Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

I Wasn’t Rich

But I Made Learning The Most Important Thing…

I got a comment from a person in a letter after my post about going and learning from long-time professionals. It was a passing comment this person and not made in any way bad. But it sent me laughing.

The comment was basically “Good thing you had money.”

The reference was to my early days in writing and me having money in those days was so far from the truth as to be on another planet. I had no money.


Let me give you a few stories. I went to my first convention in 1982 and shared a ride with three others and a room as well. The next year, same convention, I shared a room with two others including Avram Davidson who we picked up along the way. (Major long-term writer and former editor of F&SF Magazine.) He couldn’t drive because of health and didn’t have any money for a room, so even though we had none either, my friend and I managed to get enough for a hotel room and I slept in a sleeping bag just so I could talk and listen to Avram.

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm invited me and Nina Kiriki Hoffman to their monthly writer’s workshop in their home in Eugene, OR. Nina and I lived in Moscow, Idaho, me in the basement (it really was a basement with very low ceilings) of my bookstore with my wife, Nina in the apartment above the bookstore. So every month, even though we had no money, Nina and I piled into a car very, very early in the morning (like 2 a.m.), left my then wife to run the bookstore, and made the one-way eight-hour drive to Eugene.

We would go to the workshop, talk into the night at times, then get back in the car and drive all the way back to Moscow because we could not afford hotel rooms. We could barely afford the gas and we packed food. We did this every month for over a year, rain, snow or shine, until we both moved to Oregon.

It was worth it to sit in Damon and Kate’s house every month and listen to them and learn.

But here is the real tester that I have told a few times. One Saturday night, late, at the bar I worked at as assistant manager in Moscow, Idaho, I got a phone call from Algis Budrys. (He knew where I worked because he often stayed in my bookstore on the couch while traveling.) He said he had put together a special workshop with Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, Gene Wolf, and himself teaching. It was a week long, only twelve writers he had hand-picked were invited, did I want to come?

I said sure.

He told me it started in one week in Taos, New Mexico and the workshop was free, but I had to pay to get there and my own room and food. Was I still interested?

I said sure. I would be there. And hung up.

I had no money. I had scraped together enough to get to the Nebula Awards that were happening in a few days in San Francisco, but I could only do that if I drove the entire way there without getting a room and stayed with a friend near the hotel.

I had no money. But I wasn’t going to miss learning for a week from Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, Gene Wolfe, and Algis Budrys.

No chance. So I made it work and I managed to do it, sharing a room with two other writers during the week, and even had enough money for gas to get back to Idaho. Barely. And that workshop was where I met Kris. She had gotten there on basically no money either.

Later that year, Kris and I shared a room with six other writers at a convention and we ate basically from the con suite and food given away at pro parties. I remember at another convention Ellen Datlow took a bunch of us out on Omni’s tab and that was the only real meal I had the entire weekend.

Story after story after story like that.

I found the money to go learn from the best.

And eventually the money came around. Kris and I paid off over $400,000 in Pulphouse debt by writing. I went from years of making most of my money from a part-time bartender job to earning six figures with just telling stories.

But back in that first decade or two, I had no money. I had no debt either, but I had no money.

And yet I was able to go learn from the older, experienced writers. And because I was willing to make those sacrifices and write a lot, I am here now. Same with Kris.

So if you are thinking that it was lucky I had money when I was coming in, and wishing you had money now, sorry, I just killed that misconception. (grin)

You do what you have to do for your art and your writing.

And that is one main reason Kris and I decided to do the workshops when we started them on the Oregon Coast. (Or as we liked to call it, the ass-end-of-nowhere.) We figured that if a person really wanted to learn bad enough, like Kris and I had done in our early days getting to Taos, New Mexico, that writer would find a way to get to the Oregon Coast.

And no surprise that so many of those writers who came to those early workshops are now major working professional writers selling all the time.

Why? The answer is simple. They valued learning over money.

Just as Kris and I did in our early decades.

And we still do.


  • Linda Maye Adams

    One of the things that really gets in the way of doing something you want to do is being saddled with a lot of debt. I just read a book called Freelance to Freedom, which is about a wedding photographer. He was a sports photographer for a newspaper, but was able to go in business as a wedding photographer. But he started out growing up in a house where money turned into a nightmare, so he had a bad association with it starting out. He recounts that he got married, and then started accumulating debt–because it seemed normal to do so! Everyone else around him was in debt too.

    One day, he realized he was on a hamster wheel. If they left things as is and did what everyone else did, they were never going to get out of debt. So it becomes real easy to think, “If I made more money, I could get out of debt and do things I want.” But the result is that the more money turns into spending on things we don’t need and adding more debt.

    The worst part of it for writers is that when they’re on this hamster wheel and they start looking for classes, they hit the cheap stuff. The class that costs $50, runs for six weeks, and has 20 people. So they add to the debt, use valuable time, and get a class that’s taught by someone who probably doesn’t know much more than they do. And the money ends up wasted, all because it’s filtered through the debt.

    • dwsmith

      Linda, yes debt is a killer to the early writer, as is a good time-consuming career.

      I have a masters in architecture and three years of law school. But I did not take the last tests that would have made me a lawyer and only worked for a short time as an architect because I wanted to be a writer. So I lived in a cheap apartment, paid cash for a car, and worked just enough to make my bills so I would have more time to write. Did I take heat for that? Oh, heavens, yes. To some friends and family, I was a failure, a drop out, a person who couldn’t stick with one thing. Some friends understood and supported me and are still around, but most friends and all family didn’t and those folks are all gone into my past. I never talk to any of my blood family anymore and haven’t for a very long time.

      So there is a price to pay. So yes, no debt is critical, and the ability to sacrifice comfort for long-term gain. But now I live in a top-floor condo in a tall building in downtown Las Vegas paid for by my writing and Kris and I own four stores and a publishing company on the Oregon Coast.

  • Jeremy

    You talked about this in the Paying the Price lecture. It’s one of my favorite lectures I’ve taken from WMG. You cover the tough times but it’s also inspiring. It leaves you with that “I can do this” feeling after watching all the videos.