Occasionally, I read an op-ed that more or less argues it’s impossible to be an artist (or do anything visionary or creative) unless one has a trust fund. Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” is often taken out of context to support this garbage idea. Woolf was a genius and one of the world’s greatest writers, but she was making a very different point (principally that the women of her time needed a modicum of freedom from oppressive cultural expectations in order to create). Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are perhaps no famous artists or writers who’ve said, “Give up unless you’re financially comfortable.” Woolf never said that. It’s hard to imagine who would.
Since relatively few artists have trust funds, enormous grants, wealthy patrons, or other sources of financial independence, recurring op-eds like this seem akin to emotional trolling. Most people wish they could do something creative. So everyone, professional, amateur, or dilettante can potentially feel demoralized and suffer from bad spleen chi as a result of such defeatism. I sometimes suspect the op-ed writer herself wishes she could stop writing hackneyed disingenuous opinion columns and get back to her novel.
Here is something true: you can do anything you want to do with your life as long as you’re willing to pay the price. And sometimes that price is high. But sometimes what you have to pay matters far less than what you receive. I’ve said this to writing students stressed out by friends and family who think developing a creative life is a one-way ticket to misery, failure, and self-destruction. It’s not, as long as you take a very hard-nosed transactional approach to what you want to do. Sometimes, they believe me.
Sometimes, taking a hard-nosed transactional approach means living a streamlined lifestyle so people, places, and things will leave you alone. Get a custodian or night guard position. Those jobs still exist, since people are often cheaper and more expendable than technology. Temp for the post office. Be a legal assistant. Work for the county doing road maintenance. Get on a construction crew. Walk dogs. Wait tables. Work in warehouse fulfilment. If you’re not physically vigorous, flip burgers, do data entry, work in a call center. Get roommates. Live in a trailer. Food stamps? Of course. You can live just fine on food stamps. Plant a tiny garden. Get a used bike. Buy a tent or sleep in your car. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have food and time.
Food and time are everything. If you can provide those for yourself and lead a nice middle class life in the suburbs (hard but not impossible), that’s fabulous. Definitely do that. But the point is you don’t need to be comfortable and respectable in order to write a novel or paint or sculpt or do stand-up or build computers or become a Tai Chi master or act or write history books or whatever creative pursuit matters most to you.
Living in poverty might be the bargain you make with the world in order to do this, but it doesn’t have to be. If you truly care about being able to do something creative, you’ll set aside financial despair, status anxiety, and the feeling that things should be easier and the world kinder. Instead, you’ll focus on survival and stability so you can get on with your work. It’s important to be able to see what matters vs. what’s empty and pointless. Most things that torment creative people are ultimately meaningless.
Fame is empty. There’s no way to maintain it without making foolish and unnecessary compromises. It’s fickle, a trap for the immature. Being famous doesn’t mean you’re good. It won’t make you happy. You’ll still see your own sad face in the mirror every morning, famous or not. Everyone knowing your name can easily become an obstacle to real development. Anonymity is a beautiful sort of freedom.
Commercial success is empty unless it coincides with something you really want to do. You’ll be earning money for a company by doing the semi-creative work they want you to do using their IP. If giving your energy to them and creating to their spec doesn’t appeal to you, don’t waste your time. Otherwise, you’ll soon come to loathe yourself.
Validation from skeptical family, childhood friends, ex-partners, and everyone who tried to discourage you along the way is empty. You’ll never get it in any satisfying way. You’ll never accomplish so much that they’ll finally admit you were right about following your creative path. Win the National Book Award and they’ll point out you haven’t won the Pulitzer. Put out a gold album and they’ll wonder aloud why it didn’t go platinum. Winning awards and accomplishing big things will never result in their approval. You’ll never get closure at your high school reunion. You’ll never be the hero.
Earning vast sums of money for your work is empty. High society can easily destabilize your creative process and an artist was never made better by owning a yacht. Many famous writers and artists quit creating after they become rich off their work—not because they don’t want to keep making art, but because they get deeply distracted, depressed, and blocked. Vast sums can buy you space, time, and food, but you can get those without compulsory four-hour dinners with gallery owners, critics, publishers, and media executives. Certainly, say yes to all the money and to whatever accolades and gifts effortlessly come your way, but taking time from your work to deliberately pursue those things is a waste of precious hours.
There is one thing that isn’t empty—the thing that makes the difference, that makes the all trouble and compromise worth it. When you sincerely and humbly choose to do this thing and stick with it, developing yourself and putting in the hard hours, you eventually become a conduit for the transcendent creative power that is your birthright. There is nothing better than experiencing that, than working through its complexities and convolutions. And it has nothing to do with how many steaks you have in the freezer. As Bukowski writes in “Roll the Dice”: “you will be alone with the gods/ and the nights will flame with fire.” That’s as good a description as any I’ve read. And it doesn’t even come close.