Can you live on words alone?

Sunday night’s #poetparty had a great discussion about posting poetry on blogs versus submitting for publication, but what really caught my eye was a discussion about if it’s possible to make a living on poetry. General consensus was no.

This was reflected at the last convention I was at where several poets told me that chapbooks just didn’t sell as well as anything and no one wanted to buy poetry. Since I’m going into an MFA with a focus in poetry that was a little sad to hear.

So, is it possible to live on writing alone? General opinion seems to be yes, but only for a very small, very lucky group of people. Why is that? Musicians live on their music, artists can live on their art. Well, what are the odds of that? How many musicians never make a dime from their songs, but they continue playing?

The reward for them is not in a monetary amount (though that doesn’t hurt), the reward is the desire to create. Writing is not something you start doing thinking ‘I’m going to be so rich.’ That’s like deciding the best way to diet is to only eat deep-fried food, it’s totally insane.

While it is fantastic for someone to say ‘I love your poem, here’s $100.’ it just doesn’t happen.

Do you think this is ever going to change?



  1. u.v.ray Said:

    It is possible. But very difficult. It is also a lengthy process, taking many, many years to achieve. I would say for this reason it isn’t so much about luck – it’s about tenacity. Survival of the fittest. Only the tough see it through. It’s taken me 25 years to get where I am today. And even that isn’t far enough to live off my writing completely. I earn a bit here and there. I estimate a few more years before I can live off it. Took Bukowski about 35 years, somewhere in that region. Usually, the successful write fiction as well as poetry though.

    • Agreed. I think it can be done, but it takes a lot of time, effort and resilience. I do think a writer is more likely to make a living on fiction alone than poetry alone, but a combination of both is probably the best.

  2. Laura Said:

    I think it depends on how you define “a living.” Certainly, you might not live “in the style to which you are accustomed” from your parents’ house, or be able to buy that big TV and computer you’ve always wanted. But if that was all it took to be satisfied with your life, all rich people would be happy. They aren’t. Although it would be pretty darn nice to be rich.

    Conclusion: don’t immediately quit your day job to write. I see you mentioned musicians in this post, but the reality of life for musicians is that most of them get their steady money from teaching, usually in a private studio. That’s probably true for writers and English-y types as well.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot of similarity between musicians and writers. Not very many make a living on purely selling their product, most have another job to ‘pay the bills’ between gigs.

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