I love Rent. The lyrics, the music, the message, the whole package. Me and eleventy billion other people. But this line, the title of today’s post, always resonates.
Why are creative types, artists, writers, musicians, etc, expected to be poor but happy? The scene in my head is old and familiar, a talisman and a warning sign spooning together; the gaunt, pale writer pounding away at a dinged up typewriter in a rat infested garret in Paris, overflowing ashtray on either side of her. Mmm, yeah, that was the romanticized image I had at 15. Not working for me anymore. Never got to France, more broke than I was at 15, a dinged up laptop, but still, I write. What I don’t do is romanticize an unsuccessful creative life. Great if you lived at the turn of the 20th century with a zillion lovers and a wealthy patron who bought your meals, paid your rent, and you didn’t mind dying of syphilis. Today, as a married mother of three who’s never known anyone to have a patron? Not so much.
Poor but happy is bullshit. Wealthy may not mean happy, but no one is happy when they’re hungry, or worried about paying the rent.
Writing, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, journalism, or blogging, is interactive. I write, you (hopefully) read. More hope, you get on the phone and tell a couple of friends about this fun or moving piece you read, and they read.
And so on. Until…more hope…I make a dollar. Ah, I’ve changed the equation, made it dirty. Because I’m not supposed to care about how many people want to read what I’ve written, or earning money. Why? My kids get hungry. This may be shocking, but they want to eat multiple times a day. And whether I like all aspects of today’s American society or not, I was raised in it, I live in it. And in our society, money is necessary, and it’s validation. Most published authors don’t earn enough to support themselves through their writing, but it makes a difference in how writers view themselves, and how others view them.
True, there are a few writers, artists, singers, and the like who don’t care about an audience. But the dirty truth is, most of us do. That’s why, for as many books as you’ll find on the shelf about how to write, there are an equal number on how to catch an agent’s attention, how to craft a query letter, how to get published. Lots of opinions on those who are published, and God forbid, successful. He’s a hack. She’s a sell out. She’s a tramp. Oh wait.
A real woman will die a virginal death, and a real writer will die with 6 Pulitzer-worthy manuscripts under the bed. Both, of course, will die at the age of 27 by their own hand, because despair and depression befitting their station in life will have set in. That or consumption. But, they were both pure.
On the other hand, go to a party or a PTA meeting and tell people you’re a writer. Then they ask what you write and where they can find your work. Unpublished. Sneer. You’re a wannabe. Then they tell you about their prize winning 5th grade essay. Which is it? Am I pure or a wannabe? Unsuccessful? Plain old delusional? Trade secret, I’m breaking the rules here. If you are really working on, or going to pursue, publication, don’t blog or write about not having been published, the agents and editors will be scared off. Well, I’m forty thousand and I’m cranky, so I’m breaking the rules.
Yes, there are rules and guidelines. Because the publishing world is a business. A business that likes to make money. Yes, if you’re good enough, or successful enough, you can break those rules. But good and successful are often synonyms for profitable. Because (reputable) agents don’t earn any money if their writers don’t. And editors don’t keep their jobs if they only get behind books that don’t earn out. Those in the publishing world want writers who have talent, dedication, an ability to absorb and apply critiques and edits, and look respectable at writing conferences.
Back to that party and the elegantly coiffed woman in the classic little black dress. What you write will effect the curl of her lip. Literary fiction? A delicate raise. Romance, sci fi, or other genre fiction? You’ll get the lip, the nostril, and the eyebrow. Readers, writers, even some who are functionally illiterate, feel free to dis genre fiction. Trash, bodice rippers, pulp fiction. Not only would this lovely lady not admit to reading any of this, she believes her chihuahua could dance across the keys of her laptop, produce one of these manuscripts and have it be publishable. No. Writing is an art, writing is work, and marketable, popular fiction is deceptive in its “simplicity.” There’s a reason genre fiction is also called popular fiction. Quality literary fiction; also an art, also work.
Good writing produces work that people want to read. They want to read it because it has a message that hits home, a universal truth wrapped inside a character you’d like to be, saying the words you wish you’d said. It breaks your heart and performs an angioplasty because it tells the story of a pain you’ve lived, and lets you know others have lived it too. It takes you to another world, lets you be a hero, allows you to experience that first love, again.
Not all good writing gets published, but if it isn’t sold or published, it isn’t because it was too good or too pure.
One day, when a homeless woman calls out to me from her blanket nest on a cold sidewalk, “Got a dollar?” I’d like to say yes, and I earned it from my art.