At AWP a few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion on writing and motherhood. During this talk, four women plus the moderator talked about their experiences as writers and mothers and how those worlds intersected (on good days) and collided (on bad). It was an interesting panel, and overall I felt inspired when I left it, but I was uncomfortably reminded of one thing that it behooves you to have if you want to be a writer: money.
You may want to say, “DUH, it is always better to have money,” so let me just state that I know that. Obviously. Yes, it is always preferable to have some money rather than be faced with an empty checking account when you still haven’t paid your electric bill. But there is a heavy, painful truth to needing money if you’re going to take the time away from a more traditional job to create, as evidenced by things like Amanda Palmer’s TED talk about how artists should give away their art for free and this lovely bit of satire from The Onion about doing what you love but only in your free time. If you don’t have money, it is a Herculean effort to get anything significant done. As someone who has been trying to figure out for years how to get in some extra writing time when I can’t afford to hire childcare unless I spend my “spare” time working, I know this firsthand. It’s quite the conundrum, and oddly, it’s one the otherwise great panel at AWP didn’t address at all. Each of those women said they had childcare of one sort or another, whether it was your standard day care or the more unusual – and arguably more fun – drag queen who happened to live in the same building and love babysitting. For some people, neither thing is a real option, and yet, they don’t want to give up trying. (Maybe this is the problem, maybe we should all just give up.)
It’s not a romantic thing in actuality to be forced to suffer for your art by barely getting by, subsisting on rice and beans or perhaps cardboard pictures of food, not buying new clothes for a year out of necessity and not as part of some hip experiment (just Google this, it’s so popular I couldn’t decide which link to include). Living in an unsafe neighborhood or constantly worrying about paying rent isn’t an excuse for hijinks or a song. It sounds lovely in theory, perhaps, but reality is far grittier than theory. For folks who like the idea of staying out of the system and giving their work away for whatever amount others are willing to pay them, that’s fine – again, in theory – but that clearly doesn’t work for someone who’s taking care of dependents, who has medical issues, who can’t afford anyplace to live if someone doesn’t pay them something for their work. We aren’t all Radiohead – and plus, maybe I don’t want to give away something I just spent several years of my life on. Market value aside, that’s my right as the person who made it. Writers have to be realistic about what it means monetarily to try to live from earnings as a writer, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re obligated to give their work away. What’s doable or even easy for some people just isn’t possible for others. And to have someone who’s as wealthy as Amanda Palmer currently is suggest that everyone just follow her model smacks of Marie Antoinette in its obliviousness.
I often think that the act of creating any kind of art and trying to sell it is arrogant in and of itself, that in a sense you’re saying, Look at me, I can tell this story/paint this picture/sing this song better than anyone else, I’m the only one who can do it justice. Maybe this is true, or maybe I just think this because I’ve read Animal Farm too many times (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others…”). But it is deluded in addition to arrogant to suggest that all of the difficult and often isolating work of creation be done for free. All you get when these are the parameters is art created by the rich because the poor literally can’t afford the time it takes to create anything good. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s 10-Thousand Hours Rule (not everyone does, of course), this situation is depressing in the extreme, and it makes you question what level of importance one places on the arts in our society. I suppose it brings us back to the old debate about what’s more important, and whether art is necessary to a meaningful life, all of those things that get brought up when budgets are about to be eviscerated and people are arguing about how to spend what little they have.
Another panel I saw at AWP focused on genre fiction, which is often seen as second-rate storytelling compared to literary fiction. During this panel, Julianna Baggott mentioned (to paraphrase) that as the primary earner in her house, she has to feed her kids, and that if someone’s going to call her a sellout for writing something that makes her some money, she’s fine with being a sellout. Writers need to make money, too. Everyone needs to be compensated for what they do if they’re going to continue to do it, including the writers and artists who turn out the things that inform us and make us think and render our lives more understandable and beautiful.