Guest Essay : Pay Yourself First

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When I was growing up, my mother always earned money. In Korea, she taught piano to the local children, and in America, she worked alongside my father at their small wholesale jewelry shop in Manhattan. When I married my husband, I was a first year corporate lawyer and he was a junior salesman at a bank. I made more money than he did. Two years after lawyering, I quit to write fiction. He became the sole breadwinner. This was in 1995. We didn’t have much left over after we paid the mortgage on our tiny apartment, and my husband had to take lunch to work, and I refused to meet friends from my old job for a drink because I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t afford my share. It’s hardly a sad story, because it was a choice I made—to trade time for money. A year after I quit my job, I wrote a novel, but it didn’t sell. (Now that was a sad story.) I wrote other things thereafter: A few things got picked up, but for the most part, the writing life was scribbling in private. I filled a number of notebooks with bad writing and now and then there were a couple of inspired ideas. I’ve come to the realization that good writing is like making cheese—it takes about ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheddar. Basically, you need this huge quantity of words—a ten to one ratio—to make this other thing: The story, essay, novel, what have you.

      Then in 1998, we had a baby. I still didn’t make any real money from writing, and we  had the same mortgage and now, Sam. I thought about my mother a lot who had managed to raise three kids, cooked meals, kept a marriage going, and earned a paycheck. I tried to do as much as I could, but I was having a hard time just getting dinner on the table. I always felt lousy because housework took real time, but it wasn’t paid. I kept putting my writing aside.

      Grown up life makes its necessary demands, and writing on spec (short for “speculative”, i.e., pages no one’s asked for) was expensive, because art takes time, but as every artist learns, time on art costs money or time on art takes attention away from real people (like children and spouses). About when Sam was two, I started this unspoken policy of paying myself first. I did the dishes, paid the bills, folded the laundry and cooked dinner, took care of our son, took care of our extended families, while my husband got the salary and our health insurance, but I made sure that I got an hour or two each day for my fiction. On Saturdays, my husband took our son out so I could get a few more hours. My payments to my writing life came sometimes early in the morning, more often, at night when everyone was asleep, but I noticed that if I didn’t get paid that bit of time to grow my novel—word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph—I felt poor inside. So I guess the currency was time, and the payor was me, but the payee was me, too. It took eleven years to sell my first novel, and twelve years to see it in a bookstore, but it got done, albeit on my steady and low rate. And it was quite something when I got to hand a copy to my mother.

      Min Jin Lee is the author of Free Food for Millionaires (Warner 2007).

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2 Responses to Guest Essay : Pay Yourself First

  1. This was inspiring. I’m not a writer, but I plan to apply this to my life immediately. Thank you, thank you.

    All the best,
    CLKL (A mother of five who plans to pay herself last no more. My account is too far overdrawn.)

  2. Maria Rocco says:

    This essay reminds me a lot of Alex Haley’s story in Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work. It’s title is the Shadowland of Dreams, and if you’re entertaining becoming a writer – I’m still entertaining the thought – it’s a must read, along with Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

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