We all know the trope of the starving artist, right? The idea of the talented individual who secludes themselves from the world in order to produce art? The notion that there is something romantic and even mysterious about these individuals who sacrifice material gain and live a life of poverty in order to produce books, sculptures, paintings, yadda yadda yadda?
Chuck Wendig sums it up perfectly in his post Starving is a Terrible Condition for Making Art.
“And yet, that’s the myth. That’s the image, right? The wonderfully woeful author purified by his or her lack of attachment to material things, subsisting on whatever she can scrounge up – a half-romantic image of the artist sanctified by her own discomfort.”
But do people actually still subscribe to this notion?
There are still people who cling to the delusion that there is something romantic about the ‘starving artist’ trope. There are still people who believe that authors should adhere to this trope.
Total, utter donkey-bollocks.
Authors are people, just like everyone else. Writing is their job, same as everyone who does nine-to-five hours in an office, or flips burgers for a living. They are not tragic, misunderstood, romantic figures who eschew material goods and choose to live in a state of poverty. At least, not by choice.
Despite what far too many people seem to think, there isn’t much money in writing, not for the average author. For every JK Rowling or Stephen King, there are a hundred midlist authors that make very little from their books. That’s why most authors have a second job to support themselves, because they don’t make enough money from their writing.
So does that mean these midlist authors should be ‘starving artists’, diligently struggling through an austere life? Should the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world valiantly refuse their pay-cheques to prove to the world that they are true artists?
At the moment I am living the sort of life that could be ascribed to a stereotypical ‘starving artist’. After leaving college, I worked part-time in pubs for years. I deliberately kept my hours part-time as it was very much a second job – writing was my first job. It just didn’t pay anything. Yet.
And that was okay. Those years were the equivalent of an apprenticeship – I was still learning to write. No one was going to pay me while I was still learning. I earned enough from my pub jobs to keep me going, though my finances were never comfortable.
And then the pub I worked in got shut down and I was left without a job. I tried to pick up other jobs, but never had any success. So I made a decision. That decision was to forgo paid work and focus on writing full-time. The pub had been going downhill for a while and it was clear that it wasn’t going to survive. With that in mind, I’d had enough presence of mind to start squirreling away my wages so I had some money to live off.
Needless to say, saved part-time wages don’t stretch very far.
That decision was made a little over two years ago, and I can share with you all that things are not easy for me. I still have rent to pay. I still have a cat to feed and look after. I still have to eat. In all this time I have never claimed a single penny of benefits money, no matter how much easier it would have made my situation.
As things stand, I am probably what people would consider a ‘starving artist’. I have holes in my shoes. I have holes in my clothes – and most of them were second-hand to begin with. If I don’t have money for public transport then I walk.
Walking nine or more miles in the dark to get home? Yep. Trudging six miles to get somewhere and then having to walk six miles back? You betcha.
Food? Bare essentials. Baked beans for lunch. Cheap noodles or plain pasta for dinner. If the food’s out of date? Eat it anyway. I’ve eaten Christmas turkey almost a year later. There are certain ingredients in my kitchen that are seventeen years out of date. I kid you not.
My boiler has needed replacing for years, but I can’t afford it. Hot water is not always a given. Showers can be mad dashes in and out of icy cold water. Heating is also not something that can be taken for granted. Rather than relying on that, I spend the winter days wrapped in scarves and blankets.
This isn’t meant to be a woe-is-me post, so please don’t interpret it as that. It is meant to highlight the reality of being a ‘starving artist’. It’s not romantic. It’s not idealistic. It sure as shit doesn’t make me produce better art.
So why do I do it?
Because it gives me time to create art. I have chosen this because it means I can write full-time. I knew when I made that decision that this wouldn’t be easy. I knew it wouldn’t last forever. But I hoped that during those couple of years I could really focus on my writing and actually get myself to a point where people might pay me for my work.
And it worked. Kind of.
I’ve been lucky enough to sell a couple of short stories, though all the money I’ve made from them combined doesn’t equal one month’s rent.
The last couple of years have been incredibly tough. BUT! The bright side is that it has given me time to write. It has given me the time to build a wonderful Wattpad following, and that in turn led to me being commissioned to write a short story as part of Sony Pictures’ promotional campaign for The 5th Wave film. (You can read about that here.) The money I earn from that commission will be enough to keep my head above water for the time being.
So the question is, has it been worth it?
In many ways, yes. It has given me opportunities that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. It has helped me reach readers that I might never have found.
Would I wish this on anyone?
There is nothing romantic about not having any money. I don’t sit here in my cold house with holes in my clothes and think that I am somehow purer because I am removed from the taint of material gain or the financial side of writing. And I can’t believe that anyone in today’s world really still believes that authors should do this.
Maybe this turned into more of a rambly-rant than anything else, but if anyone reading this does think that authors really should embody this ‘starving artist’ bullshit, please just stop it.