I read JD Samson’s post about the crappiness of having to psychologically and practically reconcile her early financial success with her current financial struggles with cringey mixed feelings. It reminded me of a post I wrote for the Hairpin about a year ago. I am so embarrassed by this post that I can’t even reread it now but I think it was about how the mere existence of Tavi’s internet enterprise is somehow unfair to writers who are twice her age because, basically, it’s annoying that we’ve worked hard in various ways for years and now a teenager is judging our worthiness. I wrote it at my desk at my temp job. You can absolutely tell. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to get that what I was really saying was: “I’m temping and broke and so confused and bitter about how I got here from the places where I’ve been, I thought I was done with this but apparently I will spend the rest of my life struggling, I don’t deserve this, how did this happen?”
When you’re any kind of artist and you’re having your first taste of success, it’s easy to forget that financial success and artistic success don’t often go hand in hand—that, actually, it is super rare for someone who does work in any artistic discipline to be paid what that work is worth. Some of the people whose writing and music have changed my life and many other people’s lives are living in rental apartments with pee-smelling hallways or drafty houses in cold upstate college towns. Some of them are living in Greenwich Village brownstones. There’s no logic behind who gets what; we want to believe that there is because it makes us feel like we’re in control, but we’re mostly not. Sometimes, some people will draw a winning hand. The Internet will reliably get its collective panties in a twist whenever an author, god forbid, gets paid six figures (of which 15% goes to his agent and 25% goes to the IRS) for the novel he’s spent years working on. When hedge fund criminals make that same amount of money in a lucky minute, it’s not the same people who get riled up, if anyone even gets riled up.
Even if you’re a big fan of capitalism, you’ll at least concede that its greatest strength is probably not its capacity to reward artistic virtue fairly. It’s important for artists to remember this—and then it’s important for us to stop dwelling on it. “I can’t make coffee,” Samson writes; this was probably where I sympathized with her–and also cringed–most. I spent a lot of the past year trying to figure out what, besides writing, I could do to make money. Besides temping, I tried to trick myself into thinking that I was on the verge of becoming various kinds of consultant. I do teach yoga, but the kind I teach is not really a cash cow. (Cash cat-cow? Yoga joke.) I had lunches and informational interviews. I found out about the viability of selling my eggs (I have one more year!) I kicked myself for not taking freelance assignments that would have been right for 25 year old me but would have been torture for present-day me (“Interview your exes about what went wrong” was a memorable one). Mostly, though, I wrote things no one paid me to write and borrowed lots of money just to be able to live. Sometimes I bailed on plans with more financially stable friends because I knew we’d end up eating food I’d be paying 16% APR on for years to come. Other times, I didn’t bail, then didn’t enjoy my friends because I was thinking about money the whole time. I complained, complained, complained about it all to anyone who would listen (mostly Keith and Ruth, and also my therapist, to whom I also owe money.)
And then finally, long after I had given up, I had the idea for a business!(that will probably not make money anytime soon.) But just realizing that there was something I am capable of doing besides writing was enough to give me hope that I will, piece by piece, begin to figure out the rest of my life.
Financial self-sufficiency is a big deal, especially for women, whose liberation has historically coincided with their financial freedom. It takes courage to admit that you’re not doing okay, and to begin doing something about it. It’s complicated, though, because I’m not at all saying “get a day job!” to people like JD who feel like making art is the only thing they’re capable of doing. I’m more saying, keep your mind open about what you might be capable of doing. A lot of us grew up hearing “Do what you love and the money will follow,” which is great advice for people who love neurosurgery or filing briefs. “Do what you love 70% of the time and spend the rest of the time doing various things you hate, or that are difficult for you, and see what happens,” might be better advice. It was for me, I think. I don’t know! I’ll keep you posted.