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Balancing the Books
by Melissa Russell

I quit my real job to become a writer and thought I'd accounted for what I left behind in that windowless office: a typed-out job description, five sealed packets of hot sauce, an expired proxy vote on the company take-over, the Cross pen presented to me for ten years of political mud wrestling, and all of Tom Peters' "successful management" books.

I turned my back on my old career--by shunning fashion trends, ignoring errant bits of company gossip, refusing free make-up samples offered to lure me back into the store---and concentrated instead on writing a sprawling novel that gave way to a children's picture book that was reduced to a long rhyming poem that finally ended up as haiku.

Yet, while I struggled to find my voice in a niche or the nick in my voice, I kept meticulous records of every writing expense I incurred. I bought a hardbound ledger with pages and columns for five years of exacting notations: every first-class stamp, every phone call to a publisher's receptionist, every mile driven to critique meetings, every envelope, every ream of copy paper, every highlighter, every damn cent it cost me to write.

"You've got LOSSES," the CPA told me three years ago.

"I know that," I said, crossing my arms. "I'm not published yet."

"Well, unless you make a good faith effort to turn a profit…" He leaned forward in his green tufted-vinyl swivel chair. "…the IRS will consider your writing a 'hobby.'"

I slumped in my seat. "Oh, please no, not a HOBBY!"

So for two more years, in feverish fits and starts, I offered up my short stories and picture books like sacrifices and entered one obscure contest after another, always keeping track of the cost of SASEs and SASPs and entry fees and winners' lists.

But I didn't earn any money.

Then in November, when a friend asked me to critique her book, I summoned the nerve to suggest that she pay me. No problem from her point of view, but when I opened my ledger book to enter the check, I realized that I'd never assigned a column for INCOME!

Ah ha! I remembered, then, that I had left something important in that office five years ago. In my eagerness to shed my business suit and take up the bohemian garb of a writer, I had left behind the common-sense professional self that I'd carefully nurtured for two decades.

I stared, now, at the columns of red ink and heard the warning that used to repeat in my head like a mantra:

IF YOU PLAN FOR BAD BUSINESS, YOU GET BAD BUSINESS.

Well, I had proven that maxim right. I hadn't earned any money because I hadn't expected to earn any money!

In January I set up my expense columns again, but this time I added one for "Income." Then I mailed out another article and continued to write while I waited expectantly. In less than three weeks I received a contract and a check---which I entered in black ink!

This year I'm "managing" my work with a new attitude and a new ledger column. This year I'm affirming my writing as an occupation instead of a hobby. And this year my books will be read, not red!

A shorter version of "Balancing the Books" ran in ByLine Magazine's "First $ales" column in December, 1997

© Copyright 1997, Melissa Russell

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