You can’t really read a word about JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, without first reading a statement about how she was unemployed and on welfare when she wrote the books that made her world famous and ridiculously wealthy. People act so surprised by this fact, but that’s because of a truth that makes writers (and all kinds of other artists) eternally frustrated. People don’t think creating art is real work. But guess what? Just because JK Rowling (and the rest of us) weren’t getting paid, it doesn’t mean we weren’t working.
Writing is a full-time job. Back before I got fired in January, when I was working 40+ hours a week waiting tables, I would squeeze writing in on days off, if then. More often, I was so busy recovering from my incredibly stressful job, running the errands I had to jam into my two days off a week, trying to do meaningful work as a social justice activist, and spending what little extra time I had catching up with friends that writing got put on the backburner. The great ideas I had in my head stayed there, collecting dust and asserting themselves at night before I went to sleep, begging me to find time to sit down at my computer or typewriter and devote a little energy to them. Often it didn’t happen at all.
Since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve spent part of every day writing. Often a big part. In the last five months, I’ve finished and revised a first draft of a novel that I’ve had in my head for the last 2 years, written about 5 short pieces, gotten one of those pieces published, spent hours researching literary magazines and submitting work to them, regularly updated my blog (those of you who have been reading have probably noticed how much more I’ve been in this virtual space in the last few months), done a reading or two, attended countless literary events for learning and networking purposes, done tons of research, spent countless hours in the reading room of the NYPL. This is work! But when my unemployment insurance runs out, I will be just as broke and hopeless as if I’d been sitting around doing nothing for months on end.
I found this list recently on the internet, written by a man named Philip Theibert, called “Top Ten Things Unemployed Writers and Actors Say.” Some of the statements were:
- 1. Bob, give me a boost, I see a lot of aluminum cans in this dumpster —
- 2. Your pizza will be there in 30 minutes or less.
- 3. Is that debit or credit?
- 4. Sir , please roll up your windows before going through the car wash.
- 5. Would you like to upsize those fries?
Would you say that to JK Rowling’s face? Or, for that matter, John Steinbeck’s? Because Steinbeck, the author of several of the greatest pieces written in the English language, was unemployed and broke as hell until Roosevelt’s Federal Writers Project, a program aimed at aiding writers who had been hit hard by the Great Depression, came along. And do you wonder why he was able to write a book like The Grapes of Wrath? I’ll bet not a little of it came from being someone who couldn’t find gainful employment, and who had the work he was doing considered something less than “real work.”
(I’d also like to point out to the compiler of that snarky little list (and everyone else who thinks that the arts aren’t “real work”) that literary super-star David Sedaris was working as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand while doing his work as a writer—and that experience lead to his big break when he read his accounts of doing so in front of an audience that contained radio host Ira Glass.)
It might be easy to crack jokes about unemployed writers. And musicians. And actors. And painters. it might seem surprising when you hear that one of them succeeds. But we’re not succeeding because we’re sitting around doing nothing. Art is real, valuable work, We don’t get good at it overnight any more than a person picks up a hammer for the first time and builds a house in the same day. And while we’re working just as hard as a banker or a lawyer would, we’re also working without any kind of safety net. We’re regularly facing things like poverty and homelessness and the inability to make doctor’s visits when we’re sick. But this lack of safety net is part of what makes worthwhile work in the arts so valuable. Even the aforementioned JK Rowling once said something along these lines.
Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Yep. Being unemployed and facing failure and having people think what we do is worthless is what lots of artists face everyday. And we’re still doing it. So next time you go to the movies or listen to an album on your iPod or talk about the latest book in Oprah’s Book Club, let me speak for lots of us struggling in the arts: You’re welcome.