Essays

Can You Make Art and a Living Too?

Recently one of my advanced creative writing students confided that she’s struggling on this, the eve of her graduation with a degree in English. She and I struck up an email conversation about how the question, “What will you do with an English degree?” is an especially hard one to answer for those of us who want to write–and sense it isn’t even safe to say so. Here’s my answer to her, to you, and to anyone else who might be wondering how to carve a big chunk of writing time out of your life without killing yourself. My post isn’t very creative, but I hope it’s helpful.

Let’s say, for the sake of convenience (mine), you want to be a writer (rather than a painter, a potter, or a mime), but you’re not sure how you’re going to make rent, let alone retirement. One of my students recently talked with me about this very conflict, and I realized that over the years since I earned my MFA in Fiction Writing back in 1990, I’ve noticed a few things that might help her–and you–to think the options through. If the decisions seem as if they lead way off the mainstream and include heartbreak, it might be because they do.

Like a lot of other writers, I teach writing at a university, and like more and more of us, I’m an adjunct professor. Back in the nineties and a long time afterward, lots of us smart, ambitious students expected that teaching at a university would give us a balanced life. We’d practice our craft half the time, the rest of the time bestow the wisdom gained from that practice, and earn accolades and a comfortable wage along the way.

Where I live, an adjunct works without benefits, contracted by the semester only, for a few thousand dollars per fifteen-week course. I actually quit a juicy full-time gig with great benefits to take this job, but more on that later.

I heard on a podcast (most of what I say now begins, “I heard on a podcast”) that when it comes to living as an artist, you get one of three options:

  1. get a so-called real job and wedge writing into nights and weekends,
  2. embrace poverty with a shit part-time job and most of your time to writing,
  3. be born into big money or marry it. 

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about those options, but first . . .

You Sure You Can’t You Have It All?

Some my students believe, as I once did, that they’ll be the fierce few to score a full-time writing professorship. I do have colleagues who reeled cushy tenure-track teaching posts, some with no more talent and who put in even less effort than the rest of us. Some even have low teaching loads, publish regularly, and jet-set on book tours. A few. Mostly men. But maybe that’s just my circle.

Everything you’ve got is focused on everyone’s writing but your own.

Most of the full-time professors in my orbit, however, male and female, are among the unhappiest writers I know. The business model has driven the fat-cat writing professor to the brink of extinction. “I’ve been here twenty-five years,” said a woman I thought was living my dream job as the head of creative writing at a small liberal arts college. “And to mark the occasion they invited me to a luncheon scheduled during one of my classes.” For twenty-five years, she’d devoted herself to students rather than her muse, and all she got was a luncheon she couldn’t attend and a crappy plaque.

Because teaching and advising in the language arts draw on the same creative energies as writing, the well runs dry for people teaching four to six courses a semester. Years, and then decades, pass, and my colleagues don’t quite manage to publish the way they’d hoped. They break their backs doing cartwheels to get tenure, which is basically permission to keep the job you’ve been over-doing brilliantly well. More and more often, the answer is no. Tenure is expensive, there are a few hundred hungry youngsters in line to do the job for less, and you aren’t part the university’s plan to siphon student loan money into administrator’s pockets. So, my friends and their families pull up stakes and compete with 300-500 other applicants for the next questionably desirable teaching gig. It’s not uncommon for dual-career couples to have to live in separate states. Avoiding the tower of papers to grade, my enviably tenured writing professor friends will have a beer with my sometimes and say they’re going to retire early. Then, they say, then they’ll be able write.

One of my friends, the award-winning speculative fiction writer Nick DiChario, says, “Being a writer is often as much about What We Give Up as it is about What We Do. Or more so.”

Option #1—Get a Real Job

My friends who seem happiest and most successful in their writing careers work full-time for well-paying corporate jobs. How do they do it? They write during the hours when the rest of us are hanging out with mates and kids.

Their secret: they’re single and childless. Most of these writers are men. Some are fathers, but their children are being or were raised by ex-wives.

Most friends with kids are happy they had them. Most friends without kids are happy.

The writers who seem unhappiest with their writing careers have children. Don’t get me wrong—people with children tend not to regret having children, and I’m one of them. I always said, I’d rather have another baby than another book. It’s just that, while raising kids, parents put literary ambitions and a hell of a lot else on hold. I got pregnant with my daughter while I was working on my MFA. When I told my thesis advisor my good news, he said, darkly, “I guess you have a big decision to make.” I was scandalized. How dare anyone think I couldn’t work, write, and be a blameless parent! One of my gravidly pregnant classmates won a full scholarship that allowed her to finish her degree without working as a teaching assistant like the rest of us. Everyone congratulated her, “Good timing! Now you can stay home with the baby.” She was scandalized. How dare anyone think that she wouldn’t devote all her time to her studies!

I don’t know how that worked out. When the baby came, we never saw her again.

