'Money Seems More Real Than My Art.'

Free yourself from the roles you've been given.

I’m constantly juggling multiple writing projects. The newest project always carries the most appeal, because its flaws aren’t yet apparent. The project closest to being finished is always the hardest to get into. And the process of trying to get a finished work out into the world where something like a public might see it feels like trying to push a wall over with my face. I hate it. I believe that writing is freedom and play ... but I also believe writing is work and I should get paid for this work.

I’m not sure where the strength to engage with this other side of the business of art is supposed to come from. I know that starting a lot of projects that I never finish feels bad too. I feel like I’m supposed to “believe in myself” or something, and I don’t know how that’s supposed to work. Perhaps relevant: I have an expensive MFA degree which I am still paying off. Money seems so much more real than my artistic practice.

Detroit, MI

Dear ____,

I had many responses come up when I was reading your letter, all of which seemed to be speaking to topics far-flung from each other. I even thought you had two letters at first—one about finishing your work and another about surviving on your art in capitalism—but what’s funny about style is that it can reveal what we’re not willing or able to say about what we’re saying.

Does it feel as though you’re jumping a chasm in order to work through your two dilemmas? Incidentally, your letter is formed in two paragraphs. Does one idea get interrupted by another? Coincidentally, you interrupt “writing is freedom and play” with “writing is work” (they are connected, of course, with the further redaction of the ellipsis). No matter how much you go between the assertions of art as play and art as work, do you always pick one belief over the other? Your two paragraphs each end with “I should get paid for this work” and “money seems so much more real than my artistic practice.”

While you intellectually may acknowledge and even believe that “writing is freedom and play,” your letter betrays that you’re operating right now with the belief that art is work. You give this away with the words you use. Your writing is made of “projects.” An audience is how you’ll “get paid.” It’s not art but “the business of art.” All this is compounded by that expensive MFA degree you mention, which you likely justified because MFAs seem like the only respectable compromise between capital and art or, exactly the compromise you’re trying to make inside yourself.

The degree, with its looming debt, is also a constant reminder not only of your material conditions but also your failure to make that investment worthwhile so far. Inside, though you don’t mention it in your letter, you maybe thought you’d land a book deal out of the gate or make the connections that would help you transition fully into the literary life (if there is one such life)—just that something would transform you in that program that would fill the lack you needed to call yourself a real writer. Remember, it wasn’t just an MFA but an expensive MFA. You gave yourself what you believed was the best. It’s not that you don’t know how to “believe in [yourself]”—you already did, and right now, you’re afraid you’re failing.

I don’t know your class background or your experiences with money as you were growing up. But I can tell you that everyone’s relationship with money is shaped by their childhood class environment, even if they’ve moved around in the system. If you’re poor, you likely grew up talking about money all the time—the lack of it, the need of it, the want of it—and if you were upper-middle class, you perhaps were taught that there’s always more money to be had or made, even if you didn’t know where it was going to come from. Money was never a worry and your family probably didn’t talk much about it. So did you grow up wondering where your next meal was going to be? Or did you have family members with graduate degrees? Or did you grow up speaking the same dialect of English as the people who were usually in authority? [1]

Your beliefs about class mobility may tell you that you need to work hard and gain expertise in the right industry ladder, and the MFA was the first rung. Your class beliefs may tell you that in order to be a writer, you had to do it the right way, the way that has you learning the right craft, meeting the right editors, and learning from the right experts. Your class beliefs tell you that where you come from, none of what you knew was right, which is why it was worth it to pay so much. And right now, your class beliefs may be taunting you, asking why, when you did everything right, you still can’t even finish one project?

We believe in the myth of MFAs because they’re from institutions that confer degrees, and degrees are objective signifiers of worth, of facts that racists, xenophobes, and transphobes can’t deny. At the emotional center of the American dream is not only a myth about meritocracy, but also the belief that we can buy the worthiness to be loved for who we truly are.

In the words of feminist finance educator Hadassah Damien, “money is a proxy” [2]. Money becomes power. Money becomes love. Money becomes food, shelter, and stability. While I can’t tell you exactly why money seems more real than your artistic practice right now, I can speculate on some possibilities.

The first is that you actually, really, do need money right now. You can’t finish what you write because you don’t have the energy to do that right now. You need to buy groceries in the middle of a pandemic. You have a loved one who you are sending money to or you’ve been disowned and you are scraping by with rent. You have no savings or emergency fund and no one in your life who you can call to deposit $500 into your bank account.

You can’t finish writing because you, ____, need to focus on surviving. Anyone who tells you that the conditions to make art have nothing to do with money (and that anyone who does do it for money is a sellout) is touting the fantasy of the starving artist and, honestly, probably does have someone who they can call for an emergency bailout. That fantasy is rigged. One only needs to remember that we mostly hear from the ones who didn’t starve.

Surviving is creative, but there is no project or product. It is not glamorous. It calls for finding a means of supporting yourself that isn’t writing or even creative. It calls for doing the hard work of believing in mutual aid, of asking for help from people who care for you and from people who care for you without your knowledge right now. It calls for your friends and your ancestors. It calls for your protection, not your sacrifice. I’ve said before in this newsletter that our art is the fragments of what we’ve lived. But our art is also “what we have lost and what we dream for.” [3] You, alive, are necessary for those dreams. Someone needs them to exist one day. When you survive, you don’t give yourself away to get what you need. Survival is the art of resisting destruction.

Your relative resource insecurity will intensify the other (not mutually exclusive) possibility that you read your work as a product and not as something valuable to yourself. Your art is a proxy to money which is a proxy to something else. I’m going to tell you that unless it’s those basic resources I just mentioned, money will not get you that something else, and your art is suffering in the process.

Perhaps you dread revising your work for the public because you’ve imagined, already, the critic who will judge you through your writing and, by never finishing, they’ll never have a chance to say you’re the failure you may believe yourself to be. Yet, in protecting yourself by self-sabotaging, you’re destroying, too, the possibility of getting the freedom and play that you truly want.

The closest you get in your letter to joy in your own work is when you talk about starting a new project. It’s only then that you can write with a sense of possibility away from an internal critic who’s telling you to hurry up and get the show on the road. Classism lives rent-free in our habits and lives. This critic doesn’t care about your happiness. It doesn’t care about your art. It wants you to believe you have to pay an admission fee to make the content appropriate for its awards and audiences, that art lives within the margins of what an MFA is supposed to provide. Art doesn’t. Art won’t. You don’t.

There is a longing, an obsession, that I’m always consumed by when I’m finishing a manuscript. The work never starts as a book. It starts as a beginning. And as writers, when we work, we are always beginning whether it’s the middle or the end. Where we are in the work doesn’t matter. Books are made with beginnings.

Take your projects and put them away for a little while. Pull down the artificial structures—the outlines with their goals and lists—and write without looking to a map. You may find that you don’t know where you’re going. You may find a turn you’d like to make, or a scene you’d like to take in. Allow your journey to be long. You may find pleasure in how the path goes on and on.

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[1] “What is Classism

[2] From “Trauma-Informed Money Practice.” I’m personally indebted to Damien for helping me further my practical understanding of money and class.

[3] “It would speak about being human. About how we are the places we have been, the people we have slept with. How we are what we have lost and what we dream for.” – Bill T. Jones, Last Night on Earth (1995)