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Writers Who Died Broke

Updated on April 12, 2014
The fabulous life of a writer.
The fabulous life of a writer. | Source

Literature is full of famous names who died paupers. Let's face it, historically, there isn't a good track record for striking it rich with words.

It's a career that pays you long after you have done all of the work, if the writing is compensated at all. Hundreds of hours can go into a novel that never makes a penny. Does that mean you shouldn't aspire to be a writer? Absolutely not!

Let's take a look at some of the most prolific writers who died paupers, but wrote their hearts out anyway.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde's life story is almost stranger than fiction. He was born in Ireland and attended Trinity College and Oxford, receiving numerous academic accolades. Over his literary career he contributed works such as the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, and the novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey.

As he was reaching the height of his career, it surfaced that he was having a homosexual affair, and was arrested for "gross indecency" he spent two years in jail. After he fulfilled his sentence, he fled to France, broke and disgraced. Once a brilliant writer, he wrote very little, became an alcoholic, and lived out his final years in cheap hotels. He died of meningitis at the age of 46. It was a tragic ending for someone with such a brilliant mind.

Poe is best known for his poem "The Raven."
Poe is best known for his poem "The Raven." | Source

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe's life hardly tops the tragic category. His mother died when he was young, forcing him to leave home. The family he lived with didn't pay for all of his education, with convinced young Poe to turn to gambling to fix his financial problems, which only threw him further into debt.

His problems don't stop there, he married his 13 year old cousin, turned to the bottle, and faced tons of financial hardships and rejections of his work. His first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, only produced 20 copies and no money. He struggled his whole life, financially, trying to make it as a writer.

Just like his stories, his early death, at the age of 40, remains a mystery.

John Keats

John Keats was struck by tragedy at a very young age. His father was trampled by a horse and his mother died of tuberculosis. He is known for his romantic poetry, publishing three volumes in his short life. However, upon his death, only 200 copies had been sold.

At the age of 25, he contracted tuberculosis, and moved to Italy to try to improve his health in a warmer climate. After being put on a strict diet, his health declined, and he died ill nourished, in severe pain, and virtually unknown.

A Gorgeous Reading of John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale

Only the Good Die Young

I see a trend here. It seems common in the literary world to be given to wine, die young, and only receive recognition when six feet under. I hope I haven't convinced you not to sign up for the next writer's workshop.

How much do published authors make?

According to an article by Forbes magazine, traditionally published authors make a median income of $5000- $9,999 a year. A full time, 40 hour a week job, making federal minimum wadge, lands a worker about $15,000 before taxes. If money is what you're after, a minimum wage job at a fast food joint will statistically fare better economically.

Do you still want to be a writer?

Deciding to become a full time writer is a tough path to walk. It requires tons of patience, determination, creativity, and skills. However, not all of the rewards are monetary. Writing is a form of self-expression, it can be therapeutic, it can be used to promote or complement other forms of income, and it can create a philosophical and political audience. Stories not only reflect our culture and society, but also help define and dictate it. Writers have a unique influence on society, often being the critics of culture and philosophers of ethics.

“we write every day, we fight every day, we think and scheme and dream a little dream every day. manuscripts pile up in the kitchen sink, run-on sentences dangle around our necks. we plant purple prose in our gardens and snip the adverbs only to thread them in our hair. we write with no guarantees, no certainties, no promises of what might come and we do it anyway. this is who we are.” -Tahereh Mafi

You Knowingly Walk the Line.

Knowing that you may drink yourself to death, or blast your brains out like Hemingway, but at least you've read the fine print, and know what you have signed up for. To give a full disclosure, be ready for late nights of writer's flow, where you feel like if you stop writing, the words will never come back, so you keep writing until the drool hits the keyboard.

Also, be prepared for public mockery and scrutiny, because not everyone will like your ideas, or see you for the genius you are. Your self-esteem will become a roller coaster of feeling like you've created the next great American novel one day, to the pity party of feeling like a failed starving artist, the next. Dorthy Parker captures the tragic life of a writer quite bluntly:

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Now that you have been fully disclosed, and you still aspire to be a writer. I applaud you, I admire, you, and heck, I'm standing right beside you, ready to take on the beast.

