by Rudri Bhatt Patel
In Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, editor Manjula Martin presents essays and interviews from writers who explore the intersection between art and commerce. Accomplished writers such as Roxane Gay, Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed, and Jonathan Franzen offer honest and insightful stories about their lives as artists. This anthology doesn’t limit its perspective to only the famous, but also offers a look into the lives of writers who aren’t necessarily well-known. What emerges is an authentic account of writers who are willing to share the most intimate details about how money plays a role in the artist’s life – and we’re all lucky Martin agreed to tackle a topic many deem taboo.
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Martin and she generously offered her insights via email into what many writers may be wondering, but are too afraid to ask.
1. In your introduction, you define the word, scratch. How did your personal notion of the word evolve at the end of editing this book?
I’ve always loved that word because it doubles as slang for “money” and as a way of writing – a la “chicken scratch.” But I also associate the phrase with a certain essential scrappiness, a facility at patching things together, that for me has become one of the most attractive notions about that word as a title, as well as a connective quality across many writers’ careers.
2. The chapter you authored in the book talks about your job as a seamstress and how you identified yourself “as only a stitcher.” What did the act of stitching teach you about the process of writing?
I was a seamstress, but I prefer to say stitcher because seamstress tends to invoke this Dickensian image of a girl in rags sewing dresses for rich ladies, which is not really what was happening; I worked in a theatrical costume shop. What I love about sewing is that it’s so concrete — you make a thing. There’s an amazing moment when you’re working on a garment where you realize that all these oddly shaped pieces and tiny painstaking steps have come together to make an Actual Thing. That, and the knowledge that if you fuck it up, you can usually undo everything and start again. Same with writing.
3. Through listening and editing the stories writers shared, what identifiable trait could you pinpoint that threaded all of their experiences when tackling hardships during the writing process?
None! I think the most awesome thing about this project is how different all writers are. As different as any human can be from one another, except they write. If there were one trait I could say all these writers have in common, it’s that they write things and finish them. Finishing is key. That, and the aforementioned scrappiness.
4. The following passage from Sarah Smarsh after learning her mother was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer, struck me: “You know the one – when you’re stunned into clarity, rung by humble reckoning with mortality, a dead body at the front of a precious chapel full of people acting fake. When you look around and ask, What the hell are we doing with our lives?” Do you believe artists must realize this epiphany (in some variation) to commit to their writing?
Sarah’s piece is so powerful and beautifully written, and I was grateful that she was willing to tell that story on paper. And obviously that is a very personal moment in Sarah’s life that she chose to disclose, and that moment is a linchpin in the narrative of the essay. In that essay Sarah is doing what great essayists do – delivering to the reader an experience that is deeply specific and unique, yet allows the reader to see their own situation in its reflection, somehow, and to see it differently than they did before. Personally, I relate to Sarah’s piece very deeply even though we come from different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds.
Generally, when it comes to what I’ll less gracefully term a YOLO epiphany, I do think a lot of artists have that moment in one way or another, at different times in life or in work. Whether it’s necessary or not… oh, I don’t know. I don’t think the kind of suffering that sometimes leads to such moments is a pre-requisite of art-making. Although risk-taking — in some form or other — usually is.
5. Many of the writers profiled in the book garner revenue from several different sources, teaching, writing, editing, etc. What do you tell the writer who doesn’t possess the talent to juggle multiple jobs? Should that writer focus on just the writing?
Not all people who write have the luxury of just focusing on the writing. Most people have to earn a living. It’s entirely okay and admirable to pay your rent and feed yourself and your loved ones, before you do your creative work. That’s just part of being a person living in the world. If you don’t want to have multiple jobs, try to find a day job that supports you and your family, and then try to write on the side. But as an artist in the world, it’s important to learn to distinguish between acts of survival and acts of distraction or assimilation. Survive, then create, then you’ll be able to survive. You can’t really do one without the other.
6. At what point in your life as an artist did you feel comfortable in your own skin as a writer and feel you could confidently call yourself a writer?
It probably took me until about third grade, but since then I’ve been pretty comfy with it!
7. Any parting thoughts or wisdom on the intersection of art and commerce?
Art and commerce always intersect, and the place where they meet is always awkward. That will never stop being the case, but the more we know and understand this, the easier it’ll be to live at that particular intersection.