May 30, 2018 / 6 Comments

Back In the Olden Times

I warned you there won’t be a post on Thursday.  It’s my birthday, and there’s a good chance I’m going to be filthy drunk, playing with little toy soldiers, or maybe getting a new tattoo. Possibly some combination of these things.

But I figured, what the hell, I’d like to talk about something else. This’ll be one of those little rants that’s less about writing and more about being a writer.  And it’s a topic you may have heard of before.

There’s a concept that comes up now and then—the starving artist.  If you look at the history of writing throughout the 18th and 19th Century, and even the start of the 20th, you’ll see a common thread. Most writers were hungry.  Literally.  They often couldn’t afford food. They usually lived in crappy apartments. Even the ones living “glamorously” in the ’20s and ‘30s were usually… well, living like crap.

People point this out and use it for all sorts of excuses. They think this proves artists don’t need to get paid. If you were a real writer, you’d just be doing it for the joy and the excitement of creating stories. You need to starve if you want to be any good at this, so just stop your whining and suffer! It’s not like writing’s a real job anyway.

This is all nonsense, of course. Every bit of it. But, as I’ve brought up here before many times, it’s easy to just say “that’s wrong.”  The harder thing is to explain why something is wrong.

So let’s talk about the four basic flaws people make with the “starving artist” argument.

First, they think this is something “real” artists did. They decided to throw themselves into poverty and live on bread crusts and cheap wine while they perfected their craft. It’s what everyone did back then, and it worked for them.

Okay, let’s pick this apart.

Yes, back in the day… you had to starve for your art. Not because it built character, not so you’d understand suffering, none of that nonsense. I’d be a starving artist because… that’s how I’d learn. I’d work less or take time off altogether, and I’d just write. Write, write, write.  Because, again, that’s how I’d learn. There weren’t classes or programs or books or degrees.  No, seriously, there weren’t. That’s a really recent thing (and a rant all in itself). If you wanted to be a writer—a good writer–you learned by writing.

And that meant spending time writing. Which meant… not working on other things. Like maybe a high-paying job.  Or any kind of job.

Plus, keep in mind—being a writer back then also meant a serious investment in money.  How much do you think these folks wrote a week? 15,000 words? 20,000? That’s a ream of paper every month. Yes, paper.  How else do you think they wrote back then? If I had a typewriter—assuming I could fix it myself and didn’t need to pay for maintenance—I’d still need to buy a new ribbon every 200 pages or so (or re-ink the old one, which means buying ink). Plus there’s postage, too (have to submit my work somehow).

Of course, all this skips over the real issue. Does anyone really think those aspiring writers wanted to live in poverty?  If they could live in the modern world where everyone has a computer with a word processor, email submissions are the norm, and you can spend four or six or eight years at a university (with housing and a dining commons and medical services)… well, I feel pretty safe thinking very few of those writers of yesteryear would say “Nope—squalor and starvation for me, please.”

Second, when people talk about the starving writer, they romanticize it. We hear stories about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and so many others hanging out in Paris and we think, oh, how lovely that must’ve been. All the creativity and support and free exchange of ideas.

Truth is… Hemingway was using alcoholism to deal with his PTSD after World War One. Fitzgerald had constant money problems. Hell, a bunch of them were skirting poverty at any given time. Oh, and let’s not forget the Nazis were gaining power in Europe at that point, so that may have caused a bit of tension among the progressive free-thinkers.

Things were really awful for those very notable starving writers at what’s considered a major point in their careers.  But we overlook a lot of the negatives because of those positives. We maybe even enhance the positives a bit more than we should.

F’r example, right after college I lived in a shabby, beetle-infested, un-insulated townhouse in Amherst with three friends. We roasted in the summer, froze in the winter, and fought over the single shower every morning. We had a pretty-much absentee landlord who never fixed anything and stole our security deposit in the end just because we were young and she could.

I have tons of happy memories about that year.  But I also know that’s my brain mercifully editing out all the horrible stuff. You’ve probably had points in your life like that, too—a job or a living arrangement or a relationship you can look back at fondly if you just ignore points A, B, C, and E. And we do ignore these things, because I think most of us like to focus on the positive. But it doesn’t mean the negative wasn’t there.

Third is that, like with so many things, people have flipped correlation and causation. Nobody’s ever been a great writer just because they lived in abject poverty. Nobody.

All those folks living in Paris who became legends in their field? Well guess what? There were thousands of people in Paris trying to be writers and poets and painters, and most of them were poor and starving (see point number one up above). Most of them never become successful. Critically or financially.

If poverty was such a deciding factor… well, shouldn’t most of them become household names, too? I mean, that’s how this works. If X causes Y, then in all cases of X we should see Y. In a bare majority of cases, at the very least.

But we don’t.

The ugly truth of history is we tend to talk about the rare successes and not so much about the abundant failures. When we only consider those exceptions to the rule, though, it gives us a really skewed view on things. It’s like only looking at Jennifer Lawrence’s career and then saying “Well, I guess every young girl who moves from Kentucky to Hollywood is going to end up being a major movie star.”

