Who Has the Right to Be a Writer?
Stewart Sinclair on What It Means (and Takes) to Have a Career in Writing
One day, in my intro to creative writing class, after I had my students spend a few minutes free-writing in response to a Frida Kahlo painting, one of them raised her hand.
“Do you mind if I ask a question that’s not related to this exercise?”
I said sure. Then she pointed at the painting projected on the screen.
“I’m looking at this painting . . .” she hesitated a moment, trying to articulate what she was feeling, “and I can’t help but think to myself that all of these artists had so much money, and all of the writers we read are so famous, and it just feels like . . .” she shook her head. “Can I start over?”
“I hate my job,” she began, “and I go to work every day and I can’t bear it, and it’s just . . .” she pointed down at the piece of paper on her desk. “This is what I want to do. And I feel like I look at all of these writers and painters that we read and talk about and they’re famous and they have piles of money and sure, it’s possible for them . . . but can someone like me really be a writer?”
The conversation for the session was supposed to be about ekphrastic poems—poems about other works of art: Homer describing the shield of Achilles; Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” But it was immediately apparent to me that her question was more important, and more urgent, than anything I had planned to say. I knew too well the all-consuming feeling that gets compressed into the four words—I hate my job—that had almost involuntarily, or at least maybe unexpectedly, sprung from her as she tried to express the reservations she had about her writing. In fact, the very act of enrolling in this introductory class was her attempt to quell that voice that had so long said she couldn’t do it. But then, within that classroom, spending 75 minutes twice a week parsing the styles and techniques of the people who had succeeded at doing what she had only just convinced herself might be possible, or at least worth a shot, she was starting to reckon with that same feeling that the world of art, and a life in service of it, was not for people like her.
The crux of the matter concerns who does, and who does not, have the privilege of engaging in what are often referred to as labors of love.
By people like her, she meant people like a significant number of the students I teach. A child of immigrants, an adult working full-time while pursuing her bachelor’s degree during the evening in classes like mine, which in this case meets from 8 to 9:15 pm, and where I work hard to ensure that my lessons are lively enough to keep their eyes open, and where I nonetheless try not to call them out whenever I fail and those eyelids snap shut. The school I teach at, City College in Harlem, used to be known as “the poor man’s Harvard,” and though it has suffered the same budgetary axing and neglect as any other public institution of higher learning, it has remained a school that largely serves its community—my students grew up in the shadows of City College, and the finest accolade I can attribute to it is that it is a school where working students, first-generation students, broke students and students with kids, are at the very least met with a degree of understanding.
I know that story because I remembered that feeling. Not just from those previous years as a first-generation undergrad, but from just a few months prior, the moment I had decided to quit my job because it left me with that dead-inside feeling. (I wrote about that very feeling in an essay called “I Prefer Not To,” just before I began teaching). And as much as I make an effort in class to avoid making myself the subject of discussion, it seemed like the answer I owed her, the only appropriate answer I could give her, would have to come from my own experience. Numerous writers have endeavored to explain: what it means to be a writer, how the value of our craft is determined, and who determines it. It’s a conversation that MFA students, adjunct lecturers, professors, freelancers and writers-with-day-jobs are swimming in, but whose waters I found to be unfamiliar territory to my introductory students.
So, I spent a little time talking about coming from a rough household, becoming a first-generation college student. I talked briefly about how my first college went bankrupt during the great recession, about how I worked as a street performer, juggling knives in the French Quarter to pay my way through college in New Orleans. Then I talked about how I spent the previous five years working the type of job with a good salary and benefits and world travel that everyone back home could be proud of—until I abandoned it to pursue writing full-time. That was the course that had led to where I was at that moment: an adjunct lecturer at City College who taught undergraduate creative writing classes while he finished his MFA and completed his first book proposal.
That last sentence, to me, used to reek of privilege. It was why I’d avoided attending an MFA for a number of years after undergrad, and it was compounded by a general distaste for writers who lived in the academy, spent their days teaching writing in an eternally expanding Ponzi scheme, and wrote about writing when they found time to write. That, to me, sounded like Hell—and writing this essay, in the eyes of younger-me, would’ve felt like capitulation.
