Q: As far back as I can remember, I felt called to be a creative writer. But what do I do if the calling doesn’t pay the bills? Can I even call myself a real writer?
A: When it comes to writing of any type . . . it’s a dirty secret: nobody wants to talk about how little writers get paid, and how hard it is to become (and “feel”) successful.
Aspiring authors wonder, is writing worth the time, if we can’t make money from our efforts? Note the words: time / money /efforts.
Instead of another pre-fab pep talk, it’s vital we examine why American writers feel an imperative to make a living from writing and consider substantive ways to combat this beyond the “butt-in-chair” approach.
After all, we’ve spent the 20th Century dissecting writer’s block: first at a personal level, in terms of “mettle” and morality; later, in terms of psychology; most recently, through the lens of neuroscience.
But there are also structural issues at play.
What many consider personal impediments to creating are really rooted in a capitalist, uniquely American, view of art.
“In American culture, success is defined almost solely in monetary terms – we are defined by what we do for a living, and our success is measured by how sumptuous a living we earn. It is an easy jump to assume that if we cannot manage to earn a living through our creative work, then we are failures and our work must be worthless.
How sad this is, and how short-sighted.”
~ Eric Maisel
Anti-art mythologies are shared beliefs within American culture that indicate creative work, such as prose, song, dance, and visual arts, must be commoditized in order to be worth one’s efforts. These beliefs contribute to creative angst and make up a BIG part of why you feel it is necessary to make a living from your writing to in order be a “real writer.”
But do we ever stop to wonder:
– Where did these beliefs come from?
– How does living in a society that does not support art impact creativity?
– How can we combat this?
Why do Americans insist art = industry?
“’Myth’ . . . is not a story that is untrue, but a cultural story that shapes what we experience as reality.”
~ Betty Sue Flowers
Mythologies are shared beliefs we hold to because of where we live and how we were raised. The origins of American anti-art beliefs arose from factors that date back to the earliest English settlements in United States. These include the rejection of European religion, affluence, and aristocracy; utilitarian necessity; aggressive homogenization efforts, and the emergence of an economic American Dream.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
When early European settlers first came to what is now the United States as religious separatists, they separated from the traditions of Europe, along with its religious art. Puritans defined themselves via minimalism and austerity. Their churches and garments were simple. Art-making’s primary purpose in the 1600s was for the glory of God, and this group of worshippers believed their God did not want a lot of ornamentation.
Time, utilitarianism, and future-orientation remain values International students at American universities cite frequently in studies as differing from their native countries and seemingly most prominent in importance to Americans.
It’s easy to extrapolate how, if such values are Americans’ dearest, creativity might end up at odds. Art projects can be slow to gestate, impossible to create with assembly-line efficiency, produce iffy returns, and require deep engagement with paradoxically both the present moment and unconscious mind. (Accessibility and equality are also deeply held American values, yet art education has become increasingly expensive and elite. Today, Americans associate art with either mass-marketed entertainment, or the rare non-industrial “fine arts” with the academic elite.)
Amongst hard-laboring colonists, there wasn’t much free time for making art. Disconnected from utilitarian purposes, it seemed frivolous on a continent where hard labor and unquestioning submission to local and divine authority seemed essential to establish outposts. Practicality became virtue because it was necessity. (The Virginia Company sent artisans and glassblowers to Jamestown as its original settlers, versus those who could cut logs, farm, and fish. That didn’t work out so well, and they didn’t make the mistake twice.)
As America later coalesced into an independent nation during the Enlightenment, rationalism and scientific principles were elevated above religion and the arts, further downplaying art’s national importance.
But art was not considered mere luxury by early colonists; it was also considered dangerous. Since art defines who we are as a people by providing a historical account, American colonists sought not only to sever themselves from the cultures associated with European courts, but also to sever ties within African communities from Old-World roots, and amongst indigenous tribes from their religious and linguistic traditions in attempts to subdue, and, in cases, annihilate populations. (Ironically, today, it is often through art that we see how these early attempts were not entirely successful.)
