The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

So You Want To Be A Starving Artist…

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Last week, I met a good friend for a couple of beers. We talked, we laughed, we declared undying friendship to various groups of complete strangers and, all things considered, I think a good night was had by all. The following morning I did the usual two litres of water, three rashers of bacon and eighteen metric tonnes of remorse. I also did a check on my bank balance.

I discovered that the night had cost me a grand total of $58. At first glance, it would seem that I got off very lightly indeed. And I did, really, but there’s no changing the fact that this sum of money represents 89% of my fortnightly food budget. Couple this with the fact that my rent is roughly 75% of my income and that most of the rest of my cash goes to Sydney’s hideously expensive and frequently eccentric public transport network, and I think we might begin to appreciate the reality of being a starving artist in one of the most costly cities in the world.

You might ask how I can expect to earn a decent income when, as a novelist and hack reporter, I must spend most of my day either contemplating my navel or arguing about the impact of new formalism on post-modern thought in smoky bohemian cafes. My answer to this would begin with a long stream of profanity. I would then point out that I work an average of between 70 and 80 hours per week. My time is divided between pretending to be a journalist on a US news aggregation site, plugging away at the sisyphean task of writing a novel and working on various creative projects that have absolutely no chance of earning a single cent at any time within the next six months. In order to be able to eat and sleep in a location that has walls and a ceiling, I spend time on top of this workload tutoring HSC kids in English literature. I average four hours sleep a night, and generally not all in one go.

So kids, before you decide to really chase your dreams, you should be aware that this mainly involves constant labour, a Mee Goreng diet and turning down social invitations. And it’s not just the poverty. Creative work comes with many potential rewards, but the only guaranteed returns are criticism and abuse. In some industries, jobs which involve dealing with constant abuse are remunerated on an astronomical scale. In the creative field, you literally get your kicks for free. Sometimes it’s because people don’t understand your work. Other times it’s because you’re too far ahead of your time, or too highbrow, or too unconventional. But mostly (read ‘always’) it’s because creating on a full time basis means that a portion of your work is always going to be embarrassingly crap. And it’s those times that the criticism hurts the most.

Of course, having decided to do what I’m doing, I have absolutely no right to complain about it. One thing that I have over a lot of other people is near absolute job satisfaction. I will never again have to look in the mirror and see a person who has sold all the years of his adult life for a mortgage and the ability to eat overpriced brunches in streetside cafes. This provides a kind of smug satisfaction that cannot be bought.

Thing is, though – my poverty is a considered choice. I don’t really have to be poor – I could go and do something else, but I’ve met many people who can’t. People who are poor not because of their vocation, but in spite of their best efforts. Men and women who are stuck in labouring, service or process jobs that eat up all their time and pay only infinitesimally more than the dole. People who are attempting to raise children on incomes similar to my own. People who have to save up for four weeks in order to buy a ninety dollar pair of shoes and who are expected, by bootstrap trickle-down economists, to somehow improve their situations in life by working even harder than they already do.

It’s this more than anything that makes it worthwhile. A world in which the working poor exist is a world that needs changing. And I don’t care what they say in all those hippie internet memes: there’s really only a few ways to change the world, and one of them is through the creative arts. As long as there are people out there who are as poor as me, and don’t want to be, I have absolutely no problem with living on plain flour and promises. I’ll take a pure mission in life over a salary package any day of the week and twice on Sundays. In fact, I already have.

Category: Good

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