admin April 25th, 2011
Three seemingly unrelated thoughts. The first was reading a magazine profile of Andrew Sullivan, which observed that no more than a few thousand people in the US could be said to make a living as bloggers, mostly by writing on mainstream politics – ranting about Sarah Palin (one way or another) or mainstream popular culture. I admit, I found myself wondering whether the disasters that we are facing – the real ones, not the Hollywood “outrunning the bomb” disasters could garner enough attention to actually support someone who focuses on those issues. And I admit, I took it as a challenge – because I’m way cuter than Andrew Sullivan, plus I’m sick of Sarah Palin and I know you are too .
Second, I’m presently working hard on the Adapting in Place book, I’ve also found that I’ve written a lot in the last few years on how to view the world we’re entering into which doesn’t really fit in a book about the nuts and bolts of how to keep warm, keep fed, etc… but that I think is just as central. This larger project of imagining our future, looking at it and then figuring out how to make a life for ourself is something that needs to be gone at in a number of ways. I keep looking at these essays, and seeing something that needs saying, but that I don’t have a place for. That too became a challenge.
Finally, as a part of our “Anyway Project” analysis of our finances, I did something I’ve never done before – I ran the numbers on my work as a writer. What came out of this was the realization that for the 7 years that I’ve been writing various permutations of blogs here, at blogspot, at Science blogs, as well as writing books and the occasional magazine article, my husband has essentially been subsidizing my writing and speaking habit. I’m not sorry about it – but again, there is an emerging challenge here. This one is a little more daunting than out-cuting Andrew Sullivan, however.
In a way, this has been a really good thing – I was able to write three (with a fourth forthcoming) books for a tiny little environmental publisher that uses recycled everything and offsets its carbon. I’ve been able to write whatever I liked without feeling beholden to anyone – because, after all, I wasn’t making any money. I could take the speaking gigs I really liked – little engagements that paid a few hundred bucks and barely covered the losses of my being away, rather than the corporate talks that I never liked doing anyway. I could talk for free to churches and community organizations whenever I felt like it. I was making a little bit of money, and I was having a blast.
The problem is that when I did the formal accounting, it turned out that I wasn’t making much money. My book advances were all in the single digit thousands of dollars – mostly the low single digits, and I was spending hundreds of hours writing them. The speaking engagements ended up costing us money in most cases, or at a minimum making us so little it wasn’t worth the time away from home and family. Our family has been pretty comfortable living on a combined total income that most years comes in substantively below 50K, and thrift has never been our problem, but all the time spent at the computer was starting to have a negative outcome – I had less time to save money and cut the budget, so our expenses crept up, and the work wasn’t returning what it might have. The thing is, I have no regrets – I like the little speaking gigs, I like the environmental publisher, I like writing what I want, when I want.
Over the years, I have actively resisted making more money a lot of the time – I’ve declined to run advertisements on this site. I turned down a paid blogging gig for a site I found totally appalling and couldn’t respect. I’ve turned down a lot of corporate speaking gigs or “energy and sustainability fairs” that were mostly vehicles for greenwash products. I haven’t done product placement. I’ve been grateful to be freed of the blogger’s dilemma – ie, the problem that a successful blog takes up more and more of your time, and then eventually, you find it takes up so much time it has to return money, which is harder. Both Eric and I felt that this was a community service, time well spent and pleasurable for me, and compatible with our basic way of life.
Besides, while Eric was the primary breadwinner, in some ways this was true of his job as well – instead of getting tenure in his field like most of his colleagues, Eric had taken the opportunity to concentrate on science education, and to developing courses that introduce concepts like peak oil and collapse to his undergraduates through Environmental Physics and even a course on Space (wherein he points out that earth is a planet too…and that most of our imaginary exit strategies are just that…imaginary). Most of the people he knows with Harvard Ph.ds and MIT BAs in Physics make three times or more his income – but Eric is happy teaching on the edge, with a large contingent of first generation students. For a physicist who wants to concentrate on education, rather than bench science there are two choices – a pricey private college where most of his students would be more affluent, or no tenure and less money. We chose the latter, and we’ve never regretted it – how many people get to be happy with all their work?
Unfortunately, over the last year or two things have changed. Our property taxes spiked, and then spiked again as our rural school district tried to compensate for lost state and federal revenues and declining incomes. Eric’s job as a non-tenured Professor of Physics seemed safe for a while, but we’ve just learned that while his department and Dean both want to re-hire him, voices from on high are suggesting that no job security can be offered to non-tenured faculty, and they are threatening cuts – and we both feel strongly that particularly with more kids joining our family, either of us need to be able to be the primary breadwinner. While our farm income is growing, and my longer term goal is to build the farm up to be a larger portion of our income, most of the projects we want to do are slow growing – the medicinal woodland herbs take years to mature, the goat herd is growing slowly, but in the meantime, until we get to where we want to be, we’re retaining goats and buying stock, more than selling. Some of the projects, like opening up the farm, require some major infrastructure work – and since I hate debt, that means making the money to do the work somehow upfront – by writing.
