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Writers Who Died Broke
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'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.
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 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.
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.
Why Do You Write?
If you knew you would never strike it rich, would you write anyway?
© 2014 Jennifer Arnett