Writers, Money, and the Economy: Why Time Is the 21st Century’s “Room of One’s Own”

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Ann Bauer’s eye-opening essay about being a “sponsored” writer (actually version of a piece by Bauer that’s been kicking around the writing blogosphere for a few years), published yesterday on Salon, has fostered an intense, multi-pronged online discussion about writing and money. In the piece, Bauer lists several anonymous examples of acclaimed writers who have benefited from an extra financial boost but thrive on the myth of their genius. But her main aim is to admit that she’s accomplished much, much more as writer since marrying a high earner later in life than she did in her years as a struggling mom with financial woes.

The reactions I’ve seen have ranged from “Honestly, I don’t care how you do it, TMI” to “Thank you so much for being transparent” to… “Wait, a second, who are these juicy blind-item writers with wealthy families?”

Some writers, like Bauer, shared stories of spouses who work all day while they write all day, knowing the income streams they each generate will never match but happy with their arrangement. Most of these “sponsored writers” are women, though I know several instances where that dynamic is gender-flipped. Others shared tales of rising at six every morning to write that first novel or two, before the family awoke and the day job began, repeating until success came along at last.

For the majority of writers and artists who lack both unshakeable determination or cushy safety nets, it’s hard to participate in the discussion and not feel either inadequate on the one hand or resentful on the other. I admit to being someone who is simply incapable of waking up every morning at six to write before my full-time job begins. Yet I also would never be fully comfortable as a “sponsored writer” (I think it would make my feminist brain explode).

But why should we pit ourselves against each other? Without a doubt, time to create and dream is the “room of one’s own” of the 21st century. And there’s a sacred myth of pursuing any art form, that contains some truths in a time-strapped world: You do have to give something up, or cut back. Sometimes it’s a career of your own, or financial independence vis-a-vis your life partner, or sleep, or time with family and friends. Sometimes it’s stability, sometimes it’s the inspiration that comes from instability. So yes, an artistic pursuit works well when there’s someone else near you filling in the gaps of whatever it is you give up, as sort of mini collective enterprise of two.

But as someone said on Twitter, it’s also sort of sad to think that these little units of two are orbiting around in space by themselves, embarking on the collectivist mission of creating art and supporting an artist in an indifferent world. Not everyone can find a Vera Nabokov or a Leonard Woolf, nor should they. What if both spouses have creative ambitions?

At least in my mind, this strain of thought comes down to the exact same problem as the discussion we have about balancing family and work these days: today’s families are so, so alone. Someone has to sacrifice, the common line goes. We (particularly women) can’t have it all. Instead of talking about how we help everyone get by and pursue their passions in addition to career and family ambitions, it inevitably becomes a fraught discussion about individual choices, and judging each others’ choices.

What I’m saying is: I don’t want the important writing and money discussion to become a new version of the Mommy Wars. I want it to exist in social and economic context, as a reflection of the widening income gap, the recession, and the end of the perhaps-outlier dream of the ’90s — the idea that creativity was a viable professional path for anyone who wanted to follow it.

Essentially, it’s the capitalist economy, stupid. Try applying the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to the writing world. Some lucky people snag spouses in lucrative professions, the one or two percent who can pay for the whole family with one income, while the rest go deeper and deeper into debt, both financial and temporal. Meanwhile, the new economy means that the number of hours writers with day jobs must work at those jobs continues to increase and increase, and creatives are more likely to be doing things like freelancing or taking unreliable shifts than finding good, solid nine-to-five jobs with benefits. Most writers in the middle get by doing manuscript critiques and teaching writing workshops, making do in a bare-bones way. They’re probably happy in the present, but what if they get sick or lose a job? None of these sets of circumstances guarantees creative success, but each sure sounds a lot more comfortable than others.

This discussion about work-art balance has the same contours, the same expectations of making it work individually rather than as a community, that the endless work-life balance discussion does. It’s fitting that I read Bauer’s piece just after Jennifer Senior’s important piece about how desperately we need paid family leave as a nation, and how far that is from happening. One spouse sponsoring another is sort of a mini socialist enterprise. Why not expand it further and think beyond our individual choices?

Some radical economic proposals that have begun to circulate among libertarians and leftists — like shorter workweeks, universal minimum incomes, job-sharing, and the other components of a “plenitude economy” — could also help foster a new generation of artists who don’t have to choose between careers and creativity.