But this essay, and my student’s question, aren’t solely about writing. That just happens to be the lens through which each of us had arrived at it. The crux of the matter concerns who does, and who does not, have the privilege of engaging in what are often referred to as labors of love. I forget which famous public intellectual opined that art is the privilege of the wealthy and the impoverished. To be free to pursue your art, you either need to be so rich that you are the master of your own fate, or so poor that you have nothing to lose—and the broad swath of those of us in the middle have neither wealth nor desolation to leverage against our artistic bets. And, of course, this is a false dichotomy, but one that is reinforced in the US by ideas of the protestant work ethic and the doctrine that a failure to extract the maximum amount of capital out of our waking lives constitutes a failure of ambition. It is not a system that rewards artists, or writers, or even mothers or caregivers or social workers or anyone else who forewent the maxim of optimal fiduciary efficiency because they saw a higher value in a calling of lower profitability—i.e., a labor of love.
I told her that we hear more often about the six-figure book deals and the artistic geniuses than we do about any quiet chapbook.
Within this paradigm, hardly any leading public figure has dared to say to a trucker displaced by automation: “Have you ever thought about being a sculptor?” I know that I’m hinting at Marxism, but I’m also making the most capitalistic argument I can make: if capitalism has been so successful that it has produced trucks that can drive themselves—where is the working person’s slice of the fucking American Pie?
My student was not saying that she didn’t want to work. She was just saying that she wanted to pour the working hours of the brief time she had on this earth into work that she loved. And while a lot of people would respond that well, the world needs garbage men, the truth is that there is no shortage of people who will gladly work as garbage men because the pay is good and the Union is strong and they retire with a pension and get to buy season tickets to the Yankees. But all that aside, my student was still afraid of the idea of leaping into that passion, because she knew it was highly unlikely that it would pay.
She was so very right. In January 2019, Concepción de Leon wrote in The New York Times that “the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered.” In other words, the aspiring writer would be wise to flip a proverbial burger or two if they want to make a real living wage. And as for me, I went from my proverbial “good-ass job” and became an adjunct lecturer making less than a third of what I had made before, and there were only two upsides: I could get free healthcare through Medicaid because I made so little, and go to work loving what I did.
I didn’t tell my student that I thought the answer to this was to advocate for massive government funding for the arts, a commitment to free education, and artist guilds that would redistribute wealth within the artistic community so that the Jeff Koonses and J.K. Rowlings of the world could share their conspicuously large slices of the pie with the struggling mothers, fathers, students, teachers and day laborers writing poems and drawing sketches on the back of brown paper bags at lunch in hopes of a chance to see their names in print.
No, I told her that we hear more often about the overnight successes and the six-figure book deals and the artistic geniuses than we do about the beautiful, quiet chapbook some author wrote that you would love if you ever got your hands on it; or about the memoir of hunger and humor that was popular in a Minneapolis book club where the author got to feel like a star at a reading for just one night.
I told her that “There are more writers and artists like you and me than there are like Pablo Neruda and Stephen King.” I told her that those of us who have hated our jobs but can’t leave them have to carve out the time to write even when it doesn’t exist. I told her: That’s what Toni Morrison did. I told her that some writers loved their day jobs as much as their writing—that T. S. Eliot refused to quit his job in a bank because he liked the regularity of the hours. I told her and the rest of my class that for many of us, writing is the main respite that we have from the job that we hate—and that even if we don’t become rich and famous or even just well-known in some obscure literary circle, we are entitled to the act of writing, the respite of writing, for the sake of it as an act and an escape in-and-of-itself.
In other words, I told her that no matter how she arrived at the decision to be a writer, she was absolutely entitled to that claim. It wouldn’t negate the continuing devaluation of the craft—the fact that The New Yorker paid more for a feature in 1970 than it does today; it didn’t mean resigning ourselves to that glorified idea of impoverishment in the name of art made popular only by those writers who view poverty as a choice, or abandoning the efforts to produce a more equitable labor arrangement. But it did mean that she had every right to be sitting in that classroom, or at her desk or kitchen table back home, writing down her thoughts and hoping to pour her life into the work that she loved.
I worried I was rambling. So I stopped. I asked her if any of this had made her feel any better.
Her face—which had tightened into many anxious knots at the time of her question—seemed to relax, if only for a temporary respite.
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