The myth of the starving artist is a pervasive one.
And, like all myths, it has a kernel of truth. What I mean is this:
It is good to be creatively hungry. Hungry for the next deal. Hungry to write the next thing. Eager to tackle tale after tale with a junkie’s ambition. That kind of hunger has power. And it’s maybe why some young writers or even writers who are writing in the middle of their careers do so with a kind of viciousness, a kind of giddy desperation that you don’t necessarily see in authors operating at the ends of their careers. (And it’s why it’s always a shame to see young writers playing it so safe, so close to the vest, when really they should be straining against the preconceived restraints of past work and of industry expectations — but really, this is a digression best served for some other time and some other rant.)
It is awful, really very truly awful, to be actually hungry.
Note I don’t mean like, a little hungry — “Wow, breakfast was already two hours ago? THAT’S BASICALLY FOREVER please put as many donuts in and around your fist as possible and punch them into my mouth like a percussive donut piston.” I mean, for real hungry. Pervasively, consistently hungry.
And yet, that’s the myth. That’s the image, right? The wonderfully woeful author purified by his or her lack of attachment to material things, subsisting on whatever she can scrounge up — a half-romantic image of the artist sanctified by her own discomfort.
Discomfort sucks. Starving is distracting. Art is the thing of a higher mind. Story is a thing of focus and discipline. You don’t create art while you’re starving. You don’t MAKE COOL SHIT when you’re trying to figure out where your next paycheck or worse, your next meal, is coming from. The trope of the starving artist is one propagated by people in power who do not value what you do and would very much like to get away with not paying for it, thank you very much. As I’ve said before, the idea is presented as some kind of noble sacrifice: certainly if you care enough about the creation of cool things then you will do it anyway. Oh, ho, ho, money is a corruptive influence. You “sell out” when you get money. You become tainted by it. But if it’s all about the art (cough cough and no money there to distort the sanctity of that art), then surely you’ll create something far greater than if you had a full belly and a warm sense of satisfaction. Satisfied artists don’t create! Only turbulent, troubled creatures create art. Art driven by hunger and thirst! Those emaciated horses whipped into a froth by the cracking lashes of desperation and uncertainty!
Worse is when this myth is replicated not just by people in power but by people who should jolly well fucking know better. Other artists or critics, other writers or even the audience members. Folks who don’t feel that authors should be paid XYZ or who sneer at the opportunities presented in this new day via Patreon or Kickstarter or self-publishing.
What does this mean for you?
It means you need to be cautious.
But take certain, deliberate steps to keep yourself safe and sane.
Listen, I meet a lot of authors who are eager to just leap into the void of a full-time writing career. I’ve been there. It’s great when you can manage it. Hell, I’m there right now and, as you suspect, it’s pretty much awesome. I mean, it’s not I BOUGHT A HOT TUB FULL OF CONSTANTLY MELTED CHOCOLATE awesome, but it’s pretty rad to be able to feed yourself and your family just by plunking words down onto paper.
But that’s when it’s working.
And it’s easier to create words when you know someone is there to pay for them.
If they’re not? If you’re not sure? If you don’t have a guaranteed income or at least a good amount of money saved up to protect you during the Dark and Uncertain Times, screw that.
Keep your day job. Or transition to a part time job to split the difference.
Keep yourself fed. Keep your bills paid. The anxiety of a life in financial turmoil ain’t that interesting. It won’t keep you safe. It won’t help you make art.
And this speaks to a larger issue, too — overall self-care. Dearest penmonkey: take care of yourself. Once again the myth rears its head that authors are damaged people, and it’s the damage that drives them. That depression is just part of your toolbox. It is no such thing. Depression and anxiety are a pair of demons sitting on your shoulder dressed like angels. They lie. They’re not writer’s block, though we often conflate the two. They’re something entirely different and require real solutions. Therapy or medication or whatever it is that gets you clear.
Hell, even just sitting at your desk, writing — we wad ourselves up like Kafka roaches, hunched over the desk, our spine bending like Katniss’ bow. We fail to eat right, or exercise, or sleep right — and again, the creation of art goes all fucky. Stories and words come out of your brain. Your body is the engine that surrounds that brain. You need to take care of all of it. You need to get shut of anybody who tells you that your best mode of telling stories and making art is to suffer and sacrifice and starve. Guard your mind. Protect your body. Get paid for what you do. Be well.
* * *
An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.
But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.
Coming 8/18 from Harper Voyager.
Read the first five chapters here, then pre-order from: