Don’t Starve: You Don’t Have To Struggle To Be A Real Artist
I write for a living. It is my full-time job and my sole source of income. Given the current economic situation and the overall struggle many in my field have to stay afloat, I am extremely fortunate to be able to make a comfortable living from this. Right now, I know a lot of wonderful writers, most of them more experienced and skilled than myself, who write on top of full-time gigs or multiple side-hustles since it’s the only way to pay the bills. Long gone are the days when a critic or columnist could have one job and live well from that. If the Carrie Bradshaw fantasy was ever real, it certainly isn’t now, a few very lucky exceptions aside. The same situations typically apply to my artist friends, those who paint and draw and create fashion and enrich our world through dazzling and creative means. They are all artists. Those who don’t write full-time are all writers.
This weekend, the fabulous Courtney Enlow shared screencaps from Paul Guyot, the guy who wrote Geostorm. In his thread, he made the claim that ‘when you let your circumstances dictate your writing life, you’re not a writer. This is all resistance. Bills, meds, etc […] Either you’re a writer or you are not. There are no excuses […] And there’s nothing wrong with doing something else. Just be brutally honest with yourself. That’s the first step. There is always time. There is always opportunity. The only question is How. Bad. Do. You. Want. It.’
Courtney’s tweet provided the most appropriate response.
Hi. Writer here. Fuck this. pic.twitter.com/jGsPzQ6I6P— Courtney Enlow (@courtenlow) August 24, 2019
This sort of gatekeeping towards the right to own the title of ‘writer’ is a common occurrence in this field, unfortunately. It takes various forms, be it denying the artistic merit of one line of work or through constantly moving the goalposts of its definition. What unites this nonsense is the archaic insistence that to suffer is to be a true writer or artist. You cannot fully understand what it means to create until you have been through some sort of personal plight. If you want it bad enough, you should not only be willing to eschew various responsibilities in your life but you should be thankful for the opportunity to do so. After all, isn’t that what art is all about? Where would we be without the legendary starving artists like Van Gogh?
You don’t need me to tell you that this idea is unadulterated donkey sh*t, but I’ll say it anyway, because oh dear lord am I f*cking sick of being told that I haven’t fully earned the right to call myself a writer because I haven’t engaged in ceaseless sessions of self-flagellation.
The image of the starving artist is one that has prevailed in pop culture for centuries. Romanticism is chock full of paintings, novels, and operas about noble creators who eschew financial security in favor of earthy bohemian lives committed to art and beauty. They’re not going to play by your rules, man. They won’t be a part of your system, dude! It’s seldom restricted to financial unease either. ‘Great artists’ struggle with health problems, depression, addiction, and general self-loathing, so they say. To suffer is to live and that’s where the best art comes from.
Many artists have suffered from debilitating physical, mental, and emotional health issues and our culture has spent far too long insisting that the greatness of their art was rooted in such pain. It’s a wholly dehumanizing point-of-view to possess, one that puts such scant value on a person’s life over the stuff they make. Our society already places such little worth in art without having to pander to insidious narratives about further seeping the life out of those who make it. There is no such thing as a ‘typical route to success’ as an artist. Whatever way you do it and however long it takes you, it’s valid. If you don’t write for weeks on end because real life won’t allow it, that’s fine. Being a writer does not come with weekly quotas you must meet or risk having the title ripped away from you.
Poverty isn’t inspiring, nor is it a positive motivational force. Desperation can lead to great art but it shouldn’t have to and it should never be positioned as the only route to success. I do my best work when I have a safety net in place because I’m not spending all my days pulling my hair out and wondering if I’ll be able to pay the rent. And yet even I, a woman who is best known for writing hot takes about pop culture and celebrities, still face pushback from snot-nosed creeps who think my candidness about wanting to make money and be fairly compensated for my work is somehow the antithesis of ‘true art’. Screw you.
Capitalism sucks, but since we all live in that system, we are forced to play by its rules. That means fair compensation for our work and a refusal to have it further devalued. Frankly, I like making money doing what I do, and I think everyone working in my field should be paid what they are owed. On top of the ‘real artists’ scam that smothers us all, there is the accompanying and often contradictory narrative surrounding artists and money. Oh, you want to be paid for what you do? That’s not right because the glory of creating should be sustenance enough for you. But wait, how can you be a ‘real writer’ if you’re not paid for it? there is no right way to be an artist yet there are all these f*cking rules we have to follow?! Mostly, it’s an excuse to drastically underpay people in such professions, all under the guise that it’s what we really want, need, and deserve.
Art is wonderful but you matter more than art. People are worth more than the best paintings, the greatest novel, the masterpieces of cinema, and so on. If you can’t create something today, this week, this year because you need to work or take care of yourself or just because you’re too damn busy, that is a far preferable option than overloading yourself with the burden of expectations and mental strain. Real writers and artists have day jobs, go to school, look after their families, take out the bins, and wait. They take care of the invisible labor almost entirely absent from stories of ‘true artists’ (who are usually cishet white dudes with money and wives doing all the childcare). Artists should never be forced to prioritize the stuff they make over their own welfare, and the centuries of romanticized culture that have created such lies should not still be our reference point for how to make art. Just because some people are so bereft of imagination that they can’t conceive of a world where artists thrive without forced misery, that doesn’t mean we should listen to what they say.
Header Image Source: Wikimedia Commons: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0]