I know married working moms who, to advance their careers, put their children in daycare. Some have regrets. I know married moms who stayed at home with their children and launched careers later in life, having fallen far behind. Some, like me, have regrets. Whether we carried brief cases out the door or stayed inside and homeschooled our kids, we all screwed them up anyway. When you’re making Big Decisions, you never have all the info you need. You just don’t.

The thing is, it always feels as if there must be a Right Answer.

There isn’t.

Option #2—Embrace Poverty

Noticeably happy are my women friends who own their own low-profit or nonprofit businesses: horse stables, animal rescues, literary arts organizations, literary editing services. Although some aren’t writers, I mention them here because they love their lives and are living on less than ten grand a year. Even the ones with children really are living on that little. No retirement. No health insurance. They never regret a minute of it.

All of them, incidentally, are single.

I was going toss my whole life to write another book, even though I couldn’t tell you why.

I had a juicy full-time teaching gig and gave it up in exchange for the poverty and humiliation of adjunct status. Why? It gave me more time to write. And I’m 54. I really screwed my retirement. I did it because I had tenured colleagues who were just living till retirement, dreaming of the day they could finally start that book. That was my grandfather. A few months after he retired, he finally started that book. Six months later, he died. I thought, “I’m doing this NOW.” My plan was to move to a rural area in a super-cheap state, rent a trailer on a friend’s horse farm, live off my meager savings, and write another book.

Option #3—Born Rich or Married to It

I’m assuming you weren’t born rich or you wouldn’t be reading this post. So maybe you’re wondering, should you go to happy hour in  Tiburon, where there’s the highest concentration of millionaires per square mile? Or, if you’ve already got a sweetie with a decent job, is it okay to quit yours or drop to part-time to give you the time and peace of mind you need to write? That’s what I did.

My mother always told me, “It’s as easy to love a rich man as a poor one.”

A few of my female writer friends and I are refugees from academia. We hit the scene near the dwindling end of a grand game of musical chairs and failed, for a host of reasons, to grab a tenure seat when the music stopped. Now, although we’re lowly adjuncts who only teach a class or two, nowhere near enough to live on, we have the time and mental space to write. We do it with the uneasy support of spouses who work real jobs.

It takes a lot of trust in your mate and a willingness to accept some degradation to be a stay-at-home writer. I have known several writers who were stay-at-home dads too, men who struggled with an even steeper ear-popping drop in marital clout. Two of my friends are married to well-to-do men who, in moments of weakness, worry, or anger, blurt things like, “How ’bout I quit my job and YOU go to work?”

Even if the two of you made the decision together, that shit comes out. And during the good times, when your mate’s supportive and you’re productive, even when you win a writing award or get paid for a short story or land an agent or a book contract, the pecuniary gains are so paltry and the accolades so obscure, you wonder if writing isn’t some kind of glorified gambling addiction. Or maybe quitting your job to become financially dependent on your spouse wasn’t some kind of neurotic regression to childhood. Or maybe, in fact, you’re just lazy.

I work like hell on my writing, and even I call myself “a very expensive house cat.”

Luckily, for now, my husband’s employer offers health insurance that covers mental health care.

An editor once told me that even when he gets six-figure deals for authors, he warns them, “Don’t quit your day job.” The gravy isn’t a train; it’s most likely a lone moped. You don’t know what it will mean that you work this hard at something that promises so small a socially and culturally approved pay-off. All you know is, you’re making a difficult, time-consuming investment for insanely slim odds. You can’t do it to hoping get famous or get laid or any other gain. You do it because that’s who you are. And that’s who you are because that’s what you do.

And that’s a formula you can toy with at different times in your life.

How to Make Art and a Living

Art is Big. If you want it that bad, be prepared to give up something big: children, companionship, a living wage. Respect. Retirement. Self-confidence.

I wish my mentors back in the eighties had told me I probably couldn’t be a writer, wife, mother, and tenured professor all at once. Rather than writing, I wasted a lot of energy worrying about losing one or the other. Maybe they did warn me, and I didn’t listen. Maybe my mentors didn’t warn me because they were old white men, long-tenured, who had light teaching loads (3/2 or 2/2), wives who’d raised their children, and a cozy retirement waiting around that last corner.

There’s peace in accepting that this is how it is. And then you can just be.

The point is, there’s no right way to live the writer’s life. If you aren’t writing, you’re doing something else, like parenting or teaching or making love or making a living, and they’re Big too. Accept that they must matter to you or you wouldn’t be giving them your time. Everything you do becomes you. You’re a parent. A teacher. A life mate. They’re all grand.

Whatever option you choose, (and hopefully you live long enough to try them all), make sure you:

  • find time to write as often as possible,
  • find other writers and meet with them as often as possible,
  • find a writing conference that feels like family and squirrel money so you can go every year,
  • submit your work often, again and again no matter how many times it’s rejected,
  • never apologize for who you are.

As my daughter put it, “No one does this because it’s easy. We do it because we’re compelled. To many of us, neglecting it means not living your best life. The world is unkind to artists, but living without your art is unkind to yourself.”