Over the past few weeks, I've had several conversations with writing friends that seem to circle around the same topic: how to piece together an artistic life and pay the bills at the same time.
Some of these friends are recent graduates from MFA programs wondering what comes next, and some are working full-time "real" jobs, desperate to get away. Some are teaching and don't want to be. Some are scattering themselves hither and yon, working multiple jobs and frantically seeking time to write. Some have completed novels and are looking at next steps. All need to write. All need to pay bills on time.
I'm not sure there is an answer to this quandary. In our American culture, our values line up with fiscal success over the creation of art, literature, and music. Occasionally there is an exception, and an artist reaches the pinnacles of popularity and riches, yet for every superstar author, musician, or painter I would venture to say there are a thousand more producing a high quality of work that goes unrecognized.
This week I took great pleasure in reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. As I read her beautiful prose and marveled at her insight, craft, and language, parts of me felt equally dejected and inspired. On one hand, I envied her success and talent. On the other, I felt hopeful that one day I could produce a novel that someone else could love, just as I loved this one. And then I came across this exchange between the protagonist, Sarah Grimke, and Lucretia Mott, the well-known abolitionist, suffragist, and social reformer.
'Why would God plant such deep yearnings in us, if they only come to nothing?' It was more a sigh than a question. I was thinking of Charlotte and her longing to be free, but as the words left my mouth, I knew I was thinking of myself, too.
I hadn't really expected Lucretia to respond, but after a moment, she spoke. 'God fills us with all sorts of yearnings that go against the grain of the world—but the fact those yearnings often come to nothing, well, I doubt that's God's doing.' She cut her eyes at me. 'I think we know that's men's doing.'
She leaned toward me. 'Life is arranged against us, Sarah. And it's brutally worse for Handful and her mother and sister. We're all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we'll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that's all.'
I felt her words tear a hole in the life I'd made. An irreparable hole.
Maybe that is why we continue to write when faced with financial stress, unhappiness in our careers, and roadblock after roadblock. We're designed to continue pushing toward our greatest desire. For the artist, the financial payoff may not arrive in the way we hope or expect, but as we continue to try, the artistic life can lead to other, unexpected riches. For me, those riches have come in the friendships of like-minded people, the satisfaction of living a life in line with my values, and the happiness found in the act of writing alone. If one's goal in seeking the artistic life is wealth and fame, great disappointment will most likely follow. There is no failure in the act of creating and producing art. Yet to go against your own heart's desires in order to conform to society's standards could be considered a failure, for certain.
All we can do is continue to try. Perhaps in the creation of art, it can be where we find our greatest joy.