Thrive as a Starving Writer--Lessons from the Experts

Photo: Russell Lee

The web is full of advice for starving writers. And why not? Any writer has heard the advice "Write what you know," and one thing many writers know is about being a starving writer. Oddly, most of their advice is on writing. A couple of truly great writers, though, have left us advice on the much more important topic of not starving.

One writer I'm thinking of in particular is Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway is hardly the only person to have written about a year or two spent as a starving writer. Another is George Orwell, who wrote the masterful Down and Out in Paris and London. But although Orwell lived as a starving writer, the vivid descriptions in his book offer little in the way of practical advice for someone trying to carve out time and space to make a go of being a writer. Hemingway on the other hand, has plenty to say on just that topic.

There's a short piece by Hemingway available on-line: Living on $1000 a Year in Paris. The article describes how cheaply it was possible to live in Paris--a room for $30 a month, breakfast for $6 a month, subway rides for 4 cents--thanks to the exchange rate at the time.

At the present rate of exchange, a Canadian with an income of one thousand dollars a year can live comfortably and enjoyably in Paris. If exchange were normal, the same Canadian would starve to death. Exchange is a wonderful thing.

That was in 1921 and the dollar-franc (and now dollar-euro) exchange rate has long since reverted to something reasonable, but the central message is still valid: To thrive as a starving writer what you need is a very cheap cost structure for your home economy.

Living on $X a year

First of all, don't throw your hands up at the figure of $1,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, $1,000 a year in 1921 comes to (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) $12,031 a year in 2009 dollars.

Getting by on $12,000 a year would be tight in the United States--especially so if, as Hemingway was, you're feeding two people. Tight, and yet not impossible. Hemingway's $30 room translates to $361, and rooms for that price can be found in many parts of the United States. There aren't many places where a subway ride could be had for an inflation-adjusted 48 cents, but where I live a bus ride can be had for less than a dollar. You can eat very cheaply if your room includes access to a kitchen and you're willing to eat mostly rice, beans, and whatever vegetables are cheap that day at the grocery store.

In A Moveable Feast, his memoir about those years, Hemingway mentions many little ways he economized. Gertrude Stein advised that he spend no money on clothes (although she thought he should spend the money saved thereby on art). He writes about saving money by not getting his hair cut--which had an added bonus for Hemingway:

I found out very quickly that the best way to avoid going over to the right bank and get involved in all the pleasant things that I could not afford and that left me with, at least, gastric remorse was not to get a haircut. You could not go over to the right bank with your hair cut like one of those wonderful looking Japanese noblemen painters who were friends of Ezra's.... "You mustn't let yourself go, Hem. It's none of my business of course. But you can't go native this way. For God's sake straighten out and get a proper haircut at least."

There are a lot of things that can be cut out of a budget--if you're a writer and if cutting them makes it possible to spend your time writing.

Live someplace cheap

The exchange rate no longer makes Paris a cheap place to live, but there are plenty of places around the world that are cheap. I'm sure in a couple of decades we'll be reading memoirs by a new generation of great writers who right now are living and writing in Malaysia or South Africa or Brazil. (Foreigners think it's funny that Americans worry about how dangerous it would be to live overseas, because they think of the United States as a violent place with dangerous cities and terrible health care.)

It's really not necessary to go overseas, though, in search of a cheap place to live. There are plenty of cheap places in the United States. Rather, the big stumbling block for most aspiring writers is debt. If you can dodge that--get through school with little or no student debt, or else get your student debt paid off before you imbed the expenses of a middle-class American standard of living into the cost structure of your household, then you can go down the starving writer path--and probably do it without starving.

And, if you can't avoid starving just a little bit, Hemingway managed to find an upside even to that:

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the baker shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you were skipping meals at a time when you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to do it was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.

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Guest's picture
Peter T

Another famous writer who wrote about hunger was Knut Hamsun, Noble Prize winner, in his book "Hunger". No, sorry, I haven't read it yet and can't tell how it is.

Guest's picture
Tricia L

I have lived in the Middle East, Asia and Romania for a total of 5 years and lived on less than $700 a month. I left Romania 2 years ago to come back to the U.S but I hear from friends in the The Mid East and Romania that prices are actually going down on rent because of the economic crisis.

I am disabled and lived on Social Security. Here in the U.S living on $700 means living in poverty so I decided to see the world and in the countries where I lived I was considered well off :) . I had a budget but I lived very very well. I took taxi's everywhere, enjoyed weekend getaways in 3*& 4* hotels , bought nice clothing, ate at restaraunts 2 times a week and paid for my own healthcare.

Healthcare did become an issue because of a few emergencies but generic medications, Dr fee's and testing were very cheap.
Catscan in Romania of the whole body $300 Dr visit $10
Root canal $75-100 Pennicillin 10 day suppy $1

I am now married back in the U.S and things are much easier but I will never regret living abroad it was the greatest experience of my life.

Guest's picture

Yea. Really a big thank you for your uplifting comment.
Thank you for being positive but still "reasonable". - If I may put a label on it.
It would be nice to see your experiences in other blogs or as other articles as well.
Have a great day and take care.

Guest's picture

What a great post! I would love to travel the world, seeing places where I could get farther with my money than here.

Guest's picture

My comment does pertain to the article but was actually mainly intended for Tricia L (comment #2).

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

A Moveable Feast is one of me favorite books of all time. The best part? I was reading it while I lived in Paris for three months.

It was amazing!

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Guest's picture

I'm not sure why it is that writers tend to grow out their hair. My father is a professional writer, and he has a ponytail longer than mine!

Guest's picture
The Prudent Homemaker

When I lived in France (Lyon, not Paris) I felt just like Hemingway did about the patesseries and the cafes.

When I was in Thailand, I was amazed at the price differences. It was not an expensive place to be. I met a couple who had been living on the beach with their toddler for a year, because it was so inexpensive (the beach houses were $15 a might where we were staying).

Cutting your overhead, though, can make a huge difference in your budget.

Guest's picture

Hemingway, great artist that he was, was also a bullshit artist. When he was "starving" in Paris, he was really living quite well off of Hadley's income which was the equivalent of a mid-level administrator's at the time. When Hadley's investments went belly up, Hem found himself a wealthier dame. I've done the same thing Philip Brewer has done and it's worked for me.

Guest's picture

I'm a writer living in Paris, and my girlfriend and I together get by on a lot less than 12,000 per year.

Guest's picture
JC Wells

I didn't know Hemingway had such a hard time of it. It must've been hard at times. If he had thrown his arms up in frustration and given up, we would never have been able to read some of the greatest works of fiction in modern history.