There’s been some advice floating around social media which shouldn’t have surprised me but did. I won’t reference the specific tweet because some variation of this advice/belief has been circulating since probably forever.
The statement was essentially: To be successful as an artist*, you have to lose your concerns about money.
Out of this declarative sentence, one can derive several corollaries:
If you are concerned about money, you are not an artist.
If you are a true artist, you won’t care about money.
If you are doing anything other than your art, you are not an artist
If you expect payment for your art, you are not an artist (this one also implies that if you create anything for the sake of being paid, you are not a true artist).
*I’m using the term artist to refer to anyone who creates, regardless of media.
I’m about to give you a declarative sentence of my own: That’s the most privileged pile of hot sh*t I’ve ever heard.
See, this belief, that you should not care about money, that you should somehow starve for your art because if you are not suffering, you can’t be doing this creator thing correctly, is an extremely toxic and crippling one. A little bit of anecdotal information for you regarding famous writers and their day jobs:
1. TS Eliot – Bank Clerk
2. William Carlos Williams – general practitioner until he retired.
3. Stephen King – High school English teacher
4. Andrea Camilleri – Lawyer
5. Agatha Christie – Pharmaceutical assistant
Even writers who do manage to write for a living often have to hustle together a series of activities to make ends meet, like conduct workshops, book speaking engagements, edit either for a publishing house or as a freelancer and write articles not always related to their projects. I know of many independent writers who monetize their review blogs to create an income stream. And with the altered landscape brought on by the monolith that is Amazon, writer salaries continue to plummet. When the average writer makes $10,000 per year, it’s no wonder writers keep multiple jobs to sustain themselves.
But most of us don’t start writing right out the gate. Or if we do, we often do it as a hobby while pursuing other careers. In my case, I was first a project manager and then went into secondary education before I even conceived of a scenario where I might want to publish anything from the loads of stuff I’d written over the years. By the time I gave myself permission to write and publish anything, I was 15 years into a teaching career and had two children to care for. The last thing I was going to do was ditch my hard-earned tenure, health insurance and retirement to run after an unstable career, no matter how satisfying it was or how good at it I thought myself to be.
It irks me when I see such “wisdom” pushed onto writers. We already struggle with doubts, impostor syndrome and the stress of working in a volatile industry. Very few of us have the luxury of relying on the salary of a well-payed spouse (though if you do, yay you!), an inheritance or a sponsor who will give us a year’s salary to get our career off the ground. This is especially true of diverse writers who come from medium to low socioeconomic backgrounds and don’t possess accumulated family income to support their efforts.
Now, I purposely didn’t use the phrase “Don’t starve for your art” in my title because art, for many, is their job and if you work, you deserve to get paid. This is another fallacy that is promoted by this kind of advice – that somehow, because we are creating art, we should not be paid for it. This is the same kind of rationale that is used to justify underpaying teachers – it’s a vocation, so we should do it for something other than money.
That’s also a steaming pile of sh*t.
I agree that if you don’t like kids and you don’t like the pedagogy of getting people to learn things, sometimes against their will, you will not do well as a teacher. However, as much as I love teaching, I also like to eat. Underpaying me increases my stress because I am engaged in a demanding profession that does not pay me sufficiently to meet my basic needs, hampering my ability to perform. This is not a sustainable expectation.
It’s the same with being a creator. Yes, there is an impulse beyond getting paid that inspires a person to create. But it’s work and if it is done well and provides a product others enjoy, a person should not be shamed for expecting remuneration for said work. We don’t expect engineers and CEOs to work without pay. Why would you expect the same of artists?
This also extends to creating products that have a better likelihood of paying the bills. I might write a contemporary novel because it sells well when what I really want to write is a genre mashup of magical realism and prose poetry. I’ll plug away at the latter, all the while promoting the former because, again, I have bills to pay. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with making that kind of decision.
The truth is, part of being a functional adult member of society is meeting your obligations. Artists are not exempt from such things as mortgages, utilities and insurances. That an artist should be made to feel guilty for meeting their basic needs without resorting to crime or debauchery not only reeks of entitlement, it’s facile at best and tone-deaf at worst. We live in a society where for the first time in history, our children will have reduced metrics of success compared to their elders, including health, social mobility and longevity. It is out of touch with the reality to suggest that a writer not consider economics when they are trying to create a work of art. At the very least, art takes time and time is money. We should be able to pursue our goals while providing for the very stability that allows us to be successful.
So going back to those corollaries, I instead suggest that:
If you are concerned about money, you are
not still an artist.
If you are a true artist, you
won’t will still care about money.
If you are doing anything other than your art, you are absolutely
not an artist
If you expect payment for your art, you are
not very much an artist.
There is no shame in creating art for the sake of gain.
There is no shame in working jobs other than the one that feeds your soul.
There is absolutely no shame in demanding that you be paid for your work, like any other productive member of society.
*I use the term artist to refer to anyone who creates, regardless of media.