The case for a day job

18 Jan

T.S. Eliot had to do it. Work to pay the bills, I mean. At a bank.

Writes Robert Fay:

On my own website, in my worryingly thin “About” section, I make no mention of the fact that I work full-time in the marketing department of a software company. Why? Maybe for the same reason that pop singers used to hide that they were married — it just doesn’t fit the image. It’s far more romantic to think of Jack Kerouac working as a railroad brakeman, zipping through the American landscape on the California Zephyr, than it is to ponder Eliot in the basement, Dr. William Carlos Williams treating a dying woman or the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) working as an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska.

But plenty–almost all, really–writers have to work a day job to pay the bills. He goes on:

And while nobody except maybe Jonathan Franzen and Bill O’Reilly (no political or emotive relationship is implied by this coupling) are making a bundle from book sales, why does it always hurt when you discover that a promising novelist is also the associate editor for Grillin’ Times USA, the official trade publication for the American Outdoor Grilling Manufacturers Association?

It shouldn’t, really. Writing isn’t something you pursue as a money-making activity. We writers all could have had “more useful” majors, or swapped that M.F.A. for an M.B.A.–or better yet, skipped grad school altogether and just gotten a B.S. in engineering. If making money were all it was about, well, then. We all messed up. Because here’s the thing: writing isn’t (or shouldn’t be, I suppose, in an idealist sense) a career. It’s something you do, something you live. Done right, it’s an art.

Maybe I’m reading too much avant-garde literary theory right now. (So help me, my MA exams are looming. I am reading too much avant-garde theory right now). But, according to, well, a lot of critics, when the middle class rises in the 19th century, the standard for art lowers–when people seek to define and extend a relationship between capital and art (be it visual, literary, etc). Art then develops a market value, and when something develops a market value, people start to create it with the express purpose of maximizing that market value. I’m interested in the ways aesthetics, capital, and politics come together and explode in the art movements of the early 20th century (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism)… but, at the same time, how much about what Dada was rebelling against has really changed since Tristan Tzara wrote:

Dada doubts everything. Dada is an armadillo. Everything is Dada, too. Beware of Dada. Anti-dadaism is a disease: selfkleptomania, man’s normal condition, is Dada. But the real dadas are against Dada….

Yes. OK, back to contemporary writing. No more trying to connect thoughts on writing with thoughts on looming comprehensive exams. Except this one last time: maybe we should ‘rebel’ against art (whatever that means) if the task of writing is a career-driven affair. Because, well, if editing a story quickly means getting a much-needed paycheck, how many people are willing to stop for a moment, say: “You know? I could do without food for a week,” and let the story sit so the right combination of thoughts can ruminate over time, so that the story can ultimately be edited well–not just quickly? There’s a lot more bad writing to wade through in journals, magazines, and on bookshelves when writing (in the artistic, not journalistic, sense) becomes a career.

As Fay writes in his piece on Full Stop: if all writers had funding and cushy jobs, then it “would be a world so gentle, and so unrealistic, that maybe we wouldn’t need The Waste Land or The Sound and The Fury or even Shakespeare’s tragedies.”

In other words: a kind of sad world, after all.

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