Get a haircut, and get a real job
Zoe Whittall’s Quill & Quire article, “Working Stiffs,” on the fate of young writers facing the terrifying reality of working for a living, suffers from a serious defect: amid all the moping about shrinking advances, and so on, it never asks whether it’s reasonable (or, indeed, sane) to expect to make a living at writing serious fiction (or worse, poetry) in Canada.
I mean, seriously, folks: you didn’t see this coming? I offer you this perspective:
JAMES : I’ve decided I know what I want to do when I grow up. I’d like to be a writer.
LIFE: And what do you think you’re going to do as a writer?
JAMES: Well, I imagine I’ll get up in the morning at an hour of my choosing, and read the newspaper, for starters. You have to keep up, you know. The zeitgeist.
LIFE: That’s a very writerly word.
JAMES: I know! I’ve been practicing! And then I’ll read other stuff, you know, because it’s a writer’s job to read stuff. After lunch, I’ll go out into the streets and take notes and stuff, and have ideas. I mean, you have to have ideas and stuff, too. It’s part of the job.
LIFE: I see.
JAMES: And then I’ll meet Jake Barnes, one of my writer friends, and we’ll have a couple of fines at a café, and then I’ll go back to my place and do some writing.
LIFE: What kind of writing?
JAMES: Flower writing.
LIFE: Flower writing?
JAMES: Sorry. Gratuitous allusions go with the job. I’ll do some work on my novel or short story collection or whatever I’m working on at the time. A couple of thousand words at most. Sometimes, I’ll work on a stupid advice column for the Globe & Mail, or something like that, just to pay the bills.
LIFE: Is that all?
JAMES: Whaddaya mean,’is that all?’ That’s hard fucking work, man. Unless you’re Georges Simenon or something, I mean, a completely commercial writer, you do a lot more thinking than writing. You can’t hurry love, man.
LIFE: I see.
JAMES: I’m an artist, man. Not one of those regular people.
LIFE: I see. And then?
JAMES: Well, I’ll go watch TV or something. With my notebook handy, of course. You’re always working when you’re a writer. Always taking notes and stuff.
LIFE: And how much do you expect us to pay you for this?
JAMES: Oh, the exact salary isn’t important. It’s not about the money. I just need enough to, you know, not have to work at anything else. So I don’t have to sully my artistic mind with commerce, you know.
LIFE: I’m afraid you’ll have to cut your income expectations by at least an order of magnitude.
JAMES: Order of what?
LIFE: I’m sorry. I forgot, that’s not one of them writerly expressions like “zeitgeist.” What I mean is, take a zero off it.
JAMES: Take a zero off it? So you’re telling me that society values what I do, but not enough to put a price tag on it?
LIFE: No, you halfwit; I’m telling you that the value society places on what you do is approximately jack-shit. So you’re going to need a day job.
JAMES: But I’m an artist, man! I can’t do the corporate thing.
LIFE: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Get over yourself.
JAMES: It’s not fair!
LIFE: Didn’t anyone tell you about me?
JAMES: Tell me what?
LIFE: I’m not fair. Now go get a job.