Which leaves me on the horns of a dilemma – because my work at present does not support us, we need a plan to make it do so. Which leaves me with a few choices. 1. I could get a job. I’m qualified enough – there are a number of ways that could happen. I could teach nonfiction writing, I could do a variation on my present work only professionally – perhaps focusing on food and agricultural policy, or I could a writing/blogging gig that would provide enough income for my family to make ends meet. I turned down two in the last year, one the aforementioned at a place I’d rather not be associated with and another which I should have taken, but which seemed to preclude another, better opportunity that seemed definite and then sadly didn’t actually come into being (bird, hand, bird, bush, duh!)
2. I could take most of the speaking engagements I get, particularly the ones that pay the most. The problem with this is that it is tough on my carbon budget, I still don’t love talking mostly to the rich, and most of all, it is hard on my family. This one isn’t my first choice – I love doing speaking engagements, I’m good at them, but I don’t want to be away from home so often. I’d like to be able to keep doing these without worrying too much about the money – but that requires some financial success some other way.
Or, 3. I could make a job. That is, I could keep doing what I’m doing, only make it financially viable for us. This could happen one of several ways, and my guess is that it would have to be several ways. My teaching is the one thing that does make us some money, so that will be part of it. I’ve long wanted to bring more people to the farm and do on-farm classes, so I’m working on making that possible. I could commercialize the website – either wholesale with lots of ads or, since the former makes me a little nauseous, with ads for things I actually think are worth having. I could run more content and offer more material, perhaps some by subscription. I could sell books through Amazon. I could sell other things. I could do more publishing for myself so that I got to keep more than a buck and change or so per book sold – possibly some fiction as well as my non-fiction. I could raise the traffic of this site and awareness of peak oil by providing more basic content along with the other things, and use that audience growth to help subsidize my blogging habit. I’m not sure how this will work with my principles, but if it were possible, this might be the best option.
One way or another, unfortunately, things have to change. I think there’s a decent chance that Eric is going to lose his job, and our expenses are not going to be met by my present work model. I’ll miss my present work model – at the same time, I think how rarely anyone has the luxury of treating their day to day work as an avocation, as a largely volunteer project. It has been a lovely run, but I can’t say I’m ashamed of having to make a living – it is, after all, the norm. I expect my financial situation, indeed, all of our financial situations, to change a number of times in the coming years. Given the necessity, Eric and I will chop wood, pump gas at the convenience store, or do any other job necessary to feed our kids and keep our farm going. But while I like chopping my own wood, I think I’m probably better off playing to my strengths and sticking with the writing – I do it better than pumping gas.
Whatever the trade offs actually end up being, they will come. If I get a job that is not a writing job, what will happen is that I will write less. If I get a writing job I will write more, but somewhere else. If I make a writing job here, I will write more – but the site will change. I’m curious about what the rest of you think would be the best outcome? I think my own preference would be do more work helping people reduce their impact and come to terms with the nitty gritty of this life here, but I would like to hear your thoughts.
This site has been somewhat neglected since my move to Science Blogs, which is a real pity since I like it better . I am hopeful that perhaps I could begin to do all the things I’ve really wanted to do with this site – a barter board, more discussion, better community support. I don’t know what’s possible, but if you’d asked me in 2004, when I started blogging what I could accomplish, I’d never have guessed as much as I have. I feel like there are so many fun and interesting things that I haven’t been doing at my home site that just require a new energy.
One thing I am going to do is publish those essays that I’ve been thinking about for so long – I’m putting together a short book of essays called _13 Ways of Looking at the Future_ – riffing on Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” I will offer a range of perspectives on where we’re going and how to think about getting there. Some of them may be essays you’ve seen, some will be new. I’ve been debating how to offer them – I could sell them for a fixed price, enough to make a profit, but honestly, I want to make them as affordable as possible for my low income readers, while also being in the spirit of my new need to make a living. So I’ve decided to do this – I will send a signed essay collection (the publication will be sometimes in June) for any donations to this site over $10 (plus $3 for US shipping and handling – email me at [email protected] with your address and email to find out about international shipping). Donations can be made through paypal to [email protected] (I’ll put a button up just as soon as I figure out how to do it). I’m not going to pester anyone, I won’t do fund drives, and if you don’t have $10 spare, don’t worry about it – in fact, I also promise to do a raffle for some free copies once they are published as well! If you’d like to make a larger donation and want multiple copies, just email and let me know.
For me, this is an experiment – it might be successful, it might not. What I really want to know is whether I can, in fact, join the comparatively limited number of people making a living as bloggers – even if I want to write on the edge of our coming collapse. My heart won’t break if the answer is no, but I admit, it would be pretty neat if the answer was yes!