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Artistic License

One of the few things that has happened during the pandemic that I hope persists after it has run its course (oh, please let it do that soon), is that I am now able to attend lots of writer discussions and book talks online.

Last Friday, I attended an online talk sponsored by Powell’s bookstore with poet and essayist, Elisa Gabbert, who has a new book of essays out, The Unreality of Memory; Samantha Irby, a writer and comedian with a new book out, wow, no thank you; and Sarah Rose Etter, who writes experimental fiction and whose 2019 novel, The Book of X, won all kinds of awards.

It was an earnest, insightful, and funny discussion about all things writing. Aside from feeling seen when Gabbert talked about her writing process, which involves what I guess I’d call “pre-writing,” thinking through the flow and structure and pacing before the writing even starts, so that the first draft is fairly tight, and revision is more about finetuning, I almost wept with relief when she and Sarah Etter talked about their day jobs.

Elisa Gabbert’s new book was reviewed in the New York Times and she became their poetry columnist a few months ago. Etter has won several writing awards.

They both have full-time day jobs.

I keep getting asked about what I’m going to do now that I have finished my MFA, as if some big change is going to happen. Like, I would somehow shift careers or something. I guess some folks get an MFA for that reason? In certain programs, I could see it? I guess there could be an expectation that I would teach now?

Eula Biss has a new book out, Having and Being Had, in which she takes up the themes of work done to make a living and creative work done because it brings the person doing it pleasure within a larger inquiry about capitalism and the role of the artist and art within it. Her meditations were prompted by the purchase of a house, which was only able to buy thanks to a teaching job at a university. The job allowed her to buy the house, a physical space in which to live, but the job has left her with less mental space and less time to do the writing she wants to do, that brings her a sense of pleasure, of fulfillment that objects she buys, including the house, cannot. She finds herself trying to buy time to write, and ends up actually buying time back from her university, paying them for time off from teaching so that she can write.

It’s hard to see how my life will change significantly now that I have an MFA, even though, yes, I spent all that money on it. I still need my day job. This day job means I don’t have to put pressure on the creative work to make money. Which would make it feel just like my day job. It means I don’t need to treat my personal creative work as a “side hustle,” some business I’m trying to grow.

I wish there were more real talk about the lives artists and writers really lead, the kind of talk I heard during that virtual writers’ panel, the kind of real digging and thinking I read in Eula Biss’s book.

American capitalism likes to tell people they aren’t real artists or writers if they’re not making money from it.

I don’t need a paycheck made out to artist or writer to make me an artist or writer to make it official.

And neither do you.

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