Financially, being a creative person generally sucks.
Ironically, the reason it sucks is that being creative is fun. Which means that many people want to do it, and that many people will do it for free. We call people who do things for free amateurs, and outside of pornography and the Olympics, amateur isn’t a viable product category.
Most of us need to make a living.
We live in a market culture, and we measure things in dollars and cents; the most important aspects of our lives, how we care for our kids, the quality of our medical care, what schools we attend, what kind of home we live in, all of it boils down to three things, mostly, and that’s money. Money. Money.
The starving artist is a universal cultural trope. ‘Do you want fries with that’ jokes about the fine arts degree haunt every kid who applies to art school. The starving artist is an important meme, for the consumer culture, because what the starving aritst reminds you is that you it is your job to consume culture, not create it.
The starving artist meme reminds you, you’re not qualified. You only get a few years, a few tries, before it becomes obvious that your’e not taking the world by storm. Your hair falls out and your kids grow tall and if you’re still trying to figure out what you’re going to be when you grow up, then, well…
Why bother? We live in a culture that measures us, pokes us, prods us, towards market-oriented success, a culture that quite literally lets people live and die in the street if they mess up on the money thing. Healthcare and housing, in America, are strictly optional. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
So, again, why do it?
Because it means something, that’s why. Meaning. A slippery word, like faith, or love, or honor. Meaning is the real coinage you will be paid in. You will create meaning without intending to; any juxtaposition of cliched story elements pulled out of your ass will radiate meaning in four dimensions, when manipulated with care, a modicum of craft, and a bit of sincerity.
You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be talented. You just have to do the work, and the meaning oozes out of the process, and into your life. Into every moment of your life. Everything that happens to you. Everything that happens to everyone else. Every newspaper story you read. Everything you imagine. All these every things suddenly matter. Because they can be built into stories. True stories can be stripped down, repainted, refurbished, used for parts. Experience is analogized; allegory transforms one thing into another; everything becomes a metaphor for something else, and now you have a creative universe of Everything squared, Everything to the Everything.
The meaning of your writing, though, becomes more apparent, when it is shared.
Maybe a painter can see his own painting, can paint for herself and God; as a writer, somehow, your work doesn’t exist until someone else runs it through their brain.
Writing for yourself is masturbation. Nothing wrong with that! Healthy, in fact, like Meditation. But writing for others, well, that’s sex. Two minds encountering each other, on a page.
The only known cure for solipsism; reading something you know for sure you could never have written.
You pay yourself for writing with meaning. Eventually, others will probably pay you something, too, if you keep at it. Money. Publication. Friendship.
And in the end, if you’re lucky, and sometimes even if you’re not, a readership.
Twenty years after sending my first story in to Asimov’s and getting a pre-printed half-slip of paper back in a stamped self-addresed envelope, I’m a new writer. Goddamn strangers are reading my stories and emailing me about them.
And for the first time in a long time I feel meaningfully employed.