From Hemingway to Kathy Acker: Making Art from the Outside
Ellena Savage on the Struggle to Write and Make a Living at the Same Time
I was in the courtyard of a café in east London (£7.50 for my coffee and sandwich in exchange for some wifi) and the two women working but not really working were smoking cigarettes and drinking “cheeky” juices at the table next to me. The one with false eyelashes and long, slim honey-colored limbs, told the other about her 17-hour trip to Ibiza with Diplo who was, for the weekend, her squeeze, where she had embarrassed herself by drinking four bottles of red wine on the private jet over, the purple of which Diplo had to wipe off her lips when she arrived. Before and after the show, she said, Diplo and his dancers drank green tea and ate quinoa salads because, for them, it wasn’t a party, it was work. Of course, as a feminist, I saw her incredible makeup and her limbs, taut despite the red wine calories, as a kind of work, too: a work, at least, of imagination and of aspiration.
“Like, I used to have posters of Diplo on my wall as a teenager,” she said to her colleague. “I couldn’t imagine him even looking at me, you know? And then, there I was. On his private plane.”
In a notebook before she died, Kathy Acker wrote:
Concerning imagination: At age 30 I was working in a cookie shop. There was absolutely nothing in the society that in any way made it seem possible for me to earn my living as a writer. I was, and still am, the most noncommercial of writers. I said, if X doesn’t exist, you have to make it exist. You just imagine it…
Much has been said about how writers earn money writing when writing does not earn money; more will be said, too, of the nexus of power, privilege, and prestige in literature, and I have little to add here. More interesting to me is that artists, in fact, do it with and without networks of financial security. They do it because they are driven by desperate and belligerent ambition. They believe, it seems—they must—that they are special enough to endure the slow-motion traffic accident of this world, this reality; that what they are hungry for is more than being simply a body in the world, entangled by the drudgery of space and time.
There are many kinds of hunger. And when we are hungry sometimes, sometimes it is our own goddamn fault.
Last year I read a lot of Gertrude Stein, and while drenched in her odd, rather aggressive, and somewhat sumptuous world, I’d arrive to teach my classes (AU$120 per hour) armed with printouts of her portraits. If my students had neglected to do their readings, I would whip her out as a form of punishment. Of course, Gertrude Stein is no real punishment. During one such session, the brightest student—who every week arrived late and left early, clearly hungover yet possessed by an extraordinary brain—brought up Hemingway’s ‘lyric memoir’ A Moveable Feast; brought up how, in it, old Hem had brutally criticized Stein. Although I’d gone through my Hemingway craze in high school and had then loved his languor and barely concealed petulance, I hadn’t returned to see if I might still value his opinion. In any case, I had never read A Moveable Feast and so couldn’t comment on this accusation, except to declare in the classroom that autobiographies tend to reveal more about their authors than their authors are generally aware.
A little while later, I was invited to speak on a panel addressing my old university’s new honors students, which was surprising because I had done okay but not brilliantly in my honors year—which I had enrolled in, initially, and perhaps unbelievably, for the purpose of receiving the Austudy financial welfare payments (AU$440 a fortnight) that I had never before been able to receive on account of multiple universe-not-aligning-correctly reasons, which meant my undergrad was just 100 per cent hustle until I came to edit the student newspaper (AU$17,000 per annum). After editing the student newspaper I graduated and learned that not only was I terrible at earning money from writing, I was also an undesirable in the general job economy. Following this revelation I got into a relationship with a slightly older, slightly more-affluent-than-me boy (yet utterly self-made) and I joined him overseas on his research trip. He paid for most of it using one of his scholarships, so that took care of half-a-year-or-so, but still we were quite poor during this stint. We mainly ate noodles for dinner and drank malt liquor instead of beer, and while he “worked” I developed a fitness fanaticism, and—when I wasn’t running or doing weights—read a lot, and wrote some short pieces that started getting somewhere, bringing in a few hundred here and there, and in one case some prize money. But, really, what I needed was a living wage, and Austudy sounded pretty plush, so returning to Melbourne and beginning honors sounded quite nice in that it would force me to write, and to write with seriousness as my goal.
After finishing this panel for the new honors students, I was handed a AU$50 Readings bookstore voucher, which I promptly exchanged for a new Clairfontaine notebook (AU$6.95), another copy of Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (AU$24.95) to replace the one a friend had accidentally defaced, and A Moveable Feast (AU$16.95), though I didn’t read A Moveable Feast until I was walking out on Melbourne, as it was slim enough for my hand luggage, reading it on the plane to London (AU$500 sale fare) en route to a new life in Berlin, where I might find it possible to live off my PhD student income (AU$26,000 per annum) while writing a serious thesis. It was a strange/cute sensation to read A Moveable Feast in this way, to be in the process of establishing a writing life away from my social support structures and my comforts, and to read the most commonly cited (and arguably, hackneyed) handbook on the topic.
Let’s forget what Hemingway says about Gertrude Stein and, by extension, women as a class—that “there is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers…”—and instead think about him and Paris and money. Because, as I am suggesting, the Berlin decision and, in fact, every decision I have made so far in both my writing and love life has, to some degree, been made with day-to-day money and future money in mind. For example, I guess I’d hoped or imagined that working as a volunteer with The Lifted Brow for years (five) would accrue a sort of cultural capital that would morph into material capital but, as yet, has not and might never, unless I wish to become a scholar of independent literary magazines, or talk about them at writers’ festivals for the next ten years, or edit one that pays a salary the fraction of what I could earn in academia, for example. So, aside from fearing women, Hemingway talks about living in poverty in Paris while learning to write; he speaks of poverty, real poverty, and this is summed up in a strange tale about childcare.
