On art and poverty…

Okay, so last night was the National Book Awards, and on twitter (and facebook), everyone seemed to be heading down to Wall Street for the gala bash.  I was GREEN with envy.  I quite like to wear gowns.

Grubby jeans or vintage gowns and fake sparkles. I really see no point in anything in between.

Business casual. Meh.

But the point of this post is not my predilicition for Goodwill finery, it’s that Ron Hogan was there (tweeting), and so there’s a wrap-up on Galleycat today, that includes a fun little interview with Salvatore Scibona (I cannot repost as the dumb viddler isn’t working).

But in that interview, Salvatore talks about something I LOVE, the fact that economic downturn is sort of affirming for creative types.  I’ve avoided discussion of this topic myself until now, because it tends to make people (especially people who’ve just lost a packet on the market, or maybe their homes) itchy, but it’s true, and I kind of delight in it.

See, to pursue a writing life, to really make literature and art the center of things, you have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty, poverty, etc.  You decide you’ll be a waitress forever, and never own a fancy handbag. You live in a studio apartment, eat cheap.  Ideally, you do this (not because you’re selfish and singleminded, but) because you’re choosing to prioritize art and social commentary and intelligent community and the life of the mind BEFORE  handbags.

You are choosing to value a different economy, buy stock in a different market.

Then, when the handbag market fails, and the mutual funds of artistic merit are still rock solid, you get to feel like you invested well!

(I suppose this is a little the way fundamentalists will get to feel at the pearly gates, if it turns out that sex and booze WERE bad, and heaven IS awesome. But that’s a conversation for another day.)

Of course, the flip side is that a lot of artistic types don’t think about stability at all, and that’s problematic for me.  As someone with kids, I no longer allow myself the “Oh, heck! Who needs groceries? I’m going to go to the bar and have an EXPERIENCE!” decisionmaking process. I can no longer spend my life savings on books and time to write.

But there’s a middle path, a way to choose art AND  stability, both.  To not concern yourself with wealth. To seek out enough financial security that you don’t fret daily, but also not get caught up in the pursuit of big houses and fancy cars. And as we get older, most of the writers I know are living those kinds of lives.  Balancing frugality with experience, to maximize the focus on art.

Let’s just say that I don’t know a single writer who’s ever speculated in anything but their own work. I don’t know a single poet who bought a house they couldn’t afford.

Because poets KNOW they can’t afford much.

7 Responses to “On art and poverty…”

  1. Donna Gephart Says:


    When I read your blog post, I remembered an article from the Palm Beach Post this week about how the tough economy is keeping people from spending $1,500 on designer handbags. Instead, they’re cutting back and renting them. If you want a laugh, check it out at: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/search/content/business/epaper/2008/11/16/a1a_handbagrental_1117.html


  2. Cynthia Leitich Smith Says:

    It’s suddenly occurring to me that my writer social group includes an usual number of people with trust funds…

  3. Liz B Says:

    No one is going to get rich writing, it’s a fact. And I’ve mulled over a lot of these points, and overthought it, as I tend to do.

    As someone with a full time job who writes on the side, I eagerly read “real! live! writer!” stories, looking for inspiration and affirmation from those who get up early to write and then go to their “paycheck” jobs, be it waitress or librarian, and use weekends, etc., to write.

    Part of the balance is not “living large” (but I do love my Coach handbags.)

    But as I read these author stories, there seems to be just as many who, it seems, are able to commit to writing because they have stability from having another source of income and benefits in the household (a partner, spouse, parent.) The ‘balance’ comes not from life choices (ie where is my apartment? Do I eat cheap?) but from having a guaranteed paycheck from one person that allows the other person more freedom in their career choice.

    I wonder, if we had, say national health coverage for everyone — would we see more people quitting jobs they don’t really want, to pursue the writing that now gets only a few hours a week?

    Sorry for how scattered my thoughts are.

  4. laurel Says:


    Yep, I think so. I’m on a list with a number of “mom poets” and this comes up a lot. How nationalized health care would enable people to make riskier choices.


    No fooling! I was so shocked when I got to my MFA program and discovered people were rich! I thought all poets were poor. Someone should do a study, of the correlary between the lack of public interest in an art and its relationship to how many people who pursue it are wealthy.

  5. Liz B Says:

    I would have been so good as a trust fund person.

  6. Henry Says:

    So if I decide to abandon security so I can indulge my scattered interests and short attention span, sinking into dilettantism and gleeful irresponsibility, all I have to do is produce something I can call art. That would turn what I otherwise might consider shortcomings into sacrifices, rendering me NOBLE. I dig it.

  7. Descant: A Journal of Arts and Letters » Blog Archive » Encounters With Books: During a Credit Crunch Christmas Says:

    [...] It is not so much having nothing to lose, which would be to devalue the myriad things I do possess– friends at all, $10, pasta, an apartment whose kitchen is a tiny kind of heaven. But these are infallible things as the world economies crumble, making our choices seem even sensible than usual. [...]

Leave a Reply