Few writers are known for their wealth. More often, we’re known for our day jobs. Williams Carlos Williams was a doctor. Charlotte Brontë was a grossly underpaid governess. Faulkner worked as a mailman, Kurt Vonnegut at a Saab dealership, Douglas Adams as a security guard. Nowadays we’re baristas, sales clerks, bartenders and bookstore employees. I write essays and narrative nonfiction, and I work in the tasting room at a fantastic tea company in Portland, Oregon. I also write freelance and house-sit on the side. I’ve painted a house for extra cash, spent six years working at Powell’s Books before that, and a few years in my thirties living off of ham sandwiches at my parents’ house in Phoenix, Arizona. My motto: without acting immorally or disrespecting your fellow human beings, do whatever it takes to facilitate your writing and not get sidetracked. When your writing involves long-distance research, though, how do you fund it?
Besides being born to money, there’s no simple way for nonfiction writers to fund their research. There are numerous grants and fellowships. Universities offer students and faculty various support opportunities. As in Mozart’s time – even Thelonious Monk’s – generous benefactors still exist in the world and are willing to help; you just have to find them. Needless to say, competition can be fierce. While you wait for grants to open their application periods, or await word on your proposal, what to do? I keep a low overheard and do it the only way I know how: my own way.
While researching essays and articles away from home, I have a system. I call it car-camping. To reduce costs, I skip motels and sleep in my car. This often means upgrading to a rental car large enough to fit a five foot eight figure sprawled out on his face beside luggage, but the added money spent up front saves me much more money in the long run. Motels are expensive. Expenses add up. A smaller lodging budget means you can take a longer trip and get more research and writing done, which is more important to me than sleeping in a stiff bed with bleach-scented sheets.
To save additional money, I also eat cheaply—not poorly, just inexpensively. This means frequenting street taco carts and loncheros, ordering diner’s egg breakfasts for lunch and dinner, and splitting the Thai take-out into two meals. As a writer, it helps to run a tight ship. When I’m home, I eat lots of Trader Joe’s food since it’s cheap. I share a house with two roommates, their toddler and two dogs. I take care of my clothes so I rarely have to replace them. And while traveling to write pieces for the Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American and Men’s Journal, I car-camp and eat tacos and have been known to help myself to the complimentary breakfasts at hotels I didn’t stay at. You can read two pieces that I wrote in Los Angeles last summer on a low-budget research trip: one here at the Paris Review, and one here at the Virginia Quarterly Review. In fact, I did the final revision of my Paris Review piece about the Hollywood Subway in the back of my rental car, parked on the edge of downtown LA. I typed notes for another on the beach. I’m not trying to brag or earn some literary punk rock stripes. I’m only saying that if you want to get some things done, you have to try new methods and be inventive. When your means don’t match your ambitions, you have to improvise. Recently, I tried something new.
To raise funds to do essential reporting for my new book proposal, Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet, I launched a Kickstarter campaign. I’d never done one before. My timing proved interesting. Zach Braff, actor and creator of the film Garden State, launched his own Kickstarter a few days before mine. As I write this, Braff’s 46,272 backers have surpassed his two million dollar goal by over a million dollars. A crowd-sourcing campaign from a wealthy Hollywood insider has proved controversial. Although the timing didn’t create “synergy” for my own campaign, thanks to my generous friends and family and the kindness of strangers – and all the emails I sent to people – I raised my entire $3,000 goal in nineteen days. I was actually going to Japan to report on my story. I was floored. I was also uneasy.
Some people have trouble asking for help. My problem is asking for money. I feel like a user, a pitchman, selfish, a jerk. Sure, my funds are tight, but I assume funds are tight for most writers and editors. Who am I to ask people for money? Before launching my Kickstarter, I’d never asked people for financial assistance, and I’m uncomfortable asking for it now, but I needed to put that aside this time to make this happen. I’m enormously passionate about this book, more excited than I’ve ever been about one of my writing projects (and I loved writing my recent jazz essays for the Kenyon Review, AGNI, Brick and Conjunctions). I also believe that the subject’s global scope will impact the lives of city-dwellers in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and hopefully in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh.
Crowded is narrative nonfiction about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs, including everything from our moods to our businesses to interior design. Crowding isn’t just an environmental and urban design issue. It’s a social, psychological and moral issue. With over half the world population now living in cities, “The Future,” as novelist Don DeLillo said, “belongs to crowds.” I plan to portray what that future looks like, how we’re preparing for it, and write the first book to detail exactly how crowds have shaped human history through time. Once I finish the proposal, my agent can shop it around, and I can hopefully – hopefully! – write the rest of the book.
When asked for a summary, I like to call my book one urbanite’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd, which is why it’s interesting to crowd-source funds for such a book. If you’re able to help or want more information, here’s the Kickstarter link.
Kickstarter isn’t a way to get rich. It’s not a way to use peoples’ generosity to quit your day job. The platform’s name says it all: it’s a way to kick start your project by raising the initial funds to get over the proverbial hump. If you as a writer believe in your project but can’t save up the money to conduct the initial research, Kickstarter can help you reach the people who can solve that funding problem. Kickstarter is the wick. Once you light it, though, the onus is on you to get back to your computer to research and write.
As cliché as it sounds, it’s true: every little bit helps. What Kickstarter has showed me is that people, even ones you’ve never met in real life, only online, are generous and encouraging and full of great ideas, and that big projects require the help of many people to bring them to fruition. We may write alone, but we do not live in a bubble. I plan to make Crowded a compelling read and a book I and supporters can be proud of, and I will have many people to thank for that.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I assume Zach Braff feels exactly the same way about his new film.
Author Bio: Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for The New York Times, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Brick, Black Warrior Review, The Threepenny Review, AGNI, The Normal School and Hotel Amerika, and articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and Yeti. Future Tense Publishing put out his chapbook A Secondary Landscape. He sells tea in Portland, Oregon and lives online at http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/ and @AaronGilbreath.