(In a spirit of candour, I should admit that while reading A Moveable Feast I imposed upon it my mean-spirited feminism; as I read, a little voice instructed me to ask: who is looking after your baby, Hemingway, who is washing your socks? Presumably your WIFE, your suffering female companion, while YOU pursue YOUR INANE PASSIONS. And while my instinct for framing and naming patriarchal behaviours is usually correct, in this case it was somewhat wrong.) Hemingway’s wife Hadley is a pianist and, after Ernest goes off to the café to work, she trundles down to her studio, coming home intermittently to feed the baby Bumby because:
There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big, loving cat named F Puss. There were people who said it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby. The most ignorant and prejudiced would say that a cat would suck a baby’s breath and kill him. Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat’s weight would smother him. F Puss lay beside him in the tall cage bed and watched the door with his big yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out…
I can’t attest to what Hem is attempting to evoke here, particularly regarding his contempt for those “ignorant and prejudiced” who disparaged animal guardians. What I do, however, take from this passage is that Hemingway’s son, Bumby, was raised by a cat because it’s very difficult to sit around trying to write stories or play the piano if you are babysitting your child. The issue of childcare is a feminist issue, but moreover it is a capitalist issue, and, like all capitalist issues, it is an issue for artists who, like (most) women, are towards the bottom of the sludge-pile. I would, for example, have a baby if it could earn me money in the way that editing books earns me money; not wasted labor, sure, but quite thankless and unpleasant and should therefore bring home some bacon. Babies are said to add value to one’s life—this is the incentive they give to induce the process—but they cost a lot, perhaps much more than what they return. As it stands, having a baby will cost me money and time I do not have, and will probably never have, so the boy I am in love with says he will have a vasectomy (AU$500) so that we will be able to learn to write side-by-side without leaving a young human in the care of domestic animals. We have also ruled out pets and debt.
In my few days in London I felt a little bored; not particularly excited to go out consuming and not in the mood for art either, sentiments which may be connected. So I took the bus to Oxford (£14 return) to see two friends: a couple, both young scholars, I suppose, but more than that—more golden, like baubles singing, than that. When I arrived, Emma was still polishing the references in the thesis she would submit the following morning, so to kill a few hours I walked around the old town. The sandstone everything of the ancient university was scorched—a sweaty brightness I do not enjoy—and so I ducked into Blackwell’s, a large and famous but, frankly, quite boring bookshop. I couldn’t find any of the books I was after, for example, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel, or John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr. But I trawled, for what else was I supposed to do? Somewhere around the ‘queer studies’ section—which was largely made up of four hundred copies of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—I found a stray copy of I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996, a collection of the emails Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark sent one another after sleeping together when Acker had visited Sydney.
What a luscious record of two minds, two hearts at work building lives for themselves that could seem vital, or real. How much longing for recognition there is in their exchange, two queers living at the center of things, intimately entangled in their times. Hemingway might paint a picture of what it is to be young, dumb, full of cum, and choosing art over affluence, but he doesn’t scratch the surface as to the how, the why, the superstructure; he carries with him the security of Midwestern bourgeois prosperity. In 1995, Acker and Wark painted the grimness that is my inheritance.
…I’m this: part of a culture that doesn’t want me […] We’re rats walking on tightropes we never thought existed. No medical insurance; no steady job; etc. This isn’t me, Ken, or rather it is me (personal) and it isn’t: it’s social and political. All my friends are the same. […] Let me tell you about the America I live in. It’s a war-zone. No wonder I’m fascinated with… by?… your relationships […] we have the relationships of too many rats in a cage.
Wark replies: “There aren’t enough vampires in this town. I mean hey, you’ve seen it. Here even the *artists* come to dinner and talk about real estate!”
The way I understand art in the arc of a life is similar to how I think about gender. In order to do art the artist has to sacrifice ‘niceties’. In order to comprehend that gender is hegemonic, we have to forgo the protections of patriarchy. One cannot kill all men and marry them for the status too. Or perhaps ‘one’ as a general subject can, but this particular one cannot. There is no getting around that. You want to be an artist because you want a little something of everything, but the having of everything all at once prevents you from stepping out, from seeing the composition in high relief. The cliché—the artist outsider looking in—has to be true, I swear it.
Acker was an outsider and she made a legend of herself. You could do that in San Francisco in the 1990s, where there is “a sign over the door […] that reads ‘straights not wanted here.’” She writes, “I don’t like prison gates in any form: they make me want to bust out. And I do. I want it all, you know? The legitimacy and the way(s) ‘I’ am. (Do, Imagine, etc.)” I am guessing Acker wouldn’t live in SF anymore—too expensive, too much plaid—and guess that she’d live in Austin or maybe Detroit, who knows, maybe Minneapolis. Or Berlin, maybe. Not Melbourne. The hunger for it all in Melbourne is subsumed by the hunger for sliders, for mortgage deposits, for wedding ceremonies with a guilty conscience. And Hemingway’s hunger, albeit one that sustains itself from the axis of power: “Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, ‘I don’t know, Tatie. There are so many sorts of hunger […] Memory is hunger.’”
The ‘niceties’ are culturally defined. What is nice for me is not nice for you. Still, I like my luxury perfumes. Still, Aldi vegetables make me want to die. The hunger is bigger than the object of its lust. It is difficult to thoroughly imagine contentedness with money, with the love of one person, with the soft drool of a Dachshund, with even the reddest, most mammalian orgasm. It is difficult to imagine being content for more than twenty seconds with vomitus parmesan crumbled over the tautest spaghetti, though this comes a little closer to it. Imagine being content, though—what would that feel like? To put in a final day’s work and dust yourself off. No. This perpetuity is alive but also, it is harrowing. Acker, again: “It’s all boring and I want to work in this world and I want to matter.”