And we all know it just doesn’t work like that.

Fourth, and finally, is the Puritan thing.  And I’m saying this one as someone who has New England roots stretching back a hundred years before this whole “United States” idea.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s a kind of messed up idea in America that jobs should not be pleasant.  Nobody should like their job.  Jobs mean work, and work means long hours, sweat, and aching backs when you get home—and you need to go home.   If you’re working out of your home, it means you’ve either a housewife or got one of those cushy liberal-elite “jobs” that just involves taking money from real working people.  You’re in the arts?  Yeah, try a real job sometime…

Okay, sure, not everyone’s that bad, but that attitude is really pervasive.  It’s why some people think writers—all artists, really—should suffer.  It fits into a view we’ve all been conditioned to believe.  Well, all of us in the States, anyway.

Don’t believe me?  What’s blue collar comedy?  It’s a whole subgenre of sitcoms about working-class folks who don’t like their jobs and get low wages.  This is a normal, relatable thing.  Because people are supposed to hate their jobs, right?

When I started writing full time, one thing I struggled with (for years) was people who didn’t understand that I was working.  No, seriously. I’m actually working. I still had to put in my forty hours a week like anyone else. Usually more.

So when people are pushing the starving writing idea… this is where it’s coming from. And this is why it’s wrong.


All that said…

This doesn’t mean writing is easy now.  It’s never been easy.  If I want to do this, I’ll still have to make tough decisions now and then.  I may have to prioritize things.  I will probably have to make some sacrifices.  If I want this to be my career, that means it’s my job. And that means it’s going to be work.

But unless I do something stupid… I shouldn’t have to starve.  And nobody should expect me to.

See you next week for that P-word talk.

Until then, go write.

November 23, 2016 / 1 Comment


            Look!  We’re a day early because tomorrow I’m going to be cooking and watching a lot of my favorite black-and-white movies.  Joy!
            Well, not all joy…
            I need to get something off my chest.
            I’m a fraud.
            I would guess, on an average week, this idea runs through my head five or six times (by odd coincidence, I tend to work five or six days a week).  The notion that I’m a complete fake who’s kind of stumbled into this life off sheer luck more than ability.  I re-read my new projects and wonder if they’re good or if I’m just deluding myself.  Maybe I don’t know a tenth of what I think I know—a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. 
            I sometimes wonder if the next book is going to be the one where my small fanbase gives a big shrug and says “ehhhhh… I guess he’s burned out.  Time to move on.” 
            I fret a lot about whether or not my publisher’s going to dump me as a writer, too. Well, not dump me, but just decide this latest contact will be… well, the last one.  Same with my agent.  He has some much, much bigger clients than me, and it’s not irrational to think he might decide his time and efforts are better spent focused on them.
            You may have heard of people feeling this way before.  It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s really common.  I get it all the time.  Chuck Wendig gets it.  Victoria Schwab gets it.  Pretty much every writer I’ve ever talked to at length has copped to it. They’re plagued with self-doubt. They question most everything they write.
            (You didn’t think Hemingway drank that much because it was fashionable at the time, did you…?)
            I’m not saying this to freak you out or feed your insecurities.  I’m hoping it reassures you a bit.  We all feel this way sometimes.  Yeah, even those of us so-called-pros who are doing this full time.
            There are two reasons people get hit with imposter syndrome, in my so-called expert opinion.  For what it’s worth.  And they’re kinda related.  It’s almost the same thing, really.
            First is that, once I hit a certain stage in my writing, I start to see certain things.  I can admit to flaws in my work.  Of course, once I admit problems might be there, that also opens me up to imagining and creating problems. 
            As it happens, imagining and creating is what most writers do.  We’re good at it. Sometimes we do it even when we don’t want to…
            Second is fear.  I think imposter syndrome is a lot like writers block.  The act of creation—of pulling something out of my head and setting it down on paper—can be terrifying.  If you think about, it’s really common for people to talk themselves out of doing scary things.  Think of a couple times in your life when you had to do something that scared you.  How often did you end up thinking something along the lines of “ I can’t do this! What was I thinking?  I shouldn’t be here!”
            I can think of three or four times that sort of mantra ran through my head, all long before I became a full time writer.
            There’s a flipside to this, too.  The folks who are utterly, 110% confident their work is perfect, and that they absolutely shouldbe professionals.  The ones who have no doubts at all.
            And yet, for some reason… they’re not.  They don’t make sales. They don’t get deals.  Usually because of gatekeepers or antiquated systems or something.  Definitely not because of them.
            I’ve run into a few folks like this. You probably have, too.
            Y’see, Timmy, I shouldn’t look at imposter syndrome as a problem.  Oh, it sucks, yeah, and it can lead to one or three stressful days or nights. But really it’s a sign of my maturity as a writer. It shows that I’m open to the possibility my work isn’t perfect, which means I’m open to improving it.
            And improving it is the big goal for all of us.
            Next time I might shout at you real quick.

            Until then, go write.