Starving Is A Terrible Condition For Making Art

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.

Fuck.

That.

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!

Fuck.

That.

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.

Be smart.

Be confident.

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.

* * *

ZER0ES.

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:

Doylestown Bookshop| WORD| Joseph-Beth Booksellers| Murder by the Book

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45 comments

  • I’ve been in a funk this morning, and I think a bit of it is coming from the torrent sites popping up in my feed all offering The Diamond Conspiracy as a free download.

    I read this. I’m pulling myself together.

    Fuck them. I’m writing.

  • Got a rejection email last night. Not feeling the whole career receptionist thing. Kind of wondering if these anti-anxiety meds are actually supposed to make me feel MORE crazy. Making enough off my awesome debut book to buy a mocha every two months. So, thanks for you, man. I’ve said it before and will probably repeat it: I really like you.

  • Art is what saved me from starving. Before I set out on this self-publishing adventure, I was homeless, broke, unemployed, and hopeless.

    And now I stride the poverty line like the Titans of yore! No more couch surfing for me, buddy, I gots an apartment.

  • My issue is that my day job is sucking my soul, leaving me very little on my “off” hours to be creative with. Art Harder and Get Out is easier said than done when you have a mortgage and you live alone. My only cathartic release lately is a string of fight scenes I have to write and I envision certain people in my head when I’m dealing out the death blows….

  • Loved what you said about being hungry Chuck! In fact, let me share with you what I love about
    Arnold Schwarzenegger, which I believe fits in with what you were talking about.

    I remember watching a Barbara Walters Special with Arnold Schwarzenegger back in 1990. Barbara Walters asked him if anyone took him seriously when he wanted to act. Arnold’s response was simple, yet profound. He said, “Every time you tell people that you want to do something “BIG” and you want to get to the top in anything, they will say you’re crazy and you can never do it.” Then he said, “I think that is the very thing to get inspired and to get HUNGRY. I really get HUNGRY when people say you can’t do it. That’s when I really get the drive. It’s better to be unique, because then
    people will remember you.”

    Next, Barbara asked him, “Arnold, what makes one guy a champion, one person a champion, and the other one not?”

    “It’s drive. It’s the will. There are certain people that grow up with a tremendous hunger and its usually kids that had struggled when they were kids. When you grow up comfortably and in comfort and in peace and happiness and all of those things that will produce a very balanced person and a good person but it will not create the will and the determination and the hunger that you need to be the best in the world.”

    Thanks for reminding me to stay HUNGRY Chuck! Good stuff man!

  • 1.) You are absolutely right. We live under many delusions, one of these that certain “noble” professions need not worry about the money flow. This is nonsense. You can be sure the top one percent of wealth holders worry very much were the money will come from. And they eat-regularly.

    2.) You can support yourself as a writer, but you may be take jobs that you normally wouldn’t. Which would you rather do, write to make money, or sit in a call center and make money. I’ll take writing.

    3.) We used to support the arts and artists as a country. Now we want them to pull themselves up from their bootstraps because if they were truly worthy the publishing world would fall at their feet. This is also nonsense.

    4.) No one need starve in America. There are programs for that. Most of the people who are on Food Stamps work. Sad, but true. Work your art. If you need it, take what support you can for that. Because we should support the arts. Period.

  • Agreed! There’s no shame in having a day job. Try to find one that helps fuel your writing, instead of destroying your will to write, if you can. And if you can’t, you’ve got to be the vicious guard of any free time you’ve got – writing on public transit, on lunch breaks, on weekends. It’ll be your sanity. I’ve been there, and I’ve written full-time, and to be honest I rather like having a day job that ISN’T writing – if only because writing about things that you HATE (and for bogus pay) is worse than not writing at all.

  • I think people sometimes confuse starvation with bad experiences, and sometimes a lifetime of them. We write based off of our experiences first hand, at least I do, from there we can figure out how to write down experiences of others. Some authors had some crazy shit go down in their life, and by crazy I mean not good or fun. Burroughs, P.K. Dick, Vonnegut. They had it rough for a very long time, but they were never starving.

    • Amen to this! I plumb for a living and see so many characters in real life that people would call bullshit on if I wrote them. I’ll probably never pay the bills writing, at least not as well as doing plumbing. But at least I can get the fucking story out of my head when I write.

  • Wow, this is SO weird to me. Before reading this post, I never once ever some much as entertained the notion that “Starving Artist” referred to some voluntarily chosen Ascetic path. I’ve always viewed it as more of a caution about reality: If you choose to be an artist, there’s a good chance you’ll starve because it’s so difficult to make a living. Or, there’s a good chance you’ll be hungry at least at the beginning stages of pursuing your art. Is it a sacrifice you’re willing to make? I’ve lived around artists of all kinds for forty years and I’ve never heard your interpretation. Wonder if it’s a regional thing or what?

