A colleague of mine, a self-employed commercial artist and science fiction writer I will call “Jim,” recently declared, “If you’re a man getting close to your 50s and you haven’t done something yet, don’t say you’re doing to do it someday because you probably won’t.” Jim was criticizing another guy in the same industry, who he doesn’t like and who seems to be loudly and visibly struggling in his career.
Strangely, Jim is also getting close to his 50s, hasn’t done all the things he wants to do, and is also existing paycheck to paycheck, trying to live off his self-published work (which is quite good, in my opinion). The difference between them is the other guy whines loudly and constantly plugs his GoFundMe, while Jim works harder and (mostly) swallows his frustration.
Jim’s comments on social media are usually criticisms of people who complain about their difficult lives instead of working hard like him. I can accept that attitude. If anyone has earned the right to be scornful of the weak, it’s someone who started off in a weak position and made themselves strong or, in Jim’s case, perhaps marginally stronger. Still, it doesn’t feel good when his angst rises and he starts punching down.
His pronouncement above sounds like flinty entrepreneurial wisdom—Yoda in a self-made, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps vein: do or do not (in your career, in your life); there is no try. But I know his criticism and anger are rooted in his own insecurities, not in some external source. We’re always the most critical of our own family, our own friends, our own professional colleagues, members of our own communities and cultures because, when they fail, it makes us feel like we’re next.
Jim was, to use a trendy term, “triggered,” and he had to release the vapors. We all have that friend who tries to speak like a philosopher or social critic as a way of purging anxiety and legitimating his concerns. Sometimes, I do that, too. So I’m not trying to be inordinately critical of Jim or except myself from a behavior that seems common among sensitive people, particularly artists and writers. If you’re not bothered by something, you usually have little motivation to write or speak about it publicly, especially on a blog or in a magazine op-ed or on social media. But in order to understand the criticism Jim’s making, we also have to know something about arts communities and social timing.
A creative community, whether physical (like a writer’s colony, a brick-and-mortar magazine, or a college art program) or on social media, is a perpetual knife fight in a submarine. It goes without saying that in every creative field, money is always tight, careers are always precarious, hyper-competitiveness is the rule, commercialism undercuts everything, and exploitation is a fact of life.
These hardships and uncertainties naturally produce immense anxiety, since survival is always at issue on some level, even when you ostensibly “make it” and get famous. As the actress, Jewel Staite, drolly notes on her Twitter profile, “I like routine, predictability, and living a non-stressful existence, which is why I’ve chosen the film industry.” That’s darkly funny. But it’s also true: life as an artist isn’t simple or calm. You don’t get job security, even when people know who you are. You’re always on the make.
Keeping this in mind makes it easier to see how tearing down other creatives can become a Malthusian side hustle. If they’re wounded, the instinct may be to kick them where it hurts. If they’re down, put your foot on their back. Do unto others before they can do unto you. More table scraps for you that way. You’ll feel less vulnerable, less likely to die in poverty and obscurity, less hopeless, lost, and ashamed that you ever considered yourself worthy to live a creative life.
If publicly criticizing others relieves your constant, grinding dread, even if only for a moment, it will be tempting. But there’s a problem with that way of being, apart from its meanness and craven pettiness: it makes you less able to do your own imaginative work. Competitiveness and the anxiety that stimulates it erodes creativity. It demands your emotional energy, the power you should be channeling into your creative process. And it makes you feel like you have to court public visibility at all costs to protect yourself from others like you. It brings to mind Putin parading around his nukes, saying don’t mess with me. I’m serious business. That’s exhausting. Artists should not have nukes.
This is why I have generally avoided arts communities; though, social media has put most writers like me in a perpetual online detention camp with my peers (and the current surge of AI art paranoia isn’t helping one bit). The pandemic only exacerbated the tensions and forced online interactions that would not have been advisable in any other era. Add the wave of self-conscious, humorless, social-activist writing still moving through pop-culture and the creative life seems nothing but an exercise in misery.
Western, middle-class, social timing says that by certain decades of life, one should have certain things and be certain things. But very few people will admit that they fall short of those ideals. One cannot log onto Twitter or Facebook without seeing some financial marketing come-on that goes, “How many millions will you need to retire?” In other words, how much money will you need to avert an ugly humiliating end after you retire? Millions? Most artists and writers have thousands (or hundreds) in the bank. Some, who are actually very gifted and good at what they do, live below the poverty line.
So I think I understand Jim when he says if you haven’t done a thing by 50, you aren’t going to. He’s not talking to you or me. He’s talking to himself. Because he’s thinking about social timing and emoting like a neurotic artist in a creative community, wondering if he’s destined to die in the gutter.
While I don’t accept the assumptions that go into the success / failure binary encouraged by middle-class social timing—I think it’s a little more complicated and there’s more room to live how you want to live, if you’re willing to make compromises—I also think it’s better to work hard than pump your GoFundMe for sympathy change. But I feel sad when I see a talented colleague desperately cutting down some other poor sap who’s just trying to make the rent any way he can.
We get one life. It isn’t over ’till it’s over. And ultimately we get to do what we want as long as we’re willing to accept the consequences. That means, if you really love being an artist, you’ll choose art. The hard part is making that choice in a relaxed, generous way.