What Does Success as a Writer Look Like? - Interview V with Manjula Martin

Manjula Martin - Writer and Editor


What are your thoughts on fame and being a writer?

I think Cheryl Strayed said it best in my book, Scratch, when she said, "If you want to be famous, don't be a writer." The two do not necessarily correlate. 

What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

A lot of people say rejection isn't personal, but I think it is, because art is personal. It hurts, and that's right, because it's about you. I don't think success stems from rejection, but there's usually a lot of rejection along the way. 

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

Sure, I wrote a whole book about it! But briefly: Finanical security is really helpful in giving people the freedom to take on a writing career, but it's not required. In my work, I'm interested in what happens when we acknowledge that a lot of the labor in publishing is being done by people with extra resources, and that means people from the margins and people with untraditional backgrounds are less able to access a career. That's the reality, and it's time we acknowledge that. And writers tend to compare ourselves to others without understanding the full financial picture. That author you might hold yourself up to in comparison might have a trust fund, or a spouse who's a banker, so why are you being hard on yourself about not achieving what they've achieved, when you have two jobs and a kid to support and can't just write all day? There's so much insecurity and ego around success, and too little transparency. I hope to try and change that a bit with my work on Scratch and Who Pays Writers.

In the larger pictures, something we're really concerned with in the States right now is that independent creative professionals have never had a lot of financial stability or the support of social services, but now we're looking at an economic and political environment that's increasingly threatening what little we did have. Being a marginally employed writer is a lot more difficult without healthcare access. Without access to affordable education and reasonable student loan policies. Without a day job that doesn't trample all your boundaries and take over your life, or without a secure job. These problems aren't isolated or limited to artists; everyone feels this way. Everyone is working harder, for less, and less security. It's a systemic problem in our country. 

How do you define success as a writer?

Every writer has a different definition of success. For some it means making a living from their work; for others, it's more craft-related. For me, right now, success means "did I write the thing I wanted to write, and is it good, and am I trying to put it into the world and allow it impact people?" 

Do you have role models for success and who are they?

My dad is probably my greatest role model when it comes to success. He is an organic gardener and leads an apprenticeship program for organic farming in California. He loves his job, and he is the best person in the world at it, and he's been doing it for more than 40 years. We should all be so lucky. 

Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?

Quit smoking. 

Your thoughts on success in the writing business and race/ gender

We live in a world in which gender, race, and other aspects of a person's identity, such as sexuality, inflects everything we do. So of course gender matters in the writing world. Of course gender plays a part in a person's success, not that it happens because of gender but the way a writer is received is always linked with their gender. There's an essay in my book by the author Emily Gould, who discusses the double standard women are held to in publishing--we're expected to be both brilliant and nice and accessible, while men are much more easily able to get away with being recluses or "isolated geniuses." 

The workers in the mainstream publishing industry (in the US) are vastly white women, and yet still women hold the most senior positions. Women experience situations every day where we are taken less seriously, expected to perform more administrative or emotional labor, or have our subjectivity questioned. Just look at the difference in book covers for women authors and book covers for male authors. It's real, it's there, and for better or worse, it matters. The flip side of gender discrimination is that there is a lot of amazing progress being made by feminist presses and other small independent businesses run by women who want to change that in the publishing business. People like Emily Books and Dorothy, a Publishing Project and Guillotine. They're doing amazing work that is pro-woman and women-led and they're changing the publishing landscape. Buy their stuff! 

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  • Find Manjula's latest projects on her website
  • Subscribe to Manjula's fabulous Newsletter "3 cents" on Creative Work, Money and Love
  • In 2012 she founded the website Who Pays Writers? which is now maintained by an anonymous collective of writers. The site is is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of which publications pay freelance writers—and how much.
  • She edited and published recently the book Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living where she asks writers—like Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Jennifer Weiner, Austin Kleon, and many others—on the realities of making a living in the writing world.