Earlier this month, I found Scratch in another writer’s to-read pile. I was immediately drawn to the names on the cover: Leslie Jamison, Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Jonathan Franzen. Then I read what the cover illustration’s little black pen said: “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.” I had just graduated from college, and felt lost as to what my next career move would be. The book was a revelation. Writer, editor, and co-creator of Scratch Magazine, Manjula Martin managed to gather writers to answer questions that I didn’t even know I had. By the time I finished Scratch, it was covered in bright orange tabs and sticky notes. I talked with Martin through email about money, writing, and her new book.
Brooklyn Magazine: As someone who has recently graduated college, your book is a godsend! I wish I had known about Scratch Magazine, an online magazine for writers to talk about the nitty gritty details of the writing business while it was still running. Do you think depending on how well received Scratch is, will you (or someone else) revive the original magazine? Is that something you would want?
Manjula Martin: Thank you! Oh wow, I hadn’t even thought of reviving the magazine. Honestly, I have no desire to do so. It was a lot of work, and very unsustainable financially. I’m pretty comfy being a book author now. I also have a full-time editorial job at a magazine, so I’ve got my bases covered. But I do, of course, hope people keep talking and writing and thinking about the issues in Scratch. That should never be over. It never ceases to astound me that one can graduate from a creative writing program without having been given a functional concept of how the job of being a writer actually works. That should be over.
How did you decide on which writers to contact and how did you do it? You include a great variety of ages, genres, statuses, and locations.
One of the coolest things about this project has been getting to hire some of my favorite writers. It’s all people whose work I was familiar with, or whose work I’d heard of and then familiarized myself with. And they’re an amazing group. I think there’s an art to pairing good topics with good writers, and I take great pleasure in it. It’s like making a mixtape, but you get to engineer all the songs too.
Did you give any assignments to the writers for the essays or asked them to focus on a certain idea? I found some essays helpful business wise, and others interesting because they discuss the culture of writing.
That mix is very intentional, by the way. I wanted the book to offer different perspectives on all the ways in which literature and commerce smush up next to each other during a person’s career.
When assigning the essays for the book, most of which were written specifically for it, I would often initiate the conversation with the writer by suggesting a couple topics. Like with Meaghan O’Connell, I said “I would love to see you write about what it feels like to have your birth story be the thing that jump-starts your career,” and she took it and ran with it. Or with Mallory Ortberg, I knew she had just bought a house, and so I asked her if she wanted to write about that. Other folks had their own ideas that they pitched and then we took it from there. A few folks turned in drafts that ended up being completely rewritten, throughout the process of us editing the essay and figuring out on the page what it was really about. And a few of the essays had been previously published, either in the original Scratch magazine or in other publications. And with the interviews, obviously, I asked all the questions.
In an interview with Billfold, you said you had no interest in creating a “publishing empire” but rather in asking fundamental questions about money and sharing that information. Now that Scratch in a physical form, do you feel you’ve achieved this?
I do hope that now that Scratch is a book it will have a long shelf-life! But the point was is to inspire people to talk more openly about this topic, rather than guess and infer wildly. Scratch has a lot of answers in it, but it’s also a conversation starter, to use a sort of a hokey phrase. And it’s something I hope writers get turned on to early in their careers, so they know it’s okay to talk about money and business, and that being informed and empowered about the value of your work is an important and essential part of this job.
In that same Billfold interview, you mention not being on Facebook, and a quick search shows me that’s still true. I was taught that social media networking is key to being a well-known writer–along with working your butt off. Do you think that’s not so true anymore?
I’m kind of a hypocrite because I’ve benefitted a lot as a writer and editor from being on social media but I also kind of hate it! Twitter in particular has been a boon for a lot of writers in finding community, particularly people of color and queer folk, and people who live outside urban cultural capitals. But it’s just reached a point, especially since the presidential election, where no one I know feels good about being there, but we’re all still there “for our careers.” At some point it has to stop, right?! As soon as I finish this book tour…
So yeah, I guess I’m with Jonathan Franzen on this one: Get off the internet, writers! Or for chrissakes, at least don’t be on the internet all damn day. However, I don’t think we should revert to or rely on the old-school, “A-list white dudes on The Today Show” way of promoting our work. That is decades long-gone. Authors—and all types of creative folks—need to figure out what comes after Twitter, and it should be something we are in charge of.
Look, the most important thing to remember when it comes to writers and social media is: social media is not your job or your work. It can be a tool to enhance, publicize, and sell your work, it can be a way to make friends, but it’s not your job as a writer to be on Twitter. By being on social media, we are all working for free for other people—writers are literally creating free content and data for these huge, wealthy tech companies, who don’t give a damn what happens to our careers in the long run. That’s just true, and it’s okay to feel ambivalent or uncomfortable about that truth— I know I do!—but it’s not okay to ignore it.
What about networking in person? You have a great list of names in this collection, did you know any personally? Through friends of friend? Work?
A lot of them are people I know from Twitter! Oh, the irony. Some of them I know personally or professionally. A lot of them are people I didn’t know personally, but I tracked them down and I emailed them and asked them to participate, and they were all equally fascinated by this topic of writing and money, so they very generously said yes.
I won’t ask you what your favorite essay is, but I will ask which essay do you think will be most helpful to new writers? And what essay would be most helpful to experienced writers?
I believe the only correct answer to that question is, the whole book. You should definitely read the whole book.
A big focus during my undergrad education was on literary magazines–we never discussed pitching or freelancing. Do you think what it means to be a “writer” is changing?
My own experience as a writer naturally informs my work as an editor. And in my communities, I don’t see these divisions between Literary or Commercial or Genre or even Journalism vs. Creative Writing. Most people I know, with the possible and very understandable exception of Real Investigative Journalists, do a bit of everything. I have, and I still do. Readers are entirely capable of liking multiple things at the same, and writers are capable of being good at more than one thing at the same time. The hustle knows no genre.
What advice would you give emerging writers trying to make a living?
Know the value of what you’re doing and know what kind of people you’re doing it for. Know what you will do—and what you should not do—to get paid. Know who you are, what you need, what resources or privileges you have that others don’t have, and how you work. Plan accordingly. Also, buy this book.