I’ve been thinking a lot about the image of the artist/writer/musician living in a cold attic, working by candlelight on a passion project. When I was about twelve this sounded like a pretty good deal to me. Surely I would never sell my soul and spend my days working for *gasp* money! I was an artist! If no one bought my books I’d just starve to death, after which people would realize that I’d been a genius who wasn’t appreciated in her own time. This seemed like a valid career path to me, until I grew up and realized that I use a computer with internet access for my writing, both of which cost money. For some reason, in my adolescent fantasy I always wrote with a quill pen dipped in ink.
Enter the Day Job. I’ve had several. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever met a creative person who hasn’t had at least one. Most have had many, many more than that. I was at a writing workshop a few months ago and we broke into groups where we introduced ourselves and our work. Everyone seemed sort of apologetic about their day jobs, saying sort of quietly “Well, I work in a bank,” and then louder, “but I’m really a poet.” At some point, one person in the group finally pointed this out. Why were we apologizing for wanting to live indoors and eat on a regular basis? We all laughed, but it also made me think. We romanticize the image of the starving artist sacrificing everything for his/her art. If we feel that we can’t live up to this ideal, then we apologize for the day jobs that keep us solvent but take us away from our art for hours on end.
In fact, day jobs are often seen as artistic failure. A few months ago, actor Geoffrey Owens was photographed at his day job at Trader Joe’s. Many big name stars leaped to his defense saying that there was no shame in an honest job. #ActorsWithDayJobs started trending. But the sad thing is that while working at Trader Joe’s isn’t shameful in the least, it seemed to define Owens in the public conversation. Owens is an accomplished actor. He graduated from Yale with honors. He has four Broadway credits including two productions of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and As You Like It. He was a series regular on The Cosby Show, and Built to Last with recurring roles on a number of other TV shows and supporting roles in a number of films. He’s the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Shakespeare Company and has taught acting and Shakespeare at Columbia, Yale, Pace, and a number of other universities and high schools. He’s also an accomplished theatrical director, and the writer of a one act play called Roman Times.
When the Trader Joe’s pictures emerged Owens explained that working there gave him a paycheck when acting jobs were hard to come by and it gave him the flexibility to audition and pursue other things rather than locking him into a 9-5 schedule. That makes sense, and from that perspective it’s a smart move certainly. But why should an artist who has accomplished so much need to worry about a paycheck?
It’s because art is a gig economy. People are paid a certain rate for each job, but the jobs are temporary, and flexible. Meaning that if you’re lucky, you can make enough with each book/show/album/whatever to hold you over until the next. Very few artists are able to command that kind of money.
The first time I was published was in college. A short story I wrote, called “The Girl In the Picture,” was published in the now defunct literary magazine, New Works Review. I was thrilled that it had been accepted. I didn’t care that I didn’t make a penny on it. Over the years I had short stories published in other magazines, but I didn’t make any money from writing until I several years later when I was paid a flat rate of $50.00 for a nonfiction piece. I’ve been paid bits here and there for nonfiction writing, but royalties from Beautiful were the first time I’ve ever seen money from fiction. Even then it’s not that much.
In 2015, author Joanne Harris spoke about this issue. Harris is an extremely accomplished author. Her best selling novel Chocolat was made into an Oscar nominated film. Her books are in several genres from fantasy, to psychological thrillers to historical fiction and nonfiction. They have been published in over 50 countries and have won awards in her native Britain as well as internationally. She published three novels before she was able to retire from her day job (teaching) to write full time. Harris got attention for speaking about the practice of literary festivals not paying for the authors that they engage. “I am not holding out for an excessive fee by any means, because festivals have all kinds of overheads,” Harris says. “But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a small fee. Not everybody can shell out 400 quid for accommodation, travel and all the rest, and people do deserve to be recompensed for their time. To put it bluntly – you wouldn’t dream of not paying your caterers, so why would you even consider not paying the headline act?” (x)
Harris has spoken about the issue of money for artists before. In 2014 she spoke about the media coverage of JK Rowling’s fortune giving people unrealistic expectations of being “showered with money.” She added that writing is “not winning the lottery, it’s a real job, which real people do, and they have the same real problems as other real people.” (x) She believes that people see downloading books (and music, films etc) as “sticking it to the man” thinking that the artists don’t need the money.
I think that part of the solution is artists being honest about not making enough from their art to support themselves. We shouldn’t apologize for our day jobs. I believe that anyone who performs an honest job in order to earn a living deserves our respect. For people who do those jobs for 8 hours a day and then go home and work at a second job that they may never see a penny for, shouldn’t that go double?
I don’t necessarily think it’s right for artists to need day jobs. I think that getting paid a livable wage for art shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. I don’t know of a solution for that. But I think part of the reason people think it’s OK not to pay for art is because artists misrepresent themselves as not having a day job, as if the need for a day job makes us less artists. It doesn’t. Nor does not wanting to live in a cardboard box make us any less committed to our art.