Poetry and the precarious – breadless happiness? What it means to live from writing

Professional authors live in the limbo between absolute freedom and precariat. How to endure? Peter Stamm, Urs Mannhart and Erika Do Nascimento tell their story.

Author: Simon Leuthold

Writers who make a living from writing don’t have it easy. You are in a profession that many people don’t see as such. In addition, they have neither a secure income nor a retirement plan. To make matters worse, many are struggling with low sales numbers. Due to the Corona pandemic, cancelled readings are added to the mix.

How do you still manage to keep your head above water financially?? Three literary artists at different points in their careers have found their own answers to these problems.

Erika Do Nascimento – The newcomer

If you ask Erika Do Nascimento what she does for a living, the first thing she tells you is about her part-time internship in the Solothurn Literature Festival team. In addition, she works one day a week as a museum supervisor.

"The fact that I am writing my first novel, I mention, if at all, only at the very end."After all, she still can’t make a living from writing. Instead, you spend your free time working on the book.

Erika Do Nascimento’s path to writing was not a straight line. The author was born in Brazil and grew up between 6 and 14 years in Switzerland. She then lived for a few years in a Rio de Janeiro favela. At 18, she returned to Switzerland and worked as a waitress, saleswoman or barista.

"A certain panic"

"Although I have always written," says the 29-year-old. The idea to professionalize this, however, had come relatively late. A friend told her about the Swiss Literary Institute in Biel. She found her studies there to be a great enrichment: "I received a scholarship, we were given mentorships and were able to exchange ideas."

It was only during her last year at university that it dawned on her how difficult it would be to stand on her own two feet in the literary world: "Suddenly I realized that it was coming to an end. That triggered a certain panic."

Fitting the theme

Writing - a balancing act between creativity and calculation

Precarious life as a writer

Writing – a balancing act between creativity and calculation

Last year, Do Nascimento graduated from college. Since then, she spends a significant amount of her free time approaching foundations for support for her novel project. But that’s difficult if you haven’t published anything yet. Hope is most likely to come from municipal or cantonal cultural funding agencies.

Readings are especially important

"In an ideal world, I would publish novels and be able to make a living from the readings," says the author. The events are particularly important financially. For most literary creators, they make up the lion’s share of income.

A normal, fair contract with a publisher provides only 10 percent of the price for the author, i.e. between two and a maximum of four francs per book sold. Who does not sell thousands of books, cannot live from it.

"The uncertainty of whether it’s going to work out or not is part of it," Do Nascimento admits. Nevertheless, she sometimes struggles with the fact that outsiders often regard professional writing as a hobby. She doesn’t understand, she said: "People like to read. But the work behind it is not appreciated."

The literary business around publishing houses, media and funding agencies also gives her a hard time. While the industry is changing. However, it still consists largely of a white, male middle class. "The question always arises: How can someone like me get a foothold in a favela??"

While very satisfied with the writing itself, Do Nascimiento said. But the worry about whether the money would be enough would always catch up with them. Thus then again and again time of the writing goes away.

This vicious circle can be overcome only with luck, perseverance and routine. "You should take writing as seriously as any other job," the writer explains. "So make a schedule, start at 8 o’clock instead of 9 – and also take yourself really seriously in the process."

Urs Mannhart – The hitchhiker

Urs Mannhart describes his profession differently depending on the situation. "Sometimes I just say I’m a farmer. When I feel like talking more, I say farmer and writer. And when I feel like talking a lot, I just say writer."

Mannhart is not an agricultural employee for the sole purpose of securing a financial basis for his actual existence as a writer. There can be no question of a "bread job. Instead, he wants to lead a fulfilled life. "For that, I depend on having other things to do in life besides writing."

Type Hemingway

He is a movement person, says Mannhart: "If you had to make two categories of authors, with Kafka on one side, always in the writing room, sickly, rejected the physical – and with Hemingway on the other side, who steals a bicycle at the next train station and makes a crazy tour with it: I would rather be the second type".

Fitting to the topic

"Mountaineering in the lowlands": a European novel from Switzerland

Mannhart strives for a balance between body and mind. He wants a balance of all the senses that are part of being human, he explains. "I feel impoverished when these senses are reduced to the intellectual."

This balance is also important for his literary work, says the author: "Because I always knew that I had other things going on in my life, I never had to bend my literature."

17 francs an hour

Mannhart puts up with a lot for this independence. As an agricultural employee, he earns 17 francs per hour, according to his own information. His annual budget amounts to around 32,000 francs. Thereby he calculates with incomes, which are 10’000 francs under it.

In keeping with the theme

Why write books today, Lara Stoll?

What’s the point of writing books today, Lara Stoll?

This only works because he has received prizes and sponsorships for his books several times in the past. "So I can cushion this minus," he says and immediately explains, "I have never pursued my professional activities for financial motives".

For Urs Mannhart, wealth and success are not limited to the financial side of things. "Look at Hermann Burger. He drove a Ferrari, had everything in life. But he was unhappy to death and took his own life."

Mannhart sees the greatest success in achieving inner satisfaction. He is well aware that he is at odds with the current positions: "Not everyone wants an open view of life."

Society’s fixation on the financial irritates him. "This is similar to poor radio reception for me. A crackle in the background, but in the front it’s about something completely different". He feels good about his work, he says – and that’s a luxury.

Peter Stamm – The established man

Peter Stamm, who has chosen Winterthur as his home, has been able to count on a loyal reading public in Switzerland and throughout the German-speaking world for years. His last novel, "The Archive of Feelings," went straight to No. 1 on the bestseller list in this country and stayed there in the top three for more than a month.

Stamm is one of the few Swiss authors who can live exclusively from their literary work. This is guaranteed by his relatively constant high sales figures and the great public interest in his books.

Income of a high school teacher

"In a good year," he says, "I earn about as much with my books and the events that go with them as a teacher at a cantonal school. But it is still associated with extreme uncertainty".

Even for a successful author like Stamm, not every year is a good year. Even more than 20 years after his breakthrough with the novel "Agnes," he has no secure income.

From the archives: Peter Stamm shortly after his breakthrough

At the beginning of his career, he admits, he didn’t realize how difficult it would be to make a living from writing. "I saw the successful authors above all and thought to myself: I want that, too."

The reality then looked different for a long time. Stamm lived at subsistence level in an attic room, kept his head above water with odd jobs and as an airplane loader for Swissair. During that time, he says, he learned to be frugal: "For me, happiness in life comes from my work, not my standard of living," he says.

The fact that his profession as a writer demands various sacrifices from him is, however, a matter of course for him. His whole life is in the service of this profession. He also has no real hobbies because writing takes up so much space. "I don’t miss it either, though".

The combination of financial insecurity and giving up free time in favor of work doesn’t exactly promise rosy career prospects. "I can’t recommend this to anyone in good conscience. And yet it’s the greatest profession for me," says the writer about writing.

In order for an existence as an author to function, it requires a number of things, he explains. "You need a certain basic trust that things will work out somehow. Procrastination blocks you. Then great seriousness and hard work and a good pinch of bravado."

It’s an advantage not to worry too much about being read when posting. Posting something just because you’re sure it will be well received in the marketplace is tempting, to be sure, Stamm admits. Yet he would never do that.

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