I’m writing to you today from my temporary office in Managua, Nicaragua. The office is alternately too hot or too cold, as the window-mounted air conditioner thwarts my every effort to find the “Goldilocks Setting,” the one where the temperature is just right. I’m here, as I have been some dozen times before, training writers and developing scripts for a Nicaraguan television show I co-created called Contracorriente – “Against the Tide”. Without going into all the nuts and bolts of this (though ask me to sometime; I live for the nuts and bolts), Contracorriente is an edgy drama about sweatshop labor, sexual abuse, gender identification, economic liberation for women, and the commercial sexual exploitation of adolescents. It’s pretty heavy. Pretty far removed from my sunshine noir novels and my comedy writing, from my plan to invent a thousand new words by Christmas, from my poker books, my tweets…hell, it’s pretty far removed from everything else I do in my life. As a non-profit project it doesn’t pay much, but I don’t mind because it’s materially helping the people of an impoverished, struggling country that, frankly, needs all the help it can get. The show’s roots go back to 2006, and lately I’ve been thinking about how much has changed for me since then…
Five years ago, I made half my money from poker-related enterprises. I was writing and profusely selling how-to books on the subject, pounding out articles for half a dozen poker magazines, blogging for a major poker website, and doing color commentary on poker TV broadcasts. The other half of my income came from Europe, where I traveled frequently to teach and train television writers or consult on TV projects –work not entirely different from what I’m doing in Nicaragua, but a damn sight more lucrative. From an income point of view, 2006 was a monster year, and I could afford the luxury of a Nicaraguan labor of love.
In the five years since, I have seen the publication of four novels, and as you know if you’ve been following these posts, this is something of which I am just inordinately proud. My other sources of income, though, the consulting and poker gigs, got pole-axed by, respectively, the global economic meltdown and the ban on internet poker. 2011 is not going down in the annals of my revenue streams as any sort of banner year. In some sense, I can no longer afford my Nicaraguan labor of love. Yet I continue with it. It’s good for my soul. It’s probably my ticket to heaven.
This week, here in Managua, I received two pieces of interesting news. One was my first distribution from Amazon for the sale of self-published ebooks, and you can congratulate me, campers, for I am now $23.60 richer. The other news, a sad synecdoche of the publishing industry today, was Random House informing me that The California Roll is to be remaindered, and I may buy as many copies as I like for $1.37 a throw. Of course I’ll stock up, because part of my current money model involves aggressively hand-selling to writing groups, book clubs, mystery fans, claques of little old ladies, and anyone else who’ll have me in to speak. Now I can sell this beautiful hardbound book at a deep discount, and make literally tens of dollars and tens of new fans. Wow, between that and the sweet checks from Amazon, I’m really gonna be living large.
Oh the money’s not the point. The money is so not the point. If you had asked me five years ago to choose between a semi-lucrative career in poker journalism and Euro-consulting or a seriously non-lucrative in novel writing, I’d for sure have chosen the latter because that’s where my heart lies. But the fact is, I never had a choice. Back then my opportunities were what they were and I seized them. Over time, my opportunities shifted, some may say shrunk, but in my equanimity I view this as neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing that is.
And a thing that will change. Maybe poker will come storming back. Maybe the global economy will catch fire. Maybe a major television network in Burundi or Katmandu will offer me an outrageously over-compensated position. Maybe my next novel will take off and fly, dragging me skyward with it. Maybe none of that will happen, and 2016 will find me scuffling for bucks pretty much exactly as I’m scuffling now.
Which will be fine. Really it will. Because if I’m still breathing in five years’ time (not hit by a bus or whatnot), I’m sure I’ll still be working, still writing, still creating, still accepting every intriguing invitation that come my way. I live by that acceptance. I live by the notion that it’s the journey, not the destination that counts. Viewed through one filter, my journey of the past five years has been a downhill slide from big money to small money. Viewed through another filter, It’s been a sublime and fulfilling half-decade, made so by the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote. But the filters don’t matter. The filters are just opinion.
We writers, if we’re sensible, take pleasure from the page. Sometimes it’s all we’ve got. And sometimes it’s all that sustains us when the money’s not there. We also, if we’re sensible, take pleasure from life’s surprises, whether these be an unexpectedly trenchant turn of phrase or the chance to struggle with the Goldilocks Setting in a far and distant land. My motto has always been, “Walk down the beach, pick up everything you find, and turn it into a party hat.” It’s worked for me as a writer and a person, and it might just work for you, too.