Here’s a truth: I have earned precisely zero dollars for my fiction. Two decades of studying the craft, thousands of practice pages, tens of thousands of hours. But you know what? That’s OK because I don’t write for money. I write for me, not for anyone else. My stories don’t have to be commercially valuable in order for me to know they matter. Writing is a labor of love. I write because I would shrivel into a sour crab-apple of a raisin-lady if I didn’t have at least a sliver of time to write each week. I wouldn’t love writing more if I made money doing it. Artists are supposed to starve. We are supposed to suffer for our craft. Therefore, I’m OK if I never earn a dollar on my fiction.
Here’s another truth: I am absolutely not OK if I never earn a dollar on my fiction. I long for a hefty book deal. I want my time (and my husband’s support and patience) to be rewarded financially. When supportive friends ask, “How’s the writing?” I want to say something other than, “Well, I’m still plugging along. I still love my agent. Still working on book #3.” I want to write a manuscript that creates a bidding war. I want to financially contribute to my family. I don’t write just for myself. I write because I want other people to read (and buy) my books. I want to earn so much money on my books that my husband can retire and we can afford out-of-state college tuition for the kids and fix the siding on the south wall of our house.
Man, does that last statement feel crass. Crass and stupid. Writers should never be writers if they are writing for the money.
On the other hand, I am a product of a society that uses money to assign value to things. I believe my work has value. I believe my time has value. Shouldn’t I be compensated? Isn’t it OK to want money?
Clearly, I have some inner turmoil when it comes to money and art.
Part of the inner conflict comes from the nasty voice on my left shoulder that whispers, “Your art doesn’t matter. You should be spending your time not stringing words together, not romancing the notion of the starving artist, but helping other people be less starving. Hungry people in Seattle matter. Very, very hungry people in Yemen and South Sudan matter, because dear God, have you seen those hungry children? How about (the shoulder-voice says) you use your energy to do stuff that actually matters?”
The nasty shoulder-voice is called Ron. Sometimes I know he’s being an idiot. Other times, I worry he’s right. Doctors and teachers should be compensated. So should pilots and sanitation engineers and scientists researching cures for mental illness and cancer. Librarians should earn great salaries. Directors of homeless shelters and farmers. But writers? Does their work feed the hungry?
Yes. I know, with 100% certainty, that novels feed people. They save lives, generate empathy, and allow us to better understand other people (including ourselves). Stories matter. A world without stories? I don’t want to live in that world. Nor am I sure that I could … then again … of course I could survive. Writing matters, but it’s certainly not a matter of life or death.
The Starving Artist
The myth of the starving artist does nothing to decrease my ambivalence. The dead white Romantic poet William Blake said (in the mid-1700s): Where there is money there is no art. In other words (I think) once we attach money to art, the art is tainted. Made impure.
The opposite, I suppose, is just as true: Where there is art there is no money.
Yep, that’s just the way it is. While perhaps artists don’t need to literally starve, their road should not be without speed bumps, toil, rejection and frustration. But why? How have I come to believe this? Do I believe that my friend, Robin, a lawyer, must experience bumps, toil, rejection and frustration in order to pay her dues? Certainly not. Do I feel my sister, a farmer, should have to endure struggle and major hurdles in order to earn her living? No way. My friend, Steph, a realtor, shouldn’t have to starve before she starts earning commission. Why does part of my brain think artists need a more difficult road than doctors, lawyers, pilots, teachers or bankers?
I worry that it shows I value some professions simply because those professions require degrees and earn good money. I worry that I have been duped into cherishing status and wealth. My ambivalence results in, I fear, treating this fiction-writing gig as if it’s a hobby-job. A jobby. And people tend not to get paid for jobbies.
But I wonder if the starving artist trope also helps me keep working and practicing without getting too disheartened. Artists and writers are not supposed to be rich so I’m doing just fine! If I had been practicing law for two decades and not earned a dollar, I would give up. If I were a doctor and I earned no money, I’d find another way to earn an income. Not so for writing. In my case, the myth of the starving artist allows me to keep going.
Still, we writers cannot undervalue our time and our effort.
A few months ago, one of my dear writing partners was negotiating a book deal (via her agent) based on her nonfiction book proposal. She told me, “I won’t accept an offer below [X]. Unless I can get an advance of [X], I can’t afford to write this book.”
I was taken aback for two reasons. First, [X] was roughly ten times what I would be thrilled to receive on a book deal. Second, I knew she could afford to write this book. She could, like I do, cobble together other freelance writing and teaching jobs that allow me to shoehorn fiction-writing time into my paid-work life.
But her comment shows that she respects her time. She values her work. She knows her writing matters, and she knows she should be adequately compensated just as other hardworking professionals are.
Do I write with the knowledge that I must write, even if I never get paid, knowing that no amount of money will satisfy and reward me as much as the act of writing? Absolutely.
Do I write because I want to earn money and sell a lot of books? Absolutely.
Do most artists and writers struggle with similar ambivalence? I imagine the answer is also, Absolutely.
I am both helped and hindered by the myth of the starving artist. How about you? Do you believe, as William Blake did, that where there is money there is no art? What percentage of you writes for love and what for money? Does your need for money and your passion for art ever get you into a professional pickle?
Thanks, friends, for sharing!
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