Column by Vanessa Shields
I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.
Receipts are gathering in various places around my home. Clipped in a smiley face magnet on my fridge. Folded neatly, yet conspicuously, into pages of my date book. Jammed into folders marked ‘Look At Her’ and ‘Submissions’. I can assure you that they are not all in one place. I can double assure you that they are not being tallied.
Herein is the blog that I have been avoiding. The topic of which I have been avoiding is thus: The Financial Burden Challenges Reality of Being Published. Oh yes, this is a topic that everyone is always writing about in lit mags; talking about at readings; swearing about in union meetings. Or, if you’re me, avoiding facing even as I live through it. It’s hard to write about this topic without divulging private financial matters of both myself and my publisher. The point of this piece is to communicate that it costs to market and promote a new book (which we all know), and these costs affect the writing parent in ways that extend beyond the bank card, or more honestly, the credit card.
My new book of poetry is launching later this month. I have been planning a book launch and tour since July. I have known since the beginning of my relationship with my publisher that it is part of my responsibility to market and promote my books — this is my third book with said small press, so I’ve been here before (sort of). I know how much it can cost to get a book ‘out there’. In the past, however, my financial situation was drastically different than it is now: I couldn’t plan a book launch on my own; I definitely wasn’t going on a book tour. This is my fourth book being published over about the same amount of years, and only now can I afford to plan my own launch and small book tour. And please note, I don’t have to do this. I can wait until my publisher organizes a reading with other published authors from the press. I can only book readings out of town if I get a grant to pay for myself to go. I’m very aware of the financial borders that we can exist within when being published. It’s not right or wrong or good or bad, this situation. It is what it is and no one is being wishy-washy about it. I think it’s important to say this.
The reason I don’t have a running tally of what I’ve spent so far on marketing my book, and preparing for a small launch and tour is because I don’t want to see how much money I’ve spent on it. I don’t want to think about the money that will be spent in the forthcoming months as I travel. Yes, I’ve applied for grants, and have received a few. I have high hopes that I’ll receive some in the future that will (hopefully) allow me to pay myself back for what I’ve spent and will spend. But I can’t rely on grant money. It’s kinda like a happy surprise. My reality at this time is that the money is there to live out my dream of having a solo book launch and small book tour.
I decided to do a book launch for just me. Call it selfish. Call it asking for trouble. I call it ‘I’m-a-control-freak-who-wants-to-entertain’. This book that’s being published is a collection of poetry. Folks around these parts love them some poetry, but that’s not always the case. The point is — and this has always been a strong point for me to uphold as a poet — the world needs more poetry, and the people of the world need to actually read it. So I come to the game thinking about how I can make an ‘event’ out of my poetry: how I can entertain with my poetry, how I can evoke emotions with my poetry. And in this case, it’s costing me money. I know that it’s my choice to purchase decorations, swag, food, door prizes. I know that it’s my choice to hire a jazz trio to accompany me on stage. I know that it was never the deal that this would be my publisher’s responsibility. But I’m in a place where I have the time to organize and plan, I have the money to spend, and I have the energy to apply for grants to help pay myself back.
Other options for garnering income would be to request donations, charge people for tickets, and/or fundraise. But I do that for other events I organize in my life…and it’s hard asking people for money. I work hard on my poetry. My publisher and I worked damn hard on making a collection that we hope will sell well, and most importantly, change the world one reader at a time. Yes, we were that dreamy when we created this collection. Why shouldn’t we be? I think we all work from this place when we’re creating. In any case, after all this work, I feel like I want to celebrate! And I want to celebrate by having a wicked book launch, and a small but mighty book tour. I want people to buy my book and read it. And be affected by it. It’s my instinct to share it now, and I am grateful for the financial freedom to celebrate how my dreams guide me, rather than how money guides me. Gosh, I’m feeling really uncomfortable writing this!
I know what it’s like to not have money for food, much less a book launch or postage to send a press kit out. I know this life experience and I hold it in my soul because I want to never forget the struggle. It keeps me real. Human. Vulnerable. I’m not saying writers and publishers with little or no money to have a launch or a tour can’t have success either. We can’t forget the words, friends. We can’t forget the stories and the power of what we’re writing! This is what will hopefully help make money to keep writing and keep getting published. It’s not easy being an artist. But if you’re an artist, you can’t not be an artist. You can’t not breathe, now can you?
So how does all of this affect my parenting and my writing life? For one thing, my actual creative writing output has been low since the editing process for my book. I’ve been writing blogs, social media posts, press releases, press kit info, grant applications – all of which kind of make my brain hurt and my heart ache for the pleasure and release that creative writing gives me. I force myself to submit to poetry contests just to keep something creative coming out of me…but many deadlines have come and gone and I’ve been teary-eyed and waving as they pass. This affects me financially in that some of these contests have big-money prizes. And almost all of them charge to submit. Always money out. Not always money in, right?
My children see me working. They see me on my knees in my office organizing press kits, signing my books, putting packages together. They hear me talking to friends and artists about my launch. They see the swag and the stickers and the decorations. They know that something ‘big’ is happening for mommy. They know the title of my book and I hear them tell their friends at school that their mom is a writer (at which point I turn away and stifle my sobs). They know that for the next few months, I’m going to be busy with ‘book stuff’. I’m doing my best to show them that being a writer is a grand job. It is fulfilling and rewarding, and also hard and demanding. They have no idea how much it all costs. And they shouldn’t. Not yet.
What they understand is that mommy (and daddy for that matter!) have their dream jobs. They have them because they’ve worked hard to create them, and they work harder to keep them and be successful. Success comes in all forms – the form of a book or a television show. The form of a family vacation or new clothes for school. The form of celebratory dinner or pockets of travel for readings.
In the end, we all do what we can and/or have to when it comes to our writing lives. We all — well, most of us, I believe — do ‘work’ that isn’t creative writing. We have to to make money on a consistent basis. But hopefully, at some point, our financial situations fatten enough such that we can have the book launch we dreamed of. Whether it’s a grant or a donation or a publisher or our own money, the business of being a writer costs money and we get that money however we can in order to share our words with the community.
I’ll gather my receipts, look at the bills and tally-ho when it’s all over, but not a second before. I don’t want to stress myself out. I do want to be grateful for the experiences I’m having. I do want to share my work and use my energy to harness my nerves and get up on the forthcoming stages – and inspire people to buy and read poetry.
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her launches this fall. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website www.vanessashields.com.