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Book Review: Scratch:Writers, Money, and Art of Making a Living

Simon & Schuster, 2017, $16

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Last year, a piece by CNBC Senior Editor Ester Bloom at the Billfold, called "You Can't Make a Living as a Writer because Being a Writer Isn't a Job," caused a moderate stir in the writing community. Bloom argued that the greatest writers had day jobs, so while writing may turn into cash, it isn't actually a job.

The piece had its detractors (many) and supporters (few). The fallout: People care about whether writers should be compensated like bartenders, baristas, and sanitation workers.

In the midst of that debate comes Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin of Scratch magazine and featuring essays by and interviews with 33 talented writers, including Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby, and Cheryl Strayed. Through the often brisk, sometimes deeply personal entries, it's evident that Scratch isn't saying whether writing is a job, but that "making a living" means more than monetary compensation.

Few writers say that as explicitly as writers with Hudson Valley ties, Porochista Khakpour and Kiese Laymon. Khakpour, the Iranian-American author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects and a member of the written arts department at Bard College, details her struggle with prescription pills, finances, and identity before and during the release of her first novel. The telling moment is when her publicist chides her for not speaking up about her problems. Turns out writers don't get instruction booklets for their journeys.

Laymon writes about dealing with a difficult editor while stress-eating inside his Poughkeepsie apartment. At the time a professor of English and Africana studies at Vassar College, Laymon can't seem to push his novel Long Division through the what-will-play-in-middle-America brick wall. He's conflicted, rebelling at the editor while simultaneously appeasing him. The self-destructive tale is painful, then ultimately uplifting.

Because Laymon keeps writing.

That's a common thread in Scratch. Kingston writer and editor Sari Botton gives a fairly direct account of her work ghostwriting for the problematic (the spouse of a celebrity) and inspiring (the mother of a quadriplegic boy). Often she's dragged around and forgotten, but she continues ghostwriting because she enjoys helping people tell stories.

Alexander Chee probes what it means when a writer scores a big check. For the Ulster writer, a big check means material things that remind him of the "magic" of selling his fiction. He'll keep writing because jobs come and go, but the urge to feel magic remains.

Scratch's interviews, administered by Martin, often offer practical advice from pros who've been there before. Hudson Valley part-timer Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) says a writing career is akin to "running your own business." She adds that it's hard to unionize the business of writing, since writing is individual and specific, difficult to categorize.

Orlean seems to revel in the gray areas, which fits the idea that making a living by writing isn't just about money. "I think you can sort people out according to their goals, not whether they have the means to achieve them," she says.

Spend some time in Scratch, inside some of our time's foremost literary minds, and you'll see quite clearly that the goal of a writer isn't to be recognized like the bartender, but simply to have the ability to keep writing.

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