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Craft of Writing

Should Writers and Artists Be Comfortable?

Here are two excerpts from an opinion piece by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. The column, titled “The Real Humanities Crisis,” ran in The New York Times on November 30.

Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able [to] earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others—poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists—must either have a partner whose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer. Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement… Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.

As a writer, I know all of that is true. Art has always been devalued by an overwhelming majority of people, not just here, but in every country, every culture.[1] Typically, art is kept alive because artists are either too passionate to let it die, or too incompetent to do anything else.

Gutting goes on to suggest we remedy the situation by creating “an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding.” Sounds nice, at first. But could that work? And more importantly, should it?

Well, first, there’s an enormous gulf between pursuing one’s craft and standing in front of a classroom filled with wannabe writers or artists, trying to get them to understand the subtleties of thematic construction or free indirect style. Maybe teaching a master’s class would be better, but it’s still not writing, still a day job to support one’s art.

But more important is the idea that artists should be comfortable while they create art. I am of two minds about that.

I’ve made clear in these posts that writers and artists deserve to be compensated for their talent and the incredible effort that goes into translating their creativity from the mind to the page, canvas or stage. But I would not go so far as to grant them a life of complacency. There’s nothing like the fire that burns when one doesn’t know when the next paycheck is coming, or where it’s coming from.

What does a writer write about when she has a job she enjoys, that pays well enough to afford a nice house and car, and ensures the kids have good food, clothes, etc.? Take a look, for example, at books by writers who have been successful enough to live comfortably. Compare them to their earlier works. Many of the most highly-regarded novels in history were written by people who struggled their entire lives to make ends meet (think Joyce, Proust, Poe and others) or lived in times or places of political repression/upheaval (Bolaño, Saramago, Kundera).

Take a look at what fills literary journals today, particularly the ones that are produced by universities, where writers enjoy comfortable jobs and lives. You’ll see the writing that already dominates U.S. fiction: tales of bourgeois angst, filled with smarmy affairs and materialistic concerns, largely ignorant of the realities of American life for a majority of its citizens: poverty, race, violence; or of any existential, philosophical, political or even faith basis. Such a proliferation of these self-indulgent values, by the way, is just another way to maintain the schism between those cultural elites and everyone else. Do we want more of that?

Give the writer a well-paying job; let him become fat and happy? In other words, build a velvet coffin in which artists can comfortably allow their anger at the unfairness inherent in society to drain away while they watch cable after teaching for three hours a day.

Sorry, Professor Gutting, but maybe an artist needs to struggle.

[1] Why? So glad you asked. Mostly because they’re far too busy just trying to make ends meet, to support themselves and their families, and are inundated with the corporate invasiveness that accompanies a materialistic culture and market-based economy. They don’t understand how art fits into that life. Most people have had woefully little education in how to appreciate art. They don’t like much of it because they don’t get it. I find it interesting that more American families encourage their kids to participate in sports than art, even though I’ll bet paying jobs in the arts actually far outnumber those in sports.1a Maybe it has to do with the fact that sports are a better marketing vehicle for Big Media. Who would watch a writer write? (Well, the Italians do, but we’ve always been a little strange.)

1a Except in some sports-crazed states where you can get jobs like assistant towel carrier to the high school football team’s executive waterboy.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


22 thoughts on “Should Writers and Artists Be Comfortable?

  1. With only one exception, every writing and English teacher I had in college and grad school told us, “Do not pursue teaching, it will ruin your writing.” Their point being that, as you say here, there’s a huge difference between writing and teaching others how to write, and also that helping dozens of students develop their craft can drain your artistic energy to the point that you don’t have time to focus on your own work. One professor even encouraged us to find day jobs that required little to no creative energy — data entry clerk, receptionist — where your mind would be free to daydream.

    Posted by Teri | December 7, 2013, 2:15 PM
    • Very interesting that they would say that. I’ve done a little teaching and do have the sense that it forces you (in most cases) to focus on the basics of writing, instead of allowing time to develop one’s unique style. And I do agree with the idea of having a less intellectually demanding job to support the writing. As my responsibilities as a technical writer (my day job) grow, I find less and time and will to write creatively—just another reason I’m looking forward to the Tacoma move.

      Posted by jpon | December 7, 2013, 4:06 PM
    • Hot damn, I’m in the perfect day job. And I do find the separation between my creative life and pure survivalist employment is helpful. When I come back to the page, I feel it’s been a long journey even if only a few hours have passed.