Separating communities from artistic lineage became part of both an unconscious—and later deliberate—homogenizing of North America. This continued as waves of immigrants from around the world came to the United States in the 1840s-50s, shedding languages and cuisine to meld into “Americans,” and through the mid-20th-century, in government-run programs to Americanize Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, many who had roots in California tracing back hundreds of years.
Today, a vital role of American art is reclaiming ethnic identity, and our country’s most brilliant innovations have resulted from disparate cultures colliding to produce things never before experienced. This includes American cinema; music such as jazz, blues, hip hop, rap, bluegrass, country, and folk; and multiples forms of innovative literature, including some of the best contemporary immigrant writing in the world.
Despite efforts, art was never entirely absent in early America. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everyday household objects were infused with the creativity, not merely craft, of individual artisans. Yet after the dawn of assembly-line manufacturing, more and more items used in everyday life became those created efficiently by machines, and the process of creation most valued became machine-like mass-production and distribution. Again, practical values leading to efficiency, time-saving, and revenue-generation, at odds with the a-linear creativity of individual craftsmanship, won the day. As the 20th Century moved onward, the culture of corporate life selected for a large class of workers who produced much like machines, and elected only a few to occupy niche roles as entertainers, artists, and visionaries.
The Information Revolution of the 21st Century brought the term “creative” into corporate vernacular and hoodies into boardrooms, giving everyone a voice via massive platforms . . . while decimating industries that paid individuals for their creative contributions.
To date, journalism has taken a massive hit due to technology; publishing, due to conglomerations; and teaching due to corporatization and adjuntification of universities and school systems. These industries represent the former back-up occupations for writers.
Today, without reliable fallback careers, creative efforts have taken on even greater emphasis in the minds of writers. In the transition to a gig-economy, we feel extra pressure to emphasize our writing. We’ve been seduced into believing it might finally be possible, if not to make a living from our art, to at least get it into the world.
“In this economy, we’re encouraged to think of hobbies as . . . necessarily productive. If you’re learning piano, you must try to record the jingle for that commercial your friend directed. If you develop a curiosity about a niche topic, you must start an online newsletter dedicated to it, work to build your audience, and then monetize the newsletter. If you have a nice speaking voice, you must start a podcast . . . we feel we need to turn every creative pursuit into a professional one.”
~ Carrie Batton
Yet this gig-mentality has created greater competition. Traditional publishing constricted at the exact moment e-books enabled an explosion of self-publishing at low cost. This flood of content may prove revolutionary as niche and experimental work can now find a direct route to readers. Likewise, authors with less-than-stellar first book sales often self-publish brilliant second and third novels with autonomy. But how will readers find these wonderful needles in the self-published haystack when 80% of self-published work is slop? And how can new authors cut through the noise to reach aligned readers?
Such structural disparities, combined with unrealistic expectations, wind up causing writer’s block wrongly attributed to psychological issues. We do ourselves and our peers a disservice not to acknowledge this.
So, you see how systemic challenges might impact someone who sits down to write. It’s paralyzing to obsess over publishing while still in drafting stages. And even more dangerous to seek validation of one’s worth via the net worth of creative work. Yet how could one not when the shared air we breathe implants within us an obsession with professional status and wasted time? Seeds sown in early America persist.
We are butting up against history.
When it comes to writer’s block, yes, writers are afraid, but we are not only afraid. We are:
Disconnected from our larger purpose for creating.
Disconnected from one another.
Disconnected from creativity in our daily routines.
And disconnected from our artistic ancestors.
Only in reunification can we truly dismantle such trans-generational, collective fear to finally create with ease and amidst chaos, come success or anonymity.
We must make a place for creative writing (and creativity) in American life (mine and yours) apart from mass-commerce and MFA classrooms.
We must reconnect with our artistic lineage through our communities.
We must reject the assumption that the worth of writing must be reflected in its market value, not whether or not it impacts the lives of readers.
And we must identify reasons to continue creating in the face of adversity.
These are the real remedies to writer’s block, ways to journey from fret and fear to purpose and power.
After all: We are writing not for a living, but for a life.
READ ON TO LEARN HOW TO:
I. Identify your larger purpose—and how writing fits into it.
an Arizona-based writing coach and editor who turns ideas into art.