The sun rising on the Seine River.  You can see why Paris held an allure for writers.
The sun rising on the Seine River. You can see why Paris held an allure for writers. | Source

We Swim Against the Flow

Let's be honest, to be a writer you have to be a little odd. Seeing the world a little differently is exactly what makes you stand out from all of the noise.

We accept the bags under our eyes as part of the battle wounds of creativity, and we don't mind the unpredictable nature of writing. In fact, most of us welcome it. We like doing crazy things in the name of "research," walking like the Romantics through the countryside, interviewing character doppelgangers for our next story, waiting for a poem to flow like honey from our lips, writing the summer away in the town we base the setting of our next novel on, or drinking endless espressos on the Seine River in an effort to existentially connect with the Parisian exiles before us.

Yes, it's a writer's life for us and we wouldn't have it any other way. Write on, my friends and comrades, write on.

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© 2014 Jennifer Arnett


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    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Barbara, I'm sad to hear that you've given up on being a famous novelist. However, your HubPages work has been read 1 million times, so your influence may go far beyond what you think. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 3 years ago from USA

      Bravo! This is an excellent read. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I no longer have dreams of writing that one great novel. Somewhere I lost the dream. Best of luck to you on your writing journey.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Thanks Deborah. How wonderful that you took the plunge to write full time. I admire those who do, because I know what it costs them. To be devoted to this craft is a high calling, and a journey of perseverance. I've been writing about four hours a day on top of my day job. What I've discovered is that the more I write, the faster my fingers start to fly. I now know that I could do this full time, that I have the drive for it. It's become an obsession. I just can't stop, even if I die broke.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Love this hub! As someone who gave up a great-paying job to have more time to write, I couldn't be happier.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Bill, You've proven to all of us that the writing for a living is possible. You've also shown us that it comes at the high price of tons of hard work. For this writer, your encouragement has helped keep the dream alive.

      As writers, we expect our fate of being of little means, and even see it as an advantage. I do like making it clear to aspiring writers, the price they must pay to do what they love. I knew that when I decided to study Creative Writing at the university, that my prospects of gaining a traditional job would be difficult. I just loved it so much! I was always told to do what I love, and this is it.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Stages of me, thank you for your wonderful contribution to the conversation. I like the line, "or at least an attempted dent in the plastic reality of routine." It very clearly describes the rebellious nature of writing.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Kathleen, I feel you on the threat of dying unread being greater than dying broke. We can't take it with us anyway, so why not leave words. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't know if I'm encouraged or discouraged by this article. LOL Seriously, I write because I love to write. If I get rich doing so then great, but money was never my motivating factor...and that's a good thing since I don't make much. :)

    • The Stages Of ME profile image

      The Stages Of ME 3 years ago

      Writing is a flow of one's spirit or soul, at least for me. I suppose some, work for monetary gain, some for sharing of skill or talent, some as a monotonous necessity, regardless of why we work, we work intentionally.

      Or we don't, however, our life is somewhat depicted in our works, but without faith and purpose, one could be left empty in circumstance. Writing is a tool, a tool similar to those used in other skills. A musician uses his music, an orator, his voice, a doctor his instruments, all tools when shared can make a change in our surroundings, or at least an attempted dent in the plastic reality of routine.

      Inevitably the idea of making a difference in any area of work seems to be a great motivator. Presidencies have been won with that very motto, "Be The Change," no matter, if change, is acquired or not, the purpose of possibility, creates a bandwagon, people jump on.

      Some grow weary and throw in the towel or jump off, some become a drone of continuity and maintenance, nonetheless, human-condition is to move or motivate to the course of change, therein creating new possibilities. Broke or not, could it be more about the life lived? I wonder, what might Howard Hughes say if alive today?

      This is a great hub, it got me thinking and motivated in many ways. Blessings to you

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I don't mind the prospect of dying broke. I'd hate to die unread. Interesting hub!