The State of Things – Earning a Living

This is the thing – if you think too long about the state of American theater and literature, your head will explode.  Believe me.  I’m still sweeping up the pieces.

I’m lumping literature and theater together because I have a foot in both murky, oil-streaked puddles.  And because they have a lot of the same problems in common.  I start each morning consuming many…several…tons of articles about where theater/publishing/literature/playwrights/critics are headed.  And this is me…beginning to digest.

There are generally three topics that pop up a lot in these articles: earning a living, poor quality/commercialization/politicization of the art form, and the audience.

You Mean We Can’t Earn a Living Doing This? (Sigh)

Look, this shouldn’t be a surprise.  Not much has changed in the writing/theater world in the past thirty years when it comes to artists making a living.  Some writers – like T.C. Boyle, Stephen King – have worked hard enough and been lucky enough to find their audience, refined their niche and can now get paid to do virtually whatever the hell they want.  That’s great.  I love that.  Gives us all hope.

For the rest of us, I think we spend far too much time whining about how we can’t make a living doing [insert art form here].  This includes me.  I whine A LOT about it.  Because I had this romantic idea of what being a writer would be like and I desperately want to hold onto that.  It’s kinda pathetic really.

I agree that there should be more grants or fellowships or residencies open for playwrights and other writers and artists.  I agree that those jobs should certainly be looked at as real work (because it is).  I agree that it’s pretty soul crushing to put a year of your time into a project and come out of it with a negative account statement and bad reviews or rejection letters.  But this is why no one is in this gig  can imagine themselves doing anything else. Because if you can imagine doing something else – you should go do that.  It’ll be a hell of a lot easier.

You have to have that infamous “day job”, at least for a bit.  You have to be Kafka scribbling notes in a bedroom at his parents’ house.  You’ll have to do silly freelance jobs once in a while.  You’ll have to learn other skills.  Sorry.

Especially these days, we can’t sit on our ass and wait for someone to “discover” us.  We have to make it happen for ourselves however we can, even if no one drops a lump of money into our lap.

I like to think that reading novels makes people more likely to rebel, more likely to question the given, more suspicious of power and sophistry. Even if it is just the idea that there are other people out there who don’t feel at home in the world as it is. Maybe art, on some level, is about dissatisfaction with the given. – Dana Spiotta, The Situation in American Writing, Full Stop

When you’re in the  poor struggling writer phase of your life (which lasts a lot longer for some of us than others), that is the time to take risks.  When someone gives you money to create something, you usually have to work under their stipulations, you have to give them what they want.  Don’t waste your time writing something we’ve all seen a hundred times before just because you think it will “sell.”  Be interesting, wacky, crazy, offensive, dangerous, completely stupid – and do it in your own way.  Become your own brand and get people interested in that, interested enough to pay to see/read it.  Don’t wait for someone to give you money and tell you who you are and what your work is – whether it is a private donor or government sanctioned art.

Am I dissatisfied?  Hell yes.  But I have to put that dissatisfaction to good use.

Hopefully I’ll be able to continue to digest this and someday funnel it into some practical advice.  I’m learning as I go.  As we all are.

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