The Age of the Smart Artist
As a creative, you’re often urged to take a noble approach to your art. Don’t do it for the awards. Don’t do it for the money. Do it because you love it. To an extent, I agree. You should do work that you love because it feeds your soul, fuels your happiness, and holds your interest. But what if the job you love doesn’t pay that well? Sure, you aren’t in it for the money, but try paying your rent with passion instead of a check or electronic debit. Or try sharing your latest essay in the checkout line instead of sliding your card into the chip reader. You’ll quickly see that, though artistic passion can lead to some of your best work, it doesn’t get you far in the real world.
This is an age-old dilemma for people in the creative arts. The archetype of the starving artist is one that many of us perpetuate—that sad genius that lives in a cockroach-infested apartment and eats microwavable ramen every night so he can spend the rest of his money on his art. But there’s a strong chance that no one will see his struggle art. And then, he will have spent a huge chunk of his life overdosing on sodium and sleeping with a can of Raid under his pillow. For what?
We have a problem on our hands.
“Over the last forty years, many educators, decision-makers, and even some parents have come to regard the arts as peripheral, and let’s face it, frivolous,” writes Betty Edwards in the book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. There’s a lack of appreciation for creative output. We can see this in the attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We can see this every time an average joe argues that an artist has no right to express opinions about current events or political issues. But perhaps the way this disregard for the arts best manifests itself is in our pay.
If you want to be a writer, make sure you aren’t doing it for the money. In the Medium feature, “How Much Is A Word Worth?”, Malcolm Harris writes, “Without signing writers to exclusive deals, most magazines top out in the $1 to $2 per word range (exclusivity can get you $3). It’s possible to publish 30,000 words of freelance writing a year at those rates — about eight articles the length of the one you’re reading — but it’s extremely difficult to land and execute that many assignments successfully. And if you manage to pull it off and place a full year’s worth of writing in top-flight publications, you may make as much as the average personal trainer: $60,000.”
To the modern writer, these rates sound pretty generous. Most of us would kill to make $1-$2 per word. But when you consider that some writers were making that rate in 1908, it doesn’t sound so hot. And I doubt an early 20th century writer would have to work as hard or as quickly or be as accomplished to net that payday.
To make this rate today, you’d first need to be at the top of your game. Having a single book deal isn’t enough—you need to be Joan Didion/Junot Diaz/Zadie Smith great. Then, you need to pitch your idea, which of course requires a bit of research beforehand. You’ll wait 6-8 weeks to hear back about your pitch, if at all. And if you’re lucky enough to secure this payrate and begin work on your article, it could take you anywhere from 3 months to 1 year to finish it, edit it, and get it into publication. AND THEN, it’ll probably still take a few weeks, if not longer, to get paid. And that’s all for one article that might pay a couple thousand bucks tops. It’s a nice rate for a single piece, but when you factor in the amount of work it takes, your hourly rate boils down to pennies. And if you want to make a nice annual salary, you need to place several of those, which is nearly impossible unless you’re actually Didion, Diaz, or Smith.
Writing is such a critical part of our lives—the books we study in school, the scripts for our favorite shows and movies (well, those guys get paid well), the copy for commercials, the teleprompter text for the news. Street signs, weather updates, directions, menus, the list goes on. We need words to do just about everything in our daily lives, and we need writers to write those words. But, even though we need them, most of us don’t want to pay for them.
I look to my own experience. I routinely deal with potential clients who try to negotiate me down, even though I’m not asking for anything near $1 per word. I have 17 years of experience, and still, I find myself justifying my pay. But when it comes to other skills, like editing, people are willing to spend hundreds, thousands even, without any objection. At least in pay, editing is a far more valued skill than writing.
I can’t speak for every creative out there, but for me, my goal is to keep ascending. Every year, I want to take on more exciting projects. I want to earn higher pay. I want to keep pushing toward the top—a level at which I can publish work that reaches the masses and brings the pay associated with that level. I want to write passion projects and live comfortably doing work that I love. I don’t want to take on work just to pay the bills; I don’t want to multitask out of necessity. But more and more, that’s my, and every writer’s, reality.
The Guardian calls it a portfolio career—one in which you need to take on multiple odd jobs to make ends meet. These odd jobs are loosely related to your passion, but to keep food on the dinner table, you have to get creative and add a few different positions to your repertoire. Thus, the portfolio career is the new norm. You might also know this as hustling.
I have a portfolio career. I write articles and blog posts for clients, I edit a wide range of documents from thesis statements to e-books, I run this website and all its related properties, and I’m shopping my first novel to literary agents. The first two items on the list fund the latter two. And one of those first two items brings in the lion’s share of my income; an income, mind you, that was nearly non-existent two years ago.
The dream of holing yourself up in a room and writing eight hours a day isn’t possible if you aren’t rich. Or, maybe it is, if you’re willing to sacrifice everything. Some people might argue that you aren’t really invested in your dreams if you aren’t willing to throw it all away for your work. But I think I exist in a different reality than those people. I can’t simply pretend that my bills have gone away because I want to write the next great American novel. I have to find a way to pay them, and I also have to find a way to create.
These are two essential functions of my life that are constantly at odds with each other. But at this stage of my career, that tug of war is inevitable. Hell, it’s necessary for my creative and financial survival.
I understand the allure of retreats and residencies and grants. If you can escape, even for just a weekend, or find funding so that you can work without worrying about your financial obligations, you can live the writing dream, temporarily. The writers who attend these workshops aren’t starving artists; they’re smart artists. They know they can’t just disappear and ignore their responsibilities, and they know that working intently on non-writing tasks will derail their projects. So, they find people and organizations to pay them to do what they love. That’s incredibly smart. As I write this, I wonder why I haven’t delved deeper into these options.
Perhaps it’s time for us to ditch the starving artist and embrace the smart artist. The smart artist is aware of the bills, of their roles and duties in the real world. But they’re also committed to their art. And they work to find compromise between these two realities, with neither foot firmly planted in either world.
Sometimes, I feel that my day work distracts from the work that I love, that I’m somehow abandoning my ideas and letting down all the artists out there who expect me to fully immerse myself in my art. But I know that’s foolish. I, too, am a smart artist with a portfolio career, not as a means to funnel in more revenue, but to fund my writing dream and rewrite what that dream means.