The Poor Poet
“The Poor Poet” by Carl Spitzwig

The blessing and curse of wanting to write fiction for a living is that there’s no one road to success. If your dream is to be a doctor, the road is laid out pretty clearly for you. You go to med school, get your license, do rotations, and eventually you’re a certified doctor. The path is clear, and you know at each stage along the way that you’re doing the appropriate thing for an aspiring doctor, and getting yourself closer to realising your aspirations. Plus you’re getting paid to do it. You’re actually free in your spare time to vegetate, sleep, or have normal human relationships without feeling guilty that you’re not pursuing your dreams. Writers, more often than not, don’t have any of those luxuries. We know that in the future, near or distant, we will publish a book…and that at some point before that, there is the awkward necessity of writing it. In the meantime, there is only insecurity. What should we do to avoid starving, between now and then? What is a young author SUPPOSED to do?

Some authors, like our patron Mr. Mastgrave, have the good sense to remain in the academic bubble ad infinitum, insulating themselves to some extent from the perils of graduate life.  But some of us were too busy carousing at radical student societies or levelling up on Skyrim to average higher than the sixties on our undergraduate degrees, so academia has cast us out in and shut its gates to us. We have no other recourse than to swallow our reservations and seek gainful employment.

An honest job can be a good thing for our writing, as long as it’s not the kind of job that drains our energies from dawn-till-dusk and leaves no useful wakefulness for writing. The structure imposed by working 9-5 can be a huge help to writers. The everyday routine, the ability (and often necessity) to budget their time more efficiently, and the transferability of a productive work ethic from work to writing. If a job keeps us fed and warm, gets us up in the morning, and leaves us a few precious hours at the end of the day to hammer away at our keyboards, then maybe we shouldn’t grumble. Perhaps we can even bag a job that’s relevant to our passion: copywriting or reviewing or blogging or some other profession that allows us to convert our erudition into solid foodstuff.

But if you’re anything like me, there’s some initial resistance to the idea of working 9-5. Society seems replete with stereotypes that artists, whether they be writers or poets or musicians or any other kind of creator, aren’t truly dedicated to their art unless they devote themselves to it in an almost sacrificial kind of way. There is a ubiquitous idea of artists living in communes or draughty garrets, surviving on beans out of a tin, and thinking of creative ways to make ends meet, if not out of necessity then because it demonstrates a certain devotion to our art and a refusal to play by society’s terms. Popular imagination harks back to the writers of the lost generation rubbing centimes together in a Parisian slum, crucifying themselves over their typewriters. For the modern age there’s the rags-to-riches story of JK Rowling writing in coffee shops to keep warm, or the lifestyle of artists like Amanda Palmer who did street art to pay her rent, dressing as an eight-foot bride and handing out flowers to passers-by.

Amanda Palmer as the 8-Foot Bride:  Take the Flower!
Amanda Palmer’s 8-Foot Bride. If you see her, take the flower!

Again, if you’re anything like me, you might feel almost intimidated by artists like that, and their more creative way of making ends meet. “I dressed as a bride and handed out flowers to fund my music” is definitely a better story than “I moved back in with my parents and got an office job to fund my writing”, and you start to wonder whether surrendering to convention is one step towards surrendering your artistic ambitions. Should artists travel? Should they live on a shoestring? Does that make them better artists than the kind of artists who take the comfortable, safe option? Is a day-job the coward’s way out?

My answer to that is to tear down some myths. The lost generation are a good example. Behind the popular cliché of writing-in-the-time-of-cholera, the reality is one of opulence and unnecessary suffering. Read Hemingway and you remember very quickly that Hemingway didn’t suffer for his art, he drank hedonistically across Europe, staying in hotels and drawing on funds from rich uncles. I’m not sure that’s something that any young author should aspire to emulate. George Orwell lived in poverty out of choice, but if you read Down and Out in Paris and London you see that – apart from unique experience of slum life, which he could then write about and get published – he and his contemporaries didn’t gain anything while slumming in Paris that couldn’t have been got rid of by a visit to a clinic the next morning. Unique experience is all very well, but there are plenty of unique experiences that don’t involve sleeping on the banks of the Sienne. Rowling has said that being unemployed and receiving benefits from the state certainly doubled her motivation her to write, but once again, I’d hope that anybody who really wants to write can find some motivation that doesn’t involve getting out of the breadline. And finally, Amanda Palmer might make me feel like a bit of a sell-out when I compare my lifestyle to hers as a young graduate, but her recent book The Art of Asking (which I heartily recommend) encourages artists of all persuasions to rid themselves of their guilt about seeking any sort of help, any kind of leg-up or support that they can find, if it helps their art to thrive.

Personally, I hope that extends to falling back upon one’s parents for support. As a recent graduate, I’ve sold out to the man (or tricked the man into paying me, depending upon which way you look at it) and got myself an honest copywriting job to support my writing. But I’ve also moved back in with my parents for the time being. Some may call that the coward’s way out. I call it free bed and board and no heating bills, with a lot of extra time to write in the evenings that might otherwise be spent grocery shopping or taking my eight-foot bride’s dress to the cleaners. I don’t have much time to write during the day, but in the evenings I am free. And for an aspiring writer, what could be better?

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6 thoughts on “Suffering for our art: necessary, useful, or neither?

  1. Thanks for this! As an undergrad who has just finished my first year of uni, I really have no idea whether or not writing will be a part of my future. However, this article has inspired me to find some way to make it work and to keep it as a part of my day

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