demands of career and family – but does my writing qualify as a career or am I, like my friend, a financial drain until the writing can pay its way?

I’m throwing the debate wide open as my friend’s predicament certainly resonated with me, probably just as it would have in Virginia Woolf’s time when she argued for not only a room of one’s own but also income to support it. So how do other writers reconcile this issue? What do those who are the bread winners think?

27 thoughts on “How do we measure success?

  1. Hmmm…I am looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say on this.

    As a new guy in the writing thing I don’t really know what to expect. I just signed with a new agent (after the first retired 12 months into the deal and left me hanging). Will my “hobby” ever make enough money to justify the time I spend at it?

    My wife recently went from “stay-at-home-mum”/”homeschool-mum” to “working-mum”/”soon-to-be-business-owner-mum”. Will she take her new business as the sole-bread winner and support my writing habit or will I luck out and be able to support her new business venture when my new agent makes us rich? Or will I keep my day job forever and live as a government lackey with a time consuming hobby and a working wife and in ten years we both end up regretting not spending more time with our boys?

    Clueless and waiting for what the rest of the gang has to say. Tell me my future!

  2. Nice post, Clare. Sadly, most writers will never make enough money to support themselves. And those few who do will accomplish that goal for only one reason: luck. I don’t believe it has anything to do with quality of writing or amazing plots, commercial versus literary, publishers or advertising, marketing or distribution, book tours or fan clubs. I believe that it all boils down to being in the right place with the right book at the right time for the right audience. In other words, being very, very lucky. It may not seem fair, but nothing in the publishing business is.

    And for striving, hopeful writers who have a bread-winning souse encouraging them every step of the way, they should consider themselves among the most fortunate people on earth.

  3. I’ve been on both sides of this equation: as a house husband/struggling musician, and as the primary breadwinner while the wife was at home. I think the definition of success is context-sensitive.

    While success need not and should not be measured purely in terms of financial reward, the household bills still have to get paid. If one spouse stays at home to write/practice/sculpt and the other doesn’t make enough money for the family to stay solvent, it’s not the responsibility of the current breadwinner to make more money; the artists needs to find some way to chip in. There’s no shame in a day gig, especially if the day gig is raising the kids. (It doesn’t produce income, but saves a fortune, and is the most important job in the home.)

    Every situation will be different, as the proportions change.

  4. Great topic. When I left my career to write, I was the one feeling guilty for no longer bringing in a large salery. I transitioned to a small work-from-home job that covers some of my monthly expenses while pursuing my writing. My spouse remains extremely supportive. I am very lucky. With our first child on the way, I’m feeling less guilty about working from home which is a nice relief for me.

    Likely each situation will be different for each couple. Plus, given how unexpected life can be, a situation that initially worked for both parties may have to be reevaluated if changes in situations arise. Perhaps the most important part is to ensure open communication from both sides to ensure one side isn’t feeling like they are being taken advantage of or the other side doesn’t feel like their work and contributions are being minimized. Clarification of who is taking on what household roles (and modifying/renegotiating periodically) would also be important. This can help ensure people are on the same page and supportive of each other’s careers and sucesses regardless of the money coming in.

    Given our difficult economic situation, spouses may also be worrying more about money (who isn’t these days), and this may be contributing to some added stress that may need to get talked out as well.

  5. Thanks everyone! I can tell this is just as sensitive an issue for you all as it is for us – and in this economic climate, all the more so! I feel lucky I have a financially supportive husband but am well aware that I continue to need to chip in – which is why I do freelance health economic projects as well. Tough to balance it all and tough to resolve when the balance gets out of whack…

  6. Hey Clare–Great topic.

    Money issues are not really about money, but about power and who has it. It’s about control. Most arguments about money in a marriage have control strings attached to it. Someone wants control or someone is making a point that they are IN control adn have more say. Apply this understanding as you see it in the circumstance you described.

    I was a main breadwinner in my household before and after I sold. I bring this up only because I scared my poor husband to death when I talked about quitting my energy sales manager’s job to write full time. After I sold my first 3 books in auction, I still would not have quit my day job. But when I sold the next 3 (before having any books released), I had a decision to make. And it was the use of my time–balanced between my day job and my writing night job. I love writing, but the hours I had to split between both endeavors was like working 2 jobs for nearly 4 yrs while I was hoping to get sold. I had no free time. But we’d been working toward setting us both up early for retirement, so the writing gig pushed me over the top and allowed us both to make different decisions. I waited until my husband was okay with all this and we’ve been working with a financial planner for years. It worked out great for us.

    But I have to say that my husband trusted me to make that decision for both of us. And he supports me in soooo many ways that allow me to do what I do. He’s amazing.

    We don’t have kids (by choice) so it’s a little easier for us. And I didn’t hear about money from him per se. It was more about time we could spend together. He trusted me to make the decision on money.

