Editor’s Note: We are proud to publish, in bilingual edition, the winning essay of our first literary essay contest: “Money and Writing” by Mexican writer Olivia Teroba. The prize jury said the following about the essay:
“‘Money and Writing’ is an autobiographical essay, written in the third person, that sketches a map of emotional and professional life in minute detail. It is a record of the day-to-day existence of Olivia Teroba, its author, and it makes us think in turn about the lived experience of many women writers who strive to get established and attain financial stability in the field of literature, whether their focus is academic, creative, editorial, or all of them at once. This essay stands out for its discursive clarity, its incisive nature, its apt citations, and the unique way it confronts difficulties with the resources of creative writing.
Following the reflections of Simon Leys, Olivia Teroba’s essay dares to tackle one of the least-explored subjects in literature: the relationship between money and the vocation of writing. The author unfolds into a third person who, all at once, could be any other woman writer. Without romanticism and with controlled, almost descriptive prose, Olivia Teroba gives an account, with a seismographer’s precision, of the emotional ups and downs that come with the risky task of writing. ‘Money and Writing’ is also a stone-cold confession; an urgent reminder, a long meditation on the writer’s vocation, fragments of a literary diary written in secret. In short, an essay as hybrid as it is original.”
A writer wins a short story contest. A friend asks her what it felt like when she found out and she answers: “Nothing.” She regrets this almost immediately. It is not the most logical response to a piece of good news. But it is true. Any euphoria was eclipsed by the everyday anguish of staying afloat: buying groceries, paying the electric, gas, and internet bills, going to the doctor. And, what’s more, keeping up with writing: making it an everyday habit, filling every possible window in her time with verbal creativity. This goal has led her to seek monetary compensation through any opportunity that comes her way, as long as it’s related to writing: literary contests, grants, submitting to journals, publishing books with royalty payments. She has also taught courses, led workshops, consulted; she has style-edited, translated, ghostwritten. But the money is never enough, nor is there any guarantee of its presence in the near future. Grants are for a limited time only; prize amounts—as exorbitant as they seem—never last more than a year; royalties don’t make up for the effort of writing itself. Teaching, while enjoyable, requires a time commitment and preparation that are out of proportion to the money one makes. For any given editing job, one tends to make about half what the guidelines suggest are the official rate.
Neither the publishing industry—that is, the activities that surround the production and sale of books—nor the cultural sector—that is, the activities organized by public and private institutions that promote and disseminate the literature of the past and the writing practices of the present—nor even the entertainment industry, whose original ideas often emerge from novels or books of short stories or essays, could care less about whomever is writing. It could almost be said that the cultural sector is held up by the precarization of the work of writing.
The writer nonetheless persists with these activities because, supposedly, they grant her the freedom to do what she likes with her time and thereby write her stuff, what she needs to write: stories that draw her in, ideas that intrigue her, feelings that she can’t hold in any longer. With this goal in mind, she stays stuck in this cycle with no certain future: grueling labor with less-than-feasible deadlines, delayed payment (one, two, three months), taking on debt, getting the payment, paying the debt, new grueling labor, taking on debt yet again.
Recently she got a credit card. For a long while she shunned them due to family history: she grew up hearing words related to the bank account nestled in grim conversations: the credit bureau, minimum payments, negotiation; a little bubble that burst after several years and left the family living permanently in debt.
Might that be where she picked up the habit of going into debt? She always has a long to-do list, full of things she owes people. Said people could be a magazine, a press, an institution, a literacy mediator. She writes, too, from a pose of debt, because that’s just what grants are: a payment received in advance, for the promise of producing a given number of pages.
Her editing work is the flip side of debt: she works, delivers, and receives her payment in one, two, three months. Now she is the creditor, but she doesn’t make interest. And so, the credit card seems the logical choice. Since her earnings always come in after the fact, she may as well be able to spend the money they have promised to send her in advance.
Future promise is another important aspect of the writing equation: contests, that is, whether they be for money, grants, or residencies. The writer works doggedly, ever vigilant so as not to miss a single opportunity. Not long ago she saw a play, Sorteo Local by Valeria Lemus and Diego Cristian Saldaña, at Foro Shakespeare. They spoke of the ways in which theatre is sustained in Mexico: grants, funding, festivals, all up for competition. “We compete for funding for our creative work as if we were buying a lottery ticket: we hope to get lucky,” they said.
Evidently—and this is clear from her writing—the writer is exhausted. Between all this funding, grants, prizes, badly paid editing jobs, the odd workshop, etc., she has published two short story collections plus one of essays, and she’s writing a novel. Sometimes she even has time to read. But the work takes its toll, as they say. A few months ago she was diagnosed with burnout. The psychiatric meds took care of the blood pressure and anxiety, at least as physical sensations. But while she was taking them, she also stopped writing. Because, as she discovered with sorrow and shame, she had learned to sustain her writing on anguish, on waiting, on debt.
So she wonders how she will keep writing.
How will she carry on her creative practice in a way that does not require her to sacrifice her free time, her physical and mental health.
How will she write without the need to think of herself as a writer becoming its own unique suffering.
How will she write without thinking of herself as a martyr of writing, as they say of those writers who prioritized seeing their ideas and their representation through to the end, with no funding whatsoever from institutions or patrons and with no interest from society in supporting their work, at least while they were alive: César Vallejo, Elena Garro, Roberto Bolaño, etc. And who died poor. And who, once they were dead, became successful.
The writer knows of contemporary writers and researchers who have died of treatable illnesses due to their lack of health insurance. And some who, insurance and all, overexploited their bodies in order to write until they couldn’t do it any longer. She has heard tell of those who commit themselves to writing (and to various related jobs) suffering heart attacks, hemorrhages, and muscular atrophy as they strive to live in the world through the word.
She has heard tell of suicides.
The writer abhors the romanticization of this precarity. And she abhors even more the financial exploitation of such people’s publications, which end up generating profits but only when their authors are no longer alive to enjoy them.
Posterity is a trap of the cultural market, the writer thinks. Which is sustained, largely, on ideas and products that come from writing, but which couldn’t care less about writers.
Posterity is also a trap of the cultural institutions legitimized by the intellectual work of writers, living and dead, that do not take into account how said writing is produced. They exploit the creative labor of others for their benefit, under the presupposition that one writes out of love for the art.
But writing is a job, not philanthropy. The writer wants to think so, at least.
Writing wears down the body, it takes time: to doubt, to seek answers, not to find them, and to go back to the start.
Writing requires silence—the kind of silence that lets us think.
It requires a pencil and a pen and, better yet, a word processor.
It requires a stretch of the muscles every now and then.
It requires a room of one’s own, which can indeed be a real-life place, but can also be the metaphorical place where we settle down to write without being bothered, whether that be in the kitchen, in an armchair, in the dining room while the others watch TV in the den, or on a park bench. It can be the metaphorical mental space we dedicate to thinking about what and how to write.
As a metaphor, the room of one’s own works. As a real-life space, it’s problematic. Because, the writer realizes, the fantasy of the room of one’s own rests on a house of one’s own. And she has neither of the two.
But this writer holds it together regardless, she retraces her steps, she tries to keep calm. She breathes in and out three times, like they taught her in therapy. She doesn’t mean to lie—she always tries to be sincere, although this inevitably ends up putting her contradictions on display. Because as much as she might complain, as much as she might be annoyed, she does indeed have a physical space within which to work and write.
It’s an old apartment, somewhat uncomfortable, in a lower-class neighborhood where it gets unbearably hot in the springtime. There is never enough space, because she shares it with two other people. But she has a place, perhaps not of her own, but at least not of anyone else’s. The apartment belongs to her hardworking, middle-class family.
Curiously enough, at the start, when she was a teenager about to start college, the head of the family refused to support her calling. Although the writer took this personally at the time, which gave rise to endless arguments and disagreements, she understands it now, or at least she thinks she understands it better. A middle-class family does not have the resources to sustain a person who will commit their time not to earning money, but rather to studying, reading, and writing. Nor will they make the sacrifice of spending money they don’t have to keep such activities going. After all, being honest, her middle-class family is not exactly comfortable. Uncomfortable, more like. They don’t rest often. They despise leisure. And reading and writing, in their view, are pure, genuine leisure.
Despite their reservations, her family maintains a solid mutual support network. They would never leave one of their own on the line, as much as she might insist upon dedicating herself to an activity apparently lacking in future prospects. So, after comings and goings, times of independence marked by solitude and the most absolute and shameful precarity, after stealing food from supermarkets and saving her last penny, desperately, not asking for help, finally, thanks to circumstances that don’t warrant mentioning, the writer and her family reached an agreement: they gave her a place to live. Or, rather, they lent her a place. Marked “b” for borrowed, as they say in the town where she grew up. So she lives in a place that is not her own, but at least is not anyone else’s.
And her writing is sustained, in part, thanks to this home. Her words rest on the foundations paid for in double-shifts by her grandmother and civil service jobs by her grandfather. She uses her family’s legacy to stay afloat. And she gives them nothing in return—only words.
But, she wonders, is material stability necessary to writing? Not necessary, no, because writing shows up wherever and whenever it can, however it can. But material stability is desirable. Do we have the right to desire, to plan for the future? Is it too much to ask for a house of one’s own?
The writer thinks how ironic it is to talk about money when all she has right now is debt. She has two payments on their way to her, but she doesn’t know when they’ll come in. She tries to write about this, but modesty gets the better of her. She backspaces, modestly. Her writing is a matter of backspacing and rewriting. She is afraid it sounds like moaning, a complaint that gets you nowhere. Because writing, she has learned, has to go from one place to another. From Point A to Point B. How might she direct her complaints from one place to another? It’s a good question. How to get them to a place where they turn into clenched-fisted demands.
The writer talks with a colleague about the disorderly and chaotic writing she sees coming out of herself. A defect in style, the lack of moderation and restraint in her words. She doesn’t know why she feels the need to say everything in so little space. She can’t stick to a page, she can’t maintain her texts’ integrity. Why must she brim over this way?
The writer’s colleague answers: “Maybe it has to do with where you come from. The feeling of not knowing when it will be your turn to speak again. That’s why you get desperate and you want to say it all at once.”
If she had the resources, the writer thinks, she would write and read more and better. She would be able to write a broad-ranging, seemly, perfect body of work. If she had the cultural, symbolic capital, maybe everything would be easier. If she had such peacefulness in her life, she would not write about the desperation of forming part of the intelligentsia and whiling away your life with creative nonsense. Her work would make more sense, it would hold up better, more people would read it. Sometimes, on bad days, this is what she thinks.
She knows there is some truth to this, and some exaggeration. Like in any train of thought you get while unemployed. But, the thing is, she is always unemployed, and overworked at the same time. To write is to live in a Schrödinger’s box where there is work and there isn’t, there is money but not yet; there are publications, conferences, festivals, and readers, but it is impossible to live off writing.
The writer tries to make a manifesto, but that’s a very twentieth-century thing to do, she thinks—literature ought not be a pamphlet (Adorno); manifestos are categorical, she thinks, but still she sits down at the table and writes (Gelman).
In this piece of writing, she calls for the reconquest of the right to leisure, and with it the right to spread out and to green, wide-open, walkable, nearby public spaces in which people can undertake creative activities. She decries the fact that Mexico is the country with the most working hours and the least vacation time in all of Latin America. She demands more time off, not discounting all that this implies: better work administration, higher wages.
She suggests that this time regained might be used to read or not to read, to write, to create, or not to. It could also be used to look up at the sky. That’s the secret to leisure, she points out. It should not be thought of as having any end goal, like each and every other activity in this utilitarian society centered on the production of private profit that we know so well.
The manifesto declares that May 2 should be International Leisure Day, as Cutral proposed in Argentina. For if there is a Workers’ Day, there has to be a Leisure Day.
She emphasizes the literary field, which the writer knows better than any other. She points out that we cannot build a nation of readers with neither time nor space in which to read. If we think of writing as work, then rest must form an essential part of it.
She wraps up by explaining that this demand is put forth simply as a first step toward the dignification of the work of cultural actors in general, and of writers in particular.
“We demand that writers and readers be granted the time and space to create new meanings and ways of thought. We will not put up with the dichotomous and linear reasoning imposed upon us by those who wish to keep us tired, unsatisfied, stupefied. Rest is the first step toward a much-needed insurrection of ideas,” she concludes.