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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
"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. "
IRS will consider your writing a 'hobby.'"
I slumped in my seat. "Oh, please no, not a
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
I stared, now, at the columns of red ink and
heard the warning that used to repeat in my head like a mantra:
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
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
A shorter version of "Balancing the
Books" ran in ByLine Magazine's "First $ales" column in December,