      Posted by Averil Dean | December 7, 2013, 4:54 PM
  2. There is a rather wide gulf between “comfortable” and “starving.” When you look at the marginal utility of money, it vastly improves a person’s circumstances when it pulls him out of poverty, but beyond that, it stops providing additional benefits. It is helpful to a writer to have a broad perspective. Having endured some “life humbling experiences” (my friend’s expression) helps with that. It is not helpful to anyone’s productivity and creativity to spend the day worried about whether she will have food or not or whether she is about to be evicted.

    When you are poor you have to deal with survival constantly in the present. There is a great deal of anxiety and intruding thoughts about the horrible things that are about to happen if you can’t come up with $x by Wednesday. Your creativity tends to be applied to the question of “how can I get $150 to pay my auto insurance before it cancels.” None of that aids concentration or abstract thought. It doesn’t give a writer the focus she needs to edit and revise and to produce compelling queries.

    Sure, teaching students can drain artistic energy, but certainly working on an assembly line or in an office or a Wal-Mart is a huge energy drain as well. When I was supporting my writing by working at a desk job in the day and delivering pizza at night, I can’t say it increased the amount of energy I had for creative pursuits.

    And just to add another wrinkle to this, I think that one’s social class and outlook is formed in youth. It is separate from one’s current financial position. The fact that I am poor now does not mean that I write from the perspective of a working class person. I tend to write about middle class people dealing with the types of struggles my “people” do because that is where I come from and what I know. If you want more perspectives in writing rather than making middle class people uncomfortable, a better alternative might be to take someone from a working class background and make him comfortable enough that he can concentrate on telling his story.

    Posted by lauraleeauthor | December 7, 2013, 3:08 PM
    • It’s tough to come up with generalizations about the best circumstances in which to focus on writing, since every writer has a different idea of what that is. I hope I didn’t sound like I was encouraging writers to starve, only to not get too comfortable with their lives. The struggle can be intellectual as well as physical, for example. As I noted, I am a strong proponent of compensating writers for their work. I’m just not sure creating an “an elite, professional faculty” is helpful to a writer’s craft. Granted, Gutting is suggesting this for “humanists,” not writers in particular, but I still have an issue with it.

      Your last point, about childhood circumstances, is very intriguing. A writer’s background is certainly an influence, but it should not be limiting. Travel and experience often influences a writer’s perspective to the point where s/he can write about others cultures and people. I’ve had stories published about both the very rich and the very poor, although I grew up hopelessly middle class. But I have lived all around the US, been poor and affluent (not rich, though, so I’m hoping I get a shot at that just to see what it’s like) and have lived among people of many beliefs and values. But even that is no guarantee of insightful writing. Faulkner lived his entire life in Mississippi and he understood human motivation better than all of us.

      Posted by jpon | December 7, 2013, 4:45 PM
      • Curiosity is much more important for a writer than the ability to be uncomfortable. If it is possible to write about other cultures and people then it should be possible to write about other life circumstances actually having to live that life.

        As a counter example to money making writers complacent, I wanted to point out that the writing with which we associated Oscar Wilde was the product of financial success. The stuff he wrote prior to his plays, while he was struggling, is not nearly as well known or loved as The Importance of Being Earnest, written at the height of his fame and fortune.

        I’m quite envious of the classical education of the writers of the 19th century who were of a class that allowed them to focus on things that we now consider frivolous– Latin and Greek, poetry, literature, art. Academics call them “dead white men” and note quite correctly that they were not representative. But I do envy the luxury they had to seep themselves in culture without having to be money and business focused. I wish my educational experience had taught me as much about the Greeks and French literature.

        Rather than think about financial comfort and security as good or bad for a writer it is better to think of it as a road with troughs to either side. If you veer too far towards poverty on the right you will fall into a ditch. If you veer too far towards complacent security on the left you will fall into a different ditch.

        Posted by lauraleeauthor | December 7, 2013, 5:35 PM
      • I love your point about education in centuries past. The privileged few benefited from a belief in pinnacles of knowledge drawn from a variety of cultures and histories (although I’m sure it was altered to serve the dominant culture’s need for primacy). I’m old enough to remember signing up to take Latin in junior high, and enjoying the history as much as the language. But by then Latin was already considered a “dead” language, and many other students couldn’t understand why I and about 10 others took it. I agree that today’s curriculum seems less focused on knowledge designed to create a well-rounded individual, and more on teaching money-making skills and attitudes.