    • “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” –Samuel Johnson.

      My brain insists Neil Gaiman said “the writer strives at all times to get paid” but I can’t seem to find the source for that one.

      • And I know Piers Anthony has said he never bothered to write anything GE wasn’t getting paid for, true. But the fact remains that many, many more people do art from passion, in the hopes that one day it will be a source of income, than ever make an income from it.

  • I’m currently having an internal conflict about applying for disability. My husband and other family encourage it, but I feel like that leaves me with no real option to pursue doing anything I love. I know that as far as the real world goes, I have limits, and limited options. But I can still Art like a mofo. I’m just not ready to give up on the options still available.

  • August 5, 2015 at 2:30 PM // Reply

    You are so freakin’ right Churck! Gosh, I’ve had thoughts like this really often! And I hate how the ‘starving artist’ is a cliche! I mean I majored in philosophy in undergrad./grad. and dealt with enough jokes about my ‘burger flipping’ occupation to last a lifetime. (But I managed to land a full time position with benefits, so joke is on them)

    There is nothing wrong with balancing writing and working full time, you just have to find a balance and as Chuck says so well here, “take care of yourself”.

    Thanks again Chuck for writing this, you got me so amped to write later today!

  • This. This is what I need to print out and have posted on the wall in my writing space(s). This is what I need to read when I start hearing those little demons-dressed-as-angels saying things about writers not having day jobs (even though I know at least one or two who do have day jobs).

    This post was very much needed in the world. Thank you.

  • Chuck is starting to scare me with these posts. Its like he is eating bologna made from my brain tissue. Let me explain. I started a new WIP on the 1st and needed yesterdays post at that exact moment. A month ago he asked for input on the weekly writing challenge and then the next week used my idea of a song title (not for the contest but as a filler) that he said was an old staple contest. Now this on the heels of talking to a penmonkey pal about depression and writing and Hemmingway and blah bork bjork blah as the Swedish Chef once put it so eloquently. I think Chuck is pulling a Sevarian (Gene Wolfe reference) and eating my brain tissue so he can provide just what is needed… Thanks Uber Pen Mensch.

  • So much this. My creative career is nearly two decades old, but I didn’t go fully self-employed until 2011. That was after three years of grad school in which I had student loans as my primary income and I was able to build up my art and writing to where they were paying for themselves, and I had enough savings to step off the cliff into self-employment and see if I could fly. I was damned lucky.

    Four years later, even though I’m my household’s primary breadwinner and even though I’ve never missed the rent or bills, I’m still hungry. Hungry for the next show, the next contract, the next opportunity. My loved ones sometimes have to hold me down on my laurels for a few minutes just so I can rest and hopefully not feel too guilty about it. It’s not just because I love what I do–I do, mind you, more than anyone realizes. But it’s because I know that if I am not constantly on the hunt, I’ll fall behind. In a day job if I slacked off for a day, I got paid the same amount. if I slack off for a day now, I have to pay for it. So do the people who depend on me.

    That hunger feeds my soul–but it doesn’t feed my belly. That’s what the money’s for, dammit.

  • What I need is a marriage. The other person would provide me with finances and health care in exchange for the pleasure of my company (though not too often, as I would mostly be writing).

  • Until someone is bright enough to seize upon the potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of marrying me, I am consigned to writing as weekends and evenings permit. This sucks. But it sucks a lot less than my one-year-eleven-months of unemployment, during which my creative output was nonexistent. Apart from some erratic writing gigs, I was jobless, which does not magically translate to “unencumbered forty hours per week.”

    To say nothing of the time spent hunting for work, I lived with chronic worry about finances, healthcare, and the future. The incessant stress killed my interest in writing for pleasure. Even in those rare times when I wanted to try something fun, I couldn’t concentrate, because it felt frivolous and irresponsible.

    I never starved. Even in the leanest times I’ve had food and a roof. But plain old poverty is bad enough. Some people manage to create art despite difficult life circumstances, but I sure didn’t have it in me.

  • I soooo needed to her this right now. I have less than a hundred words until my halfway point (30,000 words (!!)), and I needed the push.

  • The starving writer is a myth. Plain myth. And a ‘full-time writer’ is, IMHO, a dangerous thing. You go out, you work, meet people, observe the things happening around ya, and that’s how you get material for your writing. Because what else does one put in writing, if not real life observations turned into fiction? Sitting on one’s butt the whole day and staring at the laptop screen, waiting for inspiration to come, is just so not done, and so moronic. You have to read, experience, observe and learn to grow an imagination and be a good writer. When I started writing seriously three years ago, I decided I will always have a full time job to pay the bills and put food on the table and facilitate a decent lifestyle. Writing will be an avocation, a succor from stress and anger, and something which drives me and completes me- and if it can get me a little money on the side, then that’s something I can splurge on books and food! Very well said, Chuck. Bravo.