    And Basil–I never expected this writing thing to make money–not enough to replace the income I had. And I feel very lucky to discover that there can be money in this passion we have for writing. But I would still do it whether there was money in it or not. That’s something I think we all understand here on this blog today. We write because we have to.

    Who knows how long this will go on? I’m taking it a day at a time and loving it. I am closer to retirement than you so all i had to do was float for a couple of years before my retirement kicked in. Sometimes it’s good to be old. LOL

  7. Great comment on it being about power rather than money, Jordan – and it’s true you need to have a lot of trust before making the plunge and giving up the day job:) I think my husband is still uneasy but it’s harder for me sometimes to relinquish ‘power’ as I was always used to being an equal (if not higher) wage earner. Now we both have to get used to the lawyer/economist suddenly becoming the poor writer:)!

  8. We had been on a cash basis for many many years. We had paid off most of our mortgage and had money to retire the debt but chose to use it as an investment in this second career. For the small balance I had left on the mortgage, we stretched that out to a 30-yr mortgage (which we couild pay off any time) when we last refinanced at a really low rate and got our pymts down to well below rent. I didn’t want to lose our home to ‘try’ this. Plus we also had my health care covered thru my husband’s job AND we had saved up more than 2 years income for the both of us as a liquid nest egg to draw from.

    And with retirement around the corner, all we had to do was hold on. But more cool things have happened so it reinforced our decision to try this.

    Our economy really scares me however. With banks cratering and the domino effect of certain businesses going under, it scares me a lot. If suddenly our money weren’t available or devalued overnight, all of our plans would be derailed. We live in scary times.

  9. We certainly live in scary times – I just hope i don’t have to go back to being a lawyer to make ends meet!! Believe me that’s an even more scary proposition…

  10. We jokingly said that we had positioned ourselves so that we wouldn’t have to go back to our old professions. We could work at Walmart as greeters.

    Now that’s not so funny. πŸ™‚

  11. I think there are two questions in play here. It’s one thing to talk about “success” as an artist–the definition of which is both intensely personal, and infinitely adjustable depending upon previous milestones; but it’s something else entirely, I think, to talk about financial responsibility within a family.

    The whole “starving artist” thing never appealed to me. The Bohemian model of a one-room walkup and a shared bathroom down the hall is as not-me as you can get. I’ve been poor and I’ve been comfortable in my life, and I like comfortable way better.

    When my wife and I married 25 years ago, I was an engineer and she was a contracts manager. We were far from wealthy, but together we were able to make ends meet with a little to spare. We’ve never rented a home; we’ve always owned the residence we lived in. We established our future together based on opportunity and commitment to a certain lifestyle. I wrote in my spare time, but I did not dare to call myself a Writer because I’d never sold anything.

    At that point in my life, I would call myself successful. I was happy. I had a job I liked, living the suburban lifestyle that was my model for success at that period of my life.

    Ten years later, after two books and two movie deals, the “success” bar had been reset. We could afford to have me be the full-time author while Joy did the stay-at-home mom thing. It was great. What made it particularly great was the health insurance that comes from the Writers Guild when you are being paid to write screenplays. It’s complete coverage, and it’s free.

    But when the movie industry contracted in 2001-2002, the script gigs stopped coming, and it became clear that we could either continue to live as we like and contribute to our future through savings, or we could start supplementing income. By then our son was in high school and had his own car, so Joy was getting pretty bored anyway, so she went back into the workforce.

    With her gone from the house, I got bored as a full-time writer, and I went back to a day job. Fast forward to last July. She has left her day job to fulfill her dream of her own company that serves the needs of the aging population. Now, a snapshot of the Gilstrap family would show me working on a book and a screenplay (both under contract) while working a full time day job. Meanwhile, Joy is working her tail off to build her business, which at this point is about at break even.

    Hopefully, ten years from now, I’ll be working on my 14th or 15th book, there’ll be half a dozen movies out there with my name on them, and I’ll call myself “retired” even though I can’t imagine myself not writing on into forever. By then, maybe Joy will have a runaway success with her business and be so self-actualized that she continues to work every day, or maybe she’ll have sold it, or maybe something else entirely will have happened.

    No matter what comes, it’s inconceivable to me that “unsuccessful” or “failure” could be a legitimate adjective. It’s been too enjoyable a ride not to call it all a success.

  12. Wow John – you and your wife have been so lucky to make it all work and have fun at the same time! I agree there are two aspects to my post – the concept of ‘success’ and how a writer supports or is supported living in the real world:) I have to confess the starving artist never appealed much to me either – fingers crossed with this economy that’s not what happens!