        Posted by jpon | December 8, 2013, 1:45 PM
    • You’ve made a number of good points, Laura Lee, which I think add to Joe’s discussion immensely, and include some items I’ve not really thought about, or at least not in this way before. Writing about middle-class people is not necessarily bad or boring, nor is writing about working class people necessarily gifted. It’s all in the inspiration with which one handles the writing and the skill too, of course. I don’t think Joe meant to deny these things, but I’m glad you stated them outright.

      Posted by shadowoperator | December 7, 2013, 6:01 PM
  3. Dammit, Joe, then, I hope you never get comfortable! I’m nearly done with your Face Maker-and-other-obsessions, and I’ll save my description of your writing for my review of it (hopefully posted THIS month), but am loving your writing!

    Yes, somehow, we must all “keep our edge”; but it is great that we have such an array of indie publishing options out there…though it is difficult getting the face time with everyone else. And as to creating “elite” schools…we just need to (IMHO) foster the creativity, the APPRECIATION of said, in all of us, and we’ll each find ways to channel our own versions of creativity in our own lives, whether it be in arts or mechanics. As well as the appreciation of it. And creativity is not just limited to “the arts.” It should be applied and appreciated in ALL of life. But, that being said, I also feel (without contradiction) that creativity is being expressed wherever it exists, because it simply cannot be stomped down. We just don’t always see all the many and varied ways, because, it happens on so many personal levels that just don’t involve traditional “artistic” definitions, but, in and of themselves, ARE artistic, even if it’s just the different use of a spice in a cake recipe. And of course, if those manifestations are not appreciated, how can you get the more obvious versions appreciated? Yet, when we get to corporate levels, their mindsets are not as attuned to “the artists’ ways,” so they publish what is—in their minds—“art”=”good”=”commercially viable”…

    …which leads into the “everyday person’s” undervaluation of art. Since heady “art” is so underplayed in a society so taken with the “physical,” it is difficult to get one to STOP AND THINK…APPRECIATE that which really does not need to be ACTED UPON, beyond “mere” reflection! “Stop and smell the roses” seems the closest the everyday person gets, through utterance of the famous aphorism! And if all you have is what’s thrown before the public, then that’s all that’s reinforced….

    Properly compensated? Yes, I wish we were, and hope someday we are. Yet, we will all continue to do what we do, because it’s a burning need within us to do so. There is no other alternative. :-]

    And thanks for the link to the link to Monty Python’s novel writing play-by-play! They were so ahead of their time….

    Posted by fpdorchak | December 7, 2013, 3:33 PM
    • Looking forward to that review!

      To me, all that art appreciation stuff is related, since so many people let others tell them what’s good art and bad art. That only puts the decision-making power in the hands of the corporate mucky mucks, who, as you said, measure everything by its sales value, not its aesthestic value.

      Posted by jpon | December 7, 2013, 4:57 PM
  4. I don’t feel that worrying about the next meal would necessarily improve one’s writing, though an existential angst might. As a matter of fact, I feel that society as a whole must develop a system where artists of all stripes and levels are adequately compensated for their work. Writers write because they must, because they feel an urge to create, a feeling unrelated to their economic conditions. Masterpieces are created not because, but despite of harsh economic realities for most writers.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | December 7, 2013, 9:55 PM
    • Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a writer is to be accepted and praised by the media and public. If anything would lead to complacency, it’s that.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2013, 1:47 PM
  5. Neal Stephenson makes a distinction between “Dante writers” — who are likely to be tenured faculty, and write well-crafted literary works for a small, highly educated audience (in the past, these were the sorts of folks who had a lordly patron) and “Beowulf writers” who just want to tell a ripping yarn to as many people as they can get to listen (in the past, these were telling stories around fires). In the medieval era, you had wandering bard/actor/minstrels…. I went to college with a guy who wanted to be a writer and thought the path was through dissolution and acting crazy. I don’t think he produced much….

    I like your question. Might come back later with more thoughts. Storytelling thrives on conflict. Do storytellers thrive on conflict? (Was Oscar Wilde a better writer because of what he suffered?)

