My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Art, Life, and Support Mechanisms

Just make sure YOUR "penguin" is your social life, an iPad, or a car,
and not health insurance, rent, or food.
Dear Writers,

I'm going to give you all a little unsolicited advice based on the harrowing adventures of my last week or so, and the younger you are when you take it, the better life will probably go for you.

I've met a lot of people who want to be writing fiction to pay the bills.  It's a tough way to make money.  It's even a tougher way to make enough money to pay the bills.  Most of us have day jobs.  Yours truly is a teacher of English and a househusband.  There are a lot more lucrative ways to make money writing--freelance writing, tech writing, content writing, or editing.  If you want to pursue creative writing as anything other than a hobby, you should be ready to cobble together income streams from all over the place, and you should be ready to spend your life not having as much stuff as other people.

That's probably easier to think that you're cool with than to actually be cool with.  We all want to be the non-materialist zen types who don't want to be the "stuff" lovers from the old George Carlin routine.  But when we feel like losers because we have to get picked up from a BART station or can't go somewhere out of the way, it gets a little harder. When we are in our thirties renting a room, it doesn't feel quite so awesome.  Or even if just want to be able to impress our would-be partners with the fact that we have good prospects and can chip in on the American dream of "building a life" together, it can sting to fall short.

It might seem a little harsh to tell you that if you want to write, you might need to give up on having your own car or owning a home. It probably is a little harsh.  Aren't their success stories of writers who penned together their first novels in the cracks of real lives?  Sure.  But for every success story I've read of some successful author who pursued a career so that they could afford life's amenities and/or a family while never giving up writing, I have personally witnessed a hundred more who simply do not have the time or energy to give to serious writing once they pursue a career. Many blog casually. A few do fan fiction. But whenever I check back on these people after their "real" career has taken off, they sort of lament their inability to really dig into writing the way they used to. Their careers just eat up too much of their time.

And don't even get me started on kids. It's no wonder writing has long been an art dominated by voices of high privilege; the independently wealthy are the ones in the best position to pursue it.

The other thing to understand about those success stories is that they maybe didn't give up having a job that paid the bills, but they did give up SOMETHING.  Whether it was that peaceful zone out on the subway to work, time with their family at night, or an hour of sleep each morning, they all sacrificed something.

I made a decision long ago that losing my writing to a "real job" would not be me. I would rather write unpaid and pursue the things in my life that bring me real meaning than pursue the things our materialistic-as-fuck society says are important.  This hasn't always been a painless choice. The reason culture has such a strong current is not because we can't look at it and see it's flaws; it's because we know what the consequences are for not playing the game.  You can imagine (perfectly) the way people will look at you when they hold your life up to their bellwethers of success (a nice car, a nice place to live, maybe a house, a plasma screen TV and iPad...etc...) and find you to be lacking.  Really going against the grain isn't something you do for thirty seconds when you wear your unique Jordash style through a commercial of shocked looking preppies.  It's knowing that most of the people most of the time pretty much think you're wasting your life, and dealing with the not insignificant number of those willing to tell you so "because they care."

However this is my advice to you about eschewing our cultural values of commercialism and materialism: 

Don't go crazy with it.   Bathwater has a strange way of having babies in it.

The poor bohemian artist who cares nothing for society's bullshit is fine and well, but don't let that become your excuse not to take care of yourself.  For you are not really a frivolous thing, and neither is your health.  Not having a car is one thing.  Fine, you walk more and have to bum rides.  Not having health insurance is something else.  I've seen a lot of artists, especially YOUNG artists think that they can get by on on a wing and a prayer, and that usually goes about as well as you might expect when something bad happens (and something bad always happens...eventually).  They end up with long term health problems, chronic injuries, or a mouth full of missing teeth.  I even know one person who ended up with thirty-thousand dollars of hospital bills because an infection they could have fixed for 100 bucks worth of antibiotics a month earlier.  They chose to ignore their infection due to cost; it went into their heart, and very nearly killed them.

I tell you this because recently it was me.  Last week I battled with an increasingly bad mood.  I didn't want to write.  I wasn't feeling cheery.  I was a little hard to get along with personally.  What I didn't know is that underneath my skull right above my upper teeth on the right side was the beginning of a massive infection, and those toxins were flooding my bloodstream with their evil ju-ju.  By the time my face swelled up and the pain took over that whole area, I knew there was a problem. Fortunately I have dental insurance and the support mechanisms in place that I know problems like this are covered.

I need a triple root canal across three of my front teeth, and even though I'm not afraid of dentists, that sounds positively horrible. More to the point, it would have been about $4,500 out of pocket or I would have had to extract the tooth right next to my right incisor, and if I'd ignored it, I'd have died in the same horrible way of many of my evolutionary ancestors.

As with many things in life, there is a sweet spot between extremes. You want to ride that sweet spot.  Yes, you're probably never going make big bucks.  But don't get so wrapped up in anti-materialism that you forget to take care of yourself.  Things like health insurance, dental insurance, and some kind of retirement plan aren't really luxuries in the strictest sense.  They might mean you have to budget a few hundred dollars for something other than Raman and "party favors"--which might mean you need more of a day job than you think--but as soon as you you stop looking at it as optional, you'll surprise yourself with how many solutions you come up with..  (Man if I could tell you how many people say they can't afford insurance but spend a couple hundred on useless crap every month....)

Take care of yourselves.  That artistic brain of yours needs a healthy host body to sustain it.  There are a lot of unimportant things out there you can make a decision not to give a rats ass about, and you will probably be a better artist for it.

Your health isn't really one of them.


  1. I've been reading about your tooth problem for the last week and wincing in sympathy. I'm sorry you were in so much pain (I understand it's gone down since treatment began). I'm also sorry you have to go through the triple root canal. That sounds positively horrid.

    I'm one of the people who mostly gave up writing for the day job. I think a lot of young, aspiring people (the people you're writing to) also think "Materialism sucks, and people who give up day jobs so they can buy cheap crap suck too." Now, I would feel pretty depressed if I gave up writing for, say, being a secretary for a sales department - but I think what a lot of these aspiring young types forget is that there are a lot of other really rewarding careers out there (like teacher - nothing wrong with teaching English) that can compensate somewhat for the loss of writing time. I spent a long time battling guilt over not writing much at all before I realized I wasn't going into teaching for the Big Bucks, so I wasn't throwing over writing for crass materialism. But even if I was, well ... I've read the blogs and author's notes of several full-time writers and they all talk about working day jobs and giving up everything else for years before catching their big breaks, and not everyone has the ability to do that. I imagine it would be sheer torture for the truly extroverted.

    1. Yeah, I'm not going to impugn anyone's decisions for what they find rewarding or where they might find their own personal balance between pursuing and taking a step back from writing. There ARE a lot of totally rewarding careers that aren't writing, and a lot of people have to make that choice. Even though teachers' pay isn't anywhere near "Big Bucks" and being a teacher is hardly selling out, that is exactly a choice that a lot of artists have made when facing the alternative of being impoverished. But as rewarding as teaching is (and it is), the time commitments of 50-60 hours a week is something any artist would need to consider very seriously against the impact that would have on their art. (I work only 40 hours a week between cleaning and teaching, and at times I feel like I'm spread way too thin when I toss writing on the pile.)