  13. John,
    I’m still on the “working full-time, hoping to get published” phase, but your (and your wife’s) attitude seems to be perfect for a family with a writer (musician, artist). Take it as it comes. Adjust as necessary. Nothing lasts forever, and a change to a good thing might just lead to a better thing if you’re willing to look for it.

  14. Sounds like the fortune cookie I got from Panda Chinese Restaurant the other day describes the strategy for a future life of writing.

    “Be sure to plan carefully for your future success.”

    Whatever it all brings careful planning and execution seems to be the key. Otherwise, I am sitting here to a lunch of rather delicious home made red beans and rice that cost less than fifty cents a serving to make and wondering to myself:

    “Could I survive on this everyday for a few years in order to write full time?”

  15. I like to tell people that I sacrificed a body part to write my debut book, Basil.

    I was home for 6 wks on medical leave and was able to write full time. I took advantage of that opportunity and wrote almost the entire book during that time. No meds. No pain killers required. Writing gives me a euphoric high that is hard to beat.

    A lifetime of red beans and rice? Why not? Centuries worth of cajuns can’t be all wrong.

  16. A lifetime of red beans and rice? Why not? Centuries worth of cajuns can’t be all wrong.

    Yeah but, I’m Alaskan…we can’t even grow beans here.


  17. This is a very interesting discussion. I was a stay at home mom until my boys were 14 and 10, (I wrote off and on during those years, mainly learning the craft) when I took a part time job as a secretary at our local police department. It was not only good for research, but the hours were flexible and I was only minutes away if they needed something. This past year, for reasons I’ll not get into here (just that some people don’t know there’s such a thing as The First Amendment), I lost my job.

    My husband and I decided that instead of me looking for something else I’d stay home and write and take care of the house. (Our older son is 24 and works in DC, and the younger one is 21 and a senior at Pitt, so there are no little ones around anymore. Boo hoo.) We’ve found that without me working outside the home, we actually have MORE money than when I worked. We spend less on just about everything. But the main thing is that I’m doing what I love to do–write. Sure, it would be nice to make some money at it, but we’d both consider that a bonus, not a requirement.

  18. Joyce – good for you! Basil – perhaps you can go ‘into the wild’ and survive on moose:) So far we’re surviving so that’s good and we haven’t had to resort to beans and rice just yet!

  19. This is an interesting discussion – I work part-time as a copywriter from home and squeeze my fiction writing in around that, plus children. Occasionally I sell a story to a mag and much rejoicing ensues, but the more regular income comes from the commercial work.

    Here’s a comment that jumped out at me: ‘my deadlines certainly get dropped if the boys get sick ‘ – even when both dh and I worked in offices, it was always my deadlines that lost the battle if a kid got sick. I did have the lower salary, however, I think it had more to do with the ‘mother’ thing – I was the one expected to drop everything while his life sailed on, unimpeded.

  20. Clare, Good idea. I could be known as the thriller writer who kills his own food. Moose is of course quit delicious, but it’s hard to keep a laptop with me out in the field.

  21. writing success? publication, then a decent sized following of readers…

    would be nice to have an income to cover expenses, and a bit more, too

    and yeah, luck has a lot to do with it, afterwards

  22. Clare, I have a full-time day-job, and I have to do my writing around the edges of the day. To quote my husband, “We wouldn’t be living in this house if we had to depend on your writing.”

    A female friend of mine who works as a (highly paid) TV writer recently was worried about her job. When I suggested that she take some time off to write a novel, she snapped, “I can’t afford to write as a hobby.” Ouch.
    So I guess I got feedback from all sides there.

  23. McKoala – you’re right of course – I would still be the one at home with the boys if they were sick even if I wasn’t at home – mum to the rescue:) Laughing wolf – yeah a bit more income would be nice and kathryn my husband would maintain that we would have no house at all if we were relying on me for money. It’s a trade-off that’s for sure. Perhaps a writer bailout would be a good thing after all!

  24. Oh, Basil–You are really making me homesick for AK. I used to salmon fish every weekend during the summer on the Kenai. I miss grilling a fresh catch. Thanks for the memory.

  25. I know I’m kind of late but…

    I think part of the “success” expectation comes from the media. I can think of two prime time series right now where main characters are writers in their spare time, have best sellers and the money is rolling in. These shows never show the hard work, rejections and those who don’t make it.

    Years ago, when a novice I was told in effect that once the book was written I’d have an agent in less than a week, have a contract in another week with a huge advance, then it’d only take about a month for the book to be out and on the NY Times Best Seller list and the money would be rolling in.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that but many novice writers still think it does. I mean, I still hear it at conferences how some author went against all the rules of submitting and “made it big” overnight. Or if not overnight, then in about a week:-)

    Thankfully, my hubby is retired military with a second job so I can afford to stay home and improve my craft. And while he knows the big bucks probably won’t happen, he still hopes:-)

Comments are closed.