My neighbor and I were slouched on my couch, watching The Holiday and eating under-baked brownies from the pan, when the email came that changed my life.
For seven years, on and off, I’d been pitching national publications, hoping they would accept my essays and journalism. Local publications gave me no trouble. I enjoyed great relationships with my small city’s newspapers, websites and magazines, but I never could get the far-flung big guys to take a pitch. Instead, the fancy editors always ignored my emails. I couldn’t even get rejected.
Understanding the problem did not help. There’s an ancient catch-22 that says: You can’t write for large, popular, national publications until you’ve written for large, popular, national publications. It’s like when you’re applying for your first job. You need the job to get experience, but can’t get the job without experience.
I could see no way out of the bind, so I just kept on pitching into the void, growing more disappointed and bitter by the week. If only I’d gone to an Ivy League school, or had the cash to move to New York after college! If only I’d had well-connected alcoholic socialites for parents! I was sure my writing life would be different. Easier. Cooler. The opposite of desperate and doomed.
And then, in 2015, seven years into my pitching efforts, I dashed off an essay for a tiny personal-finance website about, of all things, my mortgage payment. My husband and I had recently bought a modest house in our hometown, and the monthly payments were low, running to just $624, or 58 percent less than what was then the median U.S. mortgage payment of $1,477.
My essay’s title was simple, classic clickbait: “Tradeoff: The True Story of My $624 Mortgage Payment.”
The day it came out, Yahoo! picked up and ran the story, too, which I learned when coworkers began forwarding me the link. And that night, while my neighbor and I were complaining about Kate Winslet getting stuck with Jack Black, my inbox pinged. A senior editor at New York Magazine had emailed me. She’d seen the mortgage piece.
“Pitch me,” she said.
Wordlessly, I handed over my phone so my friend could read the email, and the next moment, we were flying off the couch, stomping and whooping like football players doing an endzone dance.
The next morning, I shot the editor a pitch—for another internet-friendly essay about money because, by this point, I’d gotten religion. She accepted the idea, and about a month later, I got my first big byline. Then I used that byline to get my next byline, to get my next byline, until I had enough bylines that I was able to sell my first book to a Big Five publisher. And to think it all started with an essay about my mortgage. Oh, the glamour of it all.
The internet has changed since 2015, but the great human interests have not.
What allures people, what do they want to read about? Money, sex and death, but especially money. So when you write about money, you put the odds of a breakout on your side. It was true centuries ago and it’s still true now.
To mention just a few examples:
- The very first line of Pride & Prejudice concerns a “large fortune.”
- Anna Karenina opens with a scene of a married couple fighting over money for their children’s coats.
- Madame Bovary is littered with itemized bills for Emma’s dresses, stockings, ribbons, et al.
- In one of the most magical moments of the Great Gatsby, we’re told Daisy Buchanan’s voice is “full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
No one has ever written more beautifully about money than Fitzgerald, yet we could keep naming examples all day: Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, or any of the innumerable memoirs that delve into experiences of extreme poverty. Also, any of the gazillion romance novels with “billionaire” in the title. Any of Poe’s many stories about extreme wealth. All of George Orwell’s early work. Etc, etc.
Money makes a story extra sticky, and this principle applies to fiction and nonfiction, great literature and clickbait.
Nowadays I evangelize to fellow writers: Write about money.
And even more specifically—if you want to get an email opened, a pitch accepted, or your book picked off the shelf, try using a highly specific number in the subject line or the title. Try referencing money somehow. Detail your characters’ economic circumstances, or detail your own. It could help you get noticed. It could lead to the breakout you’ve been hoping for.
Of course there’s a big old bummer lurking just beneath this rule. Writing about money is a great strategy. Writing for money isn’t, and not because of some 20th-century preoccupation with “selling out.”
Genuine creative writing—the kind that’s done to fulfill some deeply personal vision—rarely turns out to be a high-earning proposition. It’s much more likely to cause financial problems than solve them. All those conferences, classes and editing services don’t come cheap. It can take a long time to get published, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get there. To call this a tough business is understatement.
There are vivid exceptions: So-and-so’s airport thriller, movie deal, indie publishing career, or MacArthur genius grant. But they just prove the rule. If creative writing offered reliable payouts, even more people would be doing it.
Even for those who do get published, rates tend to skew low. Freelance writing is notoriously badly paid, and only in rare instances do first-time authors receive six-figure book advances. I once calculated that writing my book earned me just $6.86 per hour—less than minimum wage. I could’ve earned more folding burritos or handing out Kohl’s Cash.
Honestly, though, it’s fine. Writing’s rewards lie elsewhere.
For many of us, to become a writer is to realize a childhood dream, actualizing at last our nerdiest, most-earnest selves. It’s to keep a promise to a child, an earlier version of you who was tiny and vulnerable, stranded in a harsh world, utterly baffled, hungry, thirsty, lost, needing to pee but unable to speak the language—and who, in a very real way, still exists inside you. (Or is it just me?)
In the same way, writing can give you a sense of identity. It can provide a way of being who you are now and a way of becoming who you are becoming, and I don’t care how woo that sounds because it’s true. Writing can also be a first-class ticket to flow state, helping you reap intense psychological benefits that lift you out of depression and anxiety, while deep absorption in a subject can help you transcend your humdrum, dirty-laundry circumstances. The work is a kind of relief, and how often can you say that?
Finally, though writing can be a lonely pursuit, when you make friends with other writers, you may discover a deep core of mutual understanding and, even better, shared gallows humor: friends who understand you, friends whom you understand. People to go to happy hour with and to complain with. There’s nothing better.
Money? It may never come. It probably won’t. But considering everything else we get from writing, it’s worthwhile—a pursuit worth pursuing.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.