    • I agree with your assessment that sitting on your ass is not a great way to learn new things to tell stories. Just be advised: I am a full-time author, as are others who read this, and there is nothing bad or moronic about it. It was and remains the everpresent goal of my writing life.

      — c.

      • I apologize if I came on too strong. By ‘full time writers’ I meant quite someone else- the starving writers you mention here, who don’t do anything productive but expect inspiration to come on its own. I didn’t mean you, or other highly successful authors like you, who do a lot of things apart from writing. You yourself have a wide repertoire- you write bestsellers, you attend conferences, design games and interact with other authors. I apologize if I hurt you with my words. It was not my intention. Regards.

    • Yes there’s nothing wrong with being a full-time writer. It still counts as valid work. I have several friends who sustain themselves and their family quite fine with their writing. You’re completely within your rights to write as an avocation but some writers do it as their main vocation. They also still go out and see and speak to people. Just because it’s not in a work environment doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

      • Buddy, I didn’t mean people like your friends here. I meant people who sit at home all day, and leave everything else, to write, but who don’t get anything useful out of it. There is no productivity. Perhaps I should have been more careful with my words. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, or judge anyone. My sincere apologies if I did.
        Regards

  • Oh, boy where to begin. My disability pension is seven thousand dollars per year below the poverty line. I write full time and my work will generate a significant portion of my income this year. This is why i just laugh when people hand down rules for amateur writers and talk about how to attract a literary agent. They don’t have the slightest clue as to my abilities, my challenges, or my goals. it’s important to be mentally tough to sift through the B.S. Some folks would be envious at the amount of time I can spend and how much I can write in a year. My greatest challenges are food and shelter. It really hasn’t stopped me or even slowed me down except for the odd day lost here and there.

  • I don’t feel like a myth. I run out of food by Friday and have to wait until Monday. I’m bipolar and disabled and struggle with suicidal thoughts on a daily basis, aside from the fact that I am on an assload of medications. But this good country, especially Arizona, doesn’t pay for decent therapy. Truth be told, from my vast experience, your facebook friends are as good as therapists and usually better, even though to keep in touch, you’re sitting there hunched over your desk, cramped from the neck down at 3 am, a freak of society. Here, they just throw pills at you from beyond the bars of your cage. Especially if you’re disabled and poor. Writing is all I have. I have self published my first novel last month. I have dreams of a day I can leave this country and eat every day, but writing is all I have. Hopefully my suffering will only make success sweeter, but if there is no success, then what?

    • I hear ya. Everyone’s situation is different, and there’s no one-fix-for-all method. My situation re: writing is a 180 from yours, though. Getting anything written is nearly impossible.

      I’m on SSDI (therefore, Medicare) and can’t afford to add an Rx program to cover my drugs, which currently (and thankfully) cost me next to nothing via patient assistance programs. Medicare won’t pay for therapy, but I found a good therapist who charges $60/hr. which makes therapy affordable. I’m blessed to have a family support net, too. That’s now. There have been times when I didn’t have shit.

      It took me 2 trys to get on SSDI/Medicare, but I did it with help from some friends who’d been down the same road. I won’t say it gets better for everyone, because that’s a lie. I had to admit to myself that I needed medical and financial help, that I was worthy of receiving it, before I could do what I needed to, to get it. There is nothing easy about this road. It’s potentially soul-killing.

      The preceding info offered as support, and in no way is meant negatively re: your sitch. Sending good vibes your way, from an old phart who’s still on the road. Hope it helps in some way.

  • 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.
    A-fucking-men, Chuck. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m not hungry, as I am on food stamps. What sucks about that is there’s no way to pay for meds or for my pets’ food. But I can buy all the candy and junk food I want, even if I spend every cent of my food stamp allotment on it, now is that any kind of sane?
    I have no job, I spend all my time on the internet filling in applications or going to interviews that end with a pat on the head and an email a week later saying they’ve hired someone else.
    I *want* to write, dammit! But I can’t concentrate because of all the crap that’s going on in my life right now. I’m looking into selling my house to one of those “we buy houses” places because it’s better to have to move out and have some money to move out *with* than it would be to have the mortgage company foreclose and leave me with nothing but a pile of furniture and books on the street.
    There is hunger, and there is hunger. There is the hunger that makes you want to keep going, the hunger that Schwarzenegger was talking about in DeWayne’s post. The hunger to prove people wrong when they say that maybe it can be done, but not by you. I have that hunger. To that I say Fuck you and the dick you rode in on. But there is also the hunger for security. For Maslow’s Needs. The physical ones of food, clothing, shelter; the emotional ones of friendship, family, and intimacy; and the mental ones of self-esteem, confidence, creativity. Without the physical ones, the emotional almost cannot take place, and without the physical and emotional, the mental ones are stunted.
    As usual, Chuck, you hit it right on the head. Got it right in one.

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