How To Make a Living as a Writer: Live Somewhere Cheap

Pat Rothfuss gives great advice over here for writers:

In closing, if you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

Live somewhere cheap.

I beg your pardon?

Odds are, it’s going to take you a long time to finish your novel. Then it’s going to take you a long time to break into the publishing world. That means you’re effectively going to be working at a job that will pay you nothing, and you’re going to be doing it for years. So you should live somewhere cheap.

I keep giving this nugget out too, but it gets met with strong resistance. Hey, I know living in an exciting place, is, well, exciting. But it means you probably value that dream more than another.

I would love to live in NYC or somewhere more exciting. I eventually hope one day to make enough to consider getting out of the more rural Ohio (and at least get to a city in Ohio like Columbus, if not somewhere else), but for the mean time, there is a tremendous advantage to a cheap cost of living: it allows me my dream of being writer.

Someone on NPR not too long ago was talking about a Hemingway essay about why he was living in Paris at the time. To us today Paris sounds exciting and urbane. Hemingway claimed to be living there because it was really, really cheap and he could make each published article go further.

I remember talking to someone, before the real estate boom, that hundreds of thousands of dollars of equity in a house on one of the coasts, as yet unpublished, who told me they envied me the dream of writing full time. They said it was their greatest dream. I told them I envied the fact that they could sell their house and live where I lived for 10 years on the cash at hand, and write for 10 years without any worries.

“I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t leave CITY X.”

“Ah,” said I. “You love that dream then, far more than the dream of writing.”

I understand love of place. I grew up in a place people come to when they leave behind the midwests and so forth.

But the best advice is to live somewhere cheap. When people ask why I’m not back in the Caribbean, it’s mainly because I can’t afford it and that would hinder my writing right now.

And if you want adventure, citylife, and cheap, there are some awesome cities in Eastern Europe and South America that will make your novelist money stretch further.

8 thoughts on “How To Make a Living as a Writer: Live Somewhere Cheap”

  1. Lawrence Block, in one of his books on writing, comments along the lines of “let money be a goad, not a sledge hammer.” In other words, needing money should inspire you to work, not paralyze you. Living in a Michigan suburb in a fairly modest ranch house (and having a wife with a good job and health insurance) allows me to write full-time. (If I had to cough up health insurance, I’m not sure I could do it, though. I make decent money, but, daayum!).

  2. I lived in Grenada for most of 1993 and had to come back to the States because the costs of trying to live a late 20th century lifestyle there are way too high (Grentel is not what one would call a beneficent monopoly).
    Most people who dream of becoming a writer have the Hollywood delusion of a writer in mind, with no clue that less than 1% of professional writers (and not all people publishing are professional writers) actually attain anything like that. For most, writing pays about as well as McDonald’s, but without the health benefits and free Big Macs.

  3. Ah, but the problem for me is that I can’t survive on my day job career in someplace cheap. My day job depends on the proximity of one or more universities, and a lot of the cheapest places to live either don’t have any, or they’ve got one but it has only one job opening every twenty years, when somebody retires or dies.
    There’s also the intrinsic factor, though. I spent my first two years after grad school living in Springfield, Massachusetts — super-cheap. I had a gorgeous apartment for $400/month, heat included. I could eat at the best restaurants in town for $20/plate. But I was bored mindless. I was lonely. The nearest writers’ group was 2 hours away in Boston — though I didn’t know that because I couldn’t find any other writers in the area to network with, and find out information like that. I was constantly on the road to New York or Boston or Northampton because there was nothing to do in Springfield but gaze at all the beautiful cheap real estate. (And go to blues bars; Springfield was surprisingly great for that. But I can only listen to so much blues.) And I found that my constant boredom started affecting my writing; it was a lot harder to find inspiration in a place so singularly uninspiring. I cranked out my X words a day, but they weren’t very good words, and it was hard to get them out. I think that if I’d stayed there, I would have eventually found it impossible to write. My bank account was OK, but my soul was withering.
    So I would add: yes, live somewhere cheap if you already have, say, a family or established group of friends/writerly contacts in that place to occupy your time. And a flexible day-job skill set. Or if you thrive on peace and quiet.

  4. I nabbed a couple of great Hemingway quotes on this topic for a Wise Bread post a while back:
    Thrive as a Starving Writer—Lessons from the Experts
    But also wanted to mention, on the topic of Caribbean living, that I was surprised by how cheap things were in St. Croix when I visited there a year and a half ago. Imported groceries were a little pricey, but otherwise prices (in particular rent) seemed about in line with where I live (Champaign, Illinois).
    I didn’t try to price out a whole budget, and maybe there’s some other spending category that would blow the whole thing out of the water (suntan lotion was incredibly expensive), but living there for about what it costs to live here seemed doable to me.

  5. Same reason why I still live in Erie Pa- cost of living here is crazy low. Sad thing is, the reason why is that the average income is 10k a year…which sucks. I wouldn’t want to try and live on that.
    But for writing? It gives me freedom.

  6. Being in smaller rural towns just gives a different view for writing than say living in new York or LA, something smaller, maybe more intense, but also more isolation. To find things beyond the normal hum-drum flailing factories and meth addicts you generally need to travel. Have you gone to see Cleveland yet? They got vegetarian restaurants up there! And real book stores!

  7. There’s actually an option #2: Marry someone who has a really good job, and is okay with you writing so long as you pitch in what you can afford. Yes, I got very, very, very, very lucky. Thank you eHarmony.

  8. When I went full-time, I must have knocked off at least $2,000 of monthly expenses. At least. I also knocked off my “day job,” (which wasn’t really a day job), and now, instead of working two jobs, I work one.
    I also live in a very small camper. I can travel anywhere, whenever I want. Monthly campground rent is super cheap. The people are full of stories and fascinating.
    The pressure to make money used to make me write faster, but then a year or two ago, it started paralyzing me. The less bills I have, the happier I am and the faster I write. I wouldn’t trade it for the world! I never really sat around and dreamed about writing full-time, though. I just… did it. I’ve never found dreaming to be that useful, honestly.

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