    Posted by arichaley | December 7, 2013, 11:50 PM
    • In thinking about writers whose lives I am familiar with, it seems that most had some conflict with mainstream society that kept them from feeling comfortable in their lives. Wilde, although accepted by much of British society for his wit, still had to deal with many critics, as well as condescension over his gay lifestyle. In considering everything that’s been said here, perhaps the more complete statement for me to make is that good writers are always addressing some unresolved conflict in their lives. Maybe Gutting’s idea of giving “humanists” comfortable jobs as teachers wouldn’t mitigate those conflicts, but my feeling is that it would.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2013, 2:30 PM
      • You could limit it to addressing an unresolved conflict. It may not need to be in the person’s personal life. I think of writers like Bernard Shaw and Lev Tolstoy who married well and could have lived quite comfortable lives but who were still driven to comment on society. Too much discomfort destroys you, as it eventually destroyed Wilde. The discomfort of the latter part of his life did nothing to increase his literary output. After The Ballad of Readding Gaol, the rest was silence.

        Posted by lauraleeauthor | December 8, 2013, 7:58 PM
  6. So how poor should we be in order for us to keep our precious artist’s soul alive and well? How rich to allow our minds to prosper in our art?
    In this discussion we are the ones evaluating ourselves, not unlike the fast food workers demanding to be paid according to their own notions of their worth. But this is a tricky debate to enter because even in this comparison, burger workers actually do something valued by society. We, as artists, apparently do not. If we all disappeared tonight, would our absence even be noticed by more than a relative handful? Those missed would be those who pen the soap operas and most PG movies. Those “dancers” of All-Pro Wrestling. The artists who ink The Simpsons. Tears for poets? Mourning for fiction writers? Not so much, except for Stephen King.
    Maybe we need a Commissar of Fine Arts and a Committee for Artistic Production Evaluation. I rather fancy I’d be a, Writer-Fiction (Short) Level VII. I’d have my published work submitted to the Compensation Board that would then determine Value, and cut me a check. Any disputes could be taken to the Writer’s Union.
    “…writers and artists deserve to be compensated for their talent and the incredible effort that goes into translating their creativity from the mind to the page, canvas or stage.”
    Sez who? Sez us, I guess.

    Posted by Jon Zech | December 9, 2013, 3:03 AM
    • First, Jon, it’s great to see a comment from you. I’m hoping the docs have finally found a treatment that lets you function and communicate like your normal self.

      Now as to your comment: If we all disappeared tonight, we might not be noticed tomorrow, but we’d be missed. Despite the fact that the mainstream drives popular culture, it’s the community of artists and thinkers that shapes humanity’s direction over the long haul. So many great minds were ridiculed and repressed in their own time. So many still are because the selfish and greedy voices are still the loudest and most sure of themselves. We just have to accept that most of us won’t be recognized in our lifetimes, nor can we be sure we’ve added anything to this imperceptible forward movement, but we still have to do it, because it’s our nature to try, and to care.

      Posted by jpon | December 9, 2013, 12:12 PM
  7. Wow – what a great angle on a familiar topic. The enduring works were created by struggling artists. How true. Another thought-provoking post. Thanks, Joe.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | December 9, 2013, 12:02 PM
  8. I’m going to take a stab at this: it’s not ‘struggle,’ but conflict (meant to suggest more than mere hunger and deprivation — emotional) that is the finer point. I don’t have the reference, but one of the ‘ten things creative people need,’ according to a number of courses I’d taken, was suffering at some point in their lives. There followed the gross generalization (that seems to have some validity) pointing toward the disenfranchised belonging to a culture that has a need to speak out. All art being an effort toward communication, this makes sense to me. Obviously there’d be caveats, but this element seemed to be true. I only point this out because I wouldn’t mind being one of those fellows that finally breaks out can suffer on the sands of Manhattan Beach while composing my next novel or poem.

    Do we need it? Not sure I agree with that. Would it help if we had struggled and suffered from hunger and whatever other abuses could’ve been heaped on us? I’m thinking yes, it’s quite possible. But not now, necessarily. Truman Capote, in a dialog with Dick Cavet and Groucho Marx, felt it was impossible to write and be drunk or stoned; Charles Harper Webb, however, did caution that one’s poetry was likely to suffer if the artist had felt he had arrived. The trick, like everything else in life, is in finding the balance.

    Posted by Robert Hoffman | December 11, 2013, 9:21 PM
  9. After the conversation following this post, it seems clear that the writer’s struggle need not be monetary or even physical in nature. The internal conflict is the force that drives one to speak out through creation of something that does not exist. I like Webb’s comment about the feeling one has arrived. I think it applies to any occupation or endeavor, but to artists especially. The confusion in my original post came from equating the position proposed by Gutting and the feeling of comfort (the quieting of the internal conflict). The combination of professional security and the demands of a teaching job, I believe, have the potential to snuff out any creative soul.

    Posted by jpon | December 14, 2013, 12:33 PM

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