"Get a rich husband."
That was the advice my MFA (creative writing masters programme) supervisor gave me when I asked him how I should financially support myself while trying to start a writing career.
I’ve had the storytelling bug since I was born. I still have piles and piles of notebooks from when I was six, filled with my childish scribble with stories of rockets and aliens and monsters and adventures and unicorns. Stories are in my bones, and I’ve never been able to stop writing them down. But as much as I dreamed of being a writer, I told myself this wasn’t on the cards for me, because – frankly – I couldn’t afford it.
I always assumed that the only people who could afford to become artists were people born into houses that came with their own tennis courts. People who could afford the years or decades it can take before you get good enough at making art to make any money from it.
But I wasn’t born into a house with a tennis court. My family are truck drivers and sales reps and receptionists and they’ve had to work their butts off for every bit of money they’ve ever had. So this question, "how can you afford to be an artist" is one that I've been asking myself my whole life.
The answer I got, "get a rich husband", wasn't one I liked. To be clear: I have zero scorn for people who do choose this route. The economy is fucked and we've all got to do what we've got to do (hate the game, not the player).
But it wasn't an option for me, because I'm pathologically terrified of being even slightly dependent on other people.
This email appeared in my inbox from a university student who's asking herself the same question:
I wanted a spot of advice. I love writing. More than anything else. Is there anything specific I can do to turn my writing into something profitable? How does one turn a passion into a career? I am so passionate about writing and want to do something with it, but the HOW has stumped me. Where should I start to get the ball rolling?
First, let's talk about what a writing career actually looks like (there are other options for different kinds of art careers, but writing's what I know).
There are a lot of different ways to be a writer. Here are some of the approaches I see amongst my writer friends:
- Writers who have a writing job working for someone else (or a series of freelance jobs). I know a handful of writers who support themselves as journalists, ghostwriters, comics writers, TV writers, writers at games studios and animation companies. Here's the tricky thing about this route: these jobs are scarce and highly competitive. It is very, very difficult to start your career here, especially in South Africa.
- Writers who work as copywriters in marketing, PR or advertising. Advertising agencies are full of underpaid creative people who hope that one day they'll be able to get out of advertising and make art full-time. The vast majority of them never do, because these jobs don't pay well enough to allow you to take unpaid sabbaticals to make art. There is some great art that comes out of advertising, but it's a struggle.
- Writers who have a totally unrelated day-job and write in the mornings/at night/on sabbaticals. You would be amazed how many of the big-name, great writers you know fell into this category at the start/mid of their careers, including (at various times): N.K. Jemison (psychologist), Arthur Conan Doyle (surgeon), Franz Kafka (insurance clerk), Kurt Vonnegut (car dealer), Stephen King (school janitor), Thomas Hardy (architect), Hilary Mantel (social worker), Agatha Christie (pharmacist assistant), Haruki Murakami (ran a coffee shop), Douglas Adams (private bodyguard), Octavia Butler (telemarketer), T.S. Eliot (banker), Vladimir Nabokov (museum curator), John Grisham (plumber), Arundhati Roy (architect), Margaret Atwood (barista), and Anne Rice (insurance). Some writers have a day-job in an allied industry like publishing, teaching or academia. Toni Morrison, for example, worked as an editor for much of her career.
- Writers who mostly get their money through public speaking (this mostly applies to people I know who write non-fiction). For them, books are marketing, the job is the speaking. I know people who make very good money as keynote speakers/workshop facilitators/YouTubers.
- Writers who have a kind patron in the form of a supportive spouse/best friend/family member.
- Writers who are successful enough that the only thing they do is write books/TV/movies/comics. I only know a tiny, tiny handful of writers who fall into this category, and most of them had other jobs before they got here.
So, young reader, here's what you've got to know about a writing/art career: getting good at writing takes many, many hours of practice (that's true for getting good at anything).
Some people have passions where other people will reliably fund their practice time, and where they can be quite certain they'll get paid well once they do get good (damn you, friends who really love writing code/doing data analysis/playing with financial models or whatever). But for those of us with the great misfortune/fortune of having fallen in love with something that society has few good business models for, we will probably have to do all of this practice work for free.
One day, you might get really lucky and make money from your art. But you cannot count on this. There's a verse in the Bhagavad Gita that I think about a lot - chapter 2, verse 47. Translated, it means something like:
You have a right to do the work. You do not have a right to the result of the work.
I'm probably mangling this terribly, sorry Hindu friends! But I love this verse so much, because it speaks to how I feel about writing: I write because I love the process. It's how I think, how I connect, how I find joy with myself (one of the ways, lol). The process is the goal, not the outcome. It has to be: there are no guarantees that anyone else will ever like your art enough to pay for it.
If you love writing, you should write. If you love making art, you should make art. You don't need anyone else to give you permission. You can write things and put them on the internet, and NO-BODY CAN STOP YOU - look, here I am doing it right now! (mwahahahahahaha)
If you want to make a career from art, you need to find a way to fund this work. It's unlikely that anyone else will fund it for you, for a long time if ever.
You either need to find a rich spouse, or you need to become your own rich spouse.
Becoming your own rich spouse means building a reliable side-career that pays well, but still lets you protect your most precious art-making time. This might mean a job that lets you write in the mornings or evenings, or take regular sabbaticals, or the kind of job you can leave at the office when you come home, or a freelance or seasonal job. It can help if that job also feeds your writing by keeping you in contact with people or exposing you to interesting corners of the world, but it's also okay if it doesn't. Just having time & money will be enough.
Becoming your own spouse means getting better at saving and investing your money, because that's how you can buy your freedom, one hour at a time.
We don't talk enough about money, when we talk about creative careers. But we have to: because there's no making art without paying your bills.
Wishing you state-funded art grants (THE DREAM),
Your friend Sam
P.S. the quote at the top of this mail is from the incomparable Cher.
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