Home > writing > Get a haircut, and get a real job

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.

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Categories: writing
  1. February 5, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    There used to be a wonderful – truly amazing – course put on by the Alliance for the Arts in Vancouver called the SEARCH program – self employment artists’ something something that dealt with precisely this issue – how to keep body and soul together while working on your art/craft, challenging the notion of the starving artist, helping people to overcome their psychological and intellectual barriers to success and helping them figure out how they could get out of the garrett and still write/take photos/sculpt/paint, etc. I was lucky enough to take it, and have seen many people who took the program get it together over the years, to the point where they were able to support themselves solely from their art. I mean, let’s face it – this is by no means a new problem. Kissing a patron’s ass is something not only artists, but also scientists, have had to do for centuries (e.g. Kepler).

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