Can You Make Both 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, 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, 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 a lot more of us every year, I’m an adjunct professor. Back in the nineties and a long time afterward, a lot of us 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 (many of my statements now begin, “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 job and devote all your time to your 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 land a full-time writing professorship. I do have colleagues who reeled cushy teaching gigs, some with no more talent and even less effort than the rest of us. Some of them enjoy 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, male and female, are among the unhappiest writers I know. In our lifetime, 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 who I thought was living my dream job. She’s the head of creative writing at a small liberal arts college. “And to mark this anniversary they invited me to a luncheon and scheduled it during one of my classes so I couldn’t come.” For twenty-five years, she’d devoted herself to her students rather than her muse. And all they gave her was a crappy plaque.

Because teaching and advising in the language arts draw on the same creative energies as does writing, the well runs dry. 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 doing above and beyond and brilliantly well. More and more often, the answer is no. Tenure is expensive and not on the university’s plan to dump mountains of student loan money into a few administrator’s pockets. So, my friends and their families have to pull up stakes, pull up roots, lick wounds, and compete with 300-500 other applicants for the next questionably desirable teaching gig. Especially if they’re married to other professors, quite a few couples end up living in different states. Over a beer, a tower of papers to grade looming under the lamplight at home, my enviably tenured writing professor friends say they’re going to retire early. Then, then, they’ll be able write.

My friend, 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 kid than another book. It’s just that, while raising kids, parents tend to 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 and pulled up roots, and some have regrets. I know married moms who stayed at home, then launched careers later in life. They’re behind, and some, like me, have regrets about that. Whether we carried brief cases out the door or homeschooled our kids, in the end we all screwed them up every which-way anyway. When you’re making Big Decisions, you never have all the information you need. You just don’t.

The thing is, it always feels as if there must be a Right Answer. But 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 accounts. Little to no health insurance. They never regret a minute of it.

All of them, incidentally, are also 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 listened to my writing professor colleagues who were just living till retirement, dreaming of the day they could finally write that book. That was my grandfather. A few months after he retired, he died. I thought, “How do you know you’re gonna live that long? I’m out of here.” 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 someplace like Tiburon, California, where there’s a high 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 enough time and peace of mind to write? That’s what I ended up doing.

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 the rubble of the ivory tower. We hit the academic 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, which is nowhere near enough to live on, we’re free to write, but only 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 the same 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, “If you went back to work, we could take that trip/buy that house/retire comfortably,” or “How ’bout I quit my job and YOU go to work?” or “It must be nice to lie around chasing pipe dreams all day.”

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 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 semi speeding by. You don’t know what it will mean that you work this hard at something that promises so little socially or 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 laid or any other external 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, considering, of course, your inner chemistry.

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 the daughter I raised 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.”

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