I made my name—or “built my brand,” as the saying goes these days—writing how-to books. After earning an M.A. and two M.F.A.s in creative writing (that’s right, three barely useful degrees), I turned one of my hobbies into a career. I’d always loved animals. Aside from having my own menagerie, I worked at a pet shop during high school and college, bred exotic birds for many years, learned to train parrots and dogs using operant conditioning, and then delved into animal rescue. Animals and words were a natural fit for me.
I gained a healthy following among bird enthusiasts and dog rescuers as I churned out how-to books and wrote monthly how-to columns for several top pet magazines. By the time I’d published 35 how-to books on birds, dogs, and a few other topics such as writing poetry and dating, including a For Dummies and an Idiot’s Guide, I bragged that I could write a how-to book in my sleep. The how-to formula became one of my finest skill sets. Having dozens of books on bookstore shelves impressed people at parties, but I wasn’t impressed with myself—I was looking for the next paycheck.
I started associating words with money the way Pavlov’s dogs associated the ringing of a bell with food. This is a dangerous game for a writer. Writers should stay away from those kinds of equations. After all, I didn’t learn about how-to writing or money in graduate school. I wrote poetry and short stories. I inferred that my aim in a writing career, should I be so fortunate to have one, would be to garner the respect of my peers. I learned that I would be lucky to receive two copies of a university press journal in payment if the press published one of my poems. Then I won a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant in poetry. Cha-ching.
Before I started earning money in exchange for words, I wrote every day. I wrote like I’d fall into a black hole if I didn’t. I churned out stories, hundreds of poems, and even a novel. But when I began to cash paychecks from how-to writing, my creative writing slowed to a trickle. I became friends with other how-to writers, and we’d spend hours on the phone generating how-to book titles we wanted to pitch and sharing the names of amenable editors.
When I was getting my last graduate degree, an M.F.A. in fiction writing at NYU in 2009, I workshopped a few chapters of a memoir that I wanted to write on the topic of birds. A friend shared his agent’s name with me and she liked my concept, so she tasked me with writing a book proposal. After multiple proposal drafts, we sold the memoir to Henry Holt. The book was about my eccentric grandfather, who instilled in me a love of birds that would later save my life as I sought to overcome addiction. This wasn’t just another notch in my bookshelf—this was my dream: to write creatively as a profession.
The book would be a proverbial piece of cake, I thought. It’s about birds, not a far stretch from my other work. I’ve published more than 40 books. I can write a book with my feet. But not this one.
The book summoned all the ghosts of creative writing programs past. I couldn’t just bang it out—it required diligence and finesse. It required me to exorcize demons. It made me live out every writing cliché that I’d avoided for so long: the pain of dredging up childhood memories, the killing of my darlings, the all-nighters, the coffee. The visions and revisions, and revisions, and reading a lot of T.S. Eliot.
The book’s advance was respectable, but by the time I was done, if I added up every sleepless minute, every moment sitting in front of a blank screen, every brainstorming session with my agent and editor, I could have made more money as a barista at Starbucks—and wept a lot less, probably.
But I’m not sitting here crying into my coffee. I’m rejoicing. I can write how-to books and memoir. Those how-to books taught me to organize my writing and write fast; the memoir taught me that a book isn’t just another commodity to be traded for a paycheck, because it’s not worth the money—it’s worth a lot more. I wanted to be a writer, not a churner outer of words, and now I know I can do both. A lot of writers repudiate their earlier works, and, though I’m tempted to disown some of my initial offerings, I know that they represent the feathered brick road that brought me to The Bird Market of Paris, and it’s to them—and their paychecks—that I’m grateful.
Nikki Moustaki is the author of the memoir The Bird Market of Paris, due out from Henry Holt on February 10.