My beau called this morning from his family’s Christmas gathering. “I was talking to my brother-n-law about freelance writing. Is that something you’ve considered doing?”
The Snarl Heard Across the State ensued: “I am a freelance writer!” He lurched a little, and I don’t blame him, but people seem to have a lot of opinions on how we writers might try to make a living. Isn’t it obvious, they all seem to infer, that you could be doing A and B, and C and getting along just swimmingly? At least, that’s what I – Miss Sour Pants – hears.
As I grapple with trying to figure out just what I am — a writer? a freelance writer? someone who loves to write but is first and foremost a mother? or maybe something entirely different, like, the scintillatingly titled Program Coordinator? — I am a bit touchy on this subject. The touchiness, I think, boils down to a few key points: making a living wage, mixing art and income, doing all of this as a mother whose time is stretched very thin.
I know my logic here is a little muddy. Please, hear me out, if only for the sake my own attempt at making sense of my life. Putting aside the upper upper echelons of artists, I continue to wonder, “Can you make a living wage from your art? or, at least, the skills you possess as an artist.” I’ve found at several points in my life that, yes, I could make a living as a writer; most impressively as a perma-temp at Microsoft in the early to mid-90s. I didn’t really enjoy what I was writing about – professional sports – and the work was rote, the hours sometimes grueling, but I undoubtably well paid and, hence, relatively well respected. Does this make me shallow? I think not. Many of us are able to stomach work that is less than highly appealing if we feel we our skills are valued. Even, then, however, if you are spending your day using the same skills that give you artist joy, it can drain you of your desire to go home and do “good work.” As a novelist I once interviewed told me, he wrote lots and lots of rubbish for astonishingly good money during the dot.com boom, but eventually, knew that, “I had to write creatively or I would die.” Hyperbole? Perhaps a bit, but really – I get it. I believe him.
So, you want to make a living wage, you want to be respected, you’d really like to make work that comes from your heart – even if you do so in the wee hours, AND you want to raise your kids? Hmmmm…. By adding this last piece, you’ve just raised the bar exponentially, perhaps impossibly high. Place on top of that ridiculous stupa the fact that you are a single mother, or the sole breadwinner, and perhaps it’s in the stratospheres of possibility.
So do you stick with it at all – do you continue to paint the same painting, give or take the hue and the shape of the flower, over and over because you know it sells? Do you schlep your violin to one more bat mitvah or wedding dance? Or, do you draw a line and do something entirely different to bring in the money and hope and pray that Life will help you eventually make time for your art?
There’s an article in today’s New York Times about crafters who have hit it big on Etsy, turning their hobbies into $100K-plus annual incomes. Of course, there are only a few of these, just as there are only a few Heather Armstrongs – the Queen of the Mommy Blogs who used to have a simple, pretty, personal little blog but now has advertising and staff and, according to lore, a husband who was able to quit his day job because her blog made enough and more for both of them.
The article doesn’t ask whether these women come to detest knitting after they churn out 500 mufflers. But it does quote the very wise (in my opinion), Sarah Mosle who has written of Etsy sellers/artists: “I think for many women the site holds out the hope of successfully combining meaningful work with motherhood in a way that more high-powered careers in the law, business, or sciences seldom allow. In other words, what Etsy is really peddling isn’t only handicrafts, but also the feminist promise that you can have a family and create hip arts and crafts from home during flexible, reasonable hours while still having a respectable, fulfilling, and remunerative career. The problem is that on Etsy, as in much of life, the promise is a fantasy.”
Ok, can we just have a communal amen? We long to make our art. We long to be able to spend time with our children and be the mothers that it feels so right in our hearts that we should be. And yet in trying to do these two things side by side are we too often belittling our skills as artists while also setting ourselves up for unbearable by not making the money that our skills suggest we are capable of making if we did something else, something more practical?
The desire to be a good mother who spends ample time with her kids AND to have “a respectable, fulfilling [my emphasis], and remunerative career” should not be fantasy. It should be within the realm of reality. I fear – I don’t want to believe but I do fear – that for many women this combination is impossible. My goal for 2010 is to spend more time figuring out why this is so and what – even baby steps – can be done about it. I know, it’s like saying, “I’m going to study Global Warming for the next year and see what I can do,” but my ongoing fury over this conundrum, this Rubic’s cube, has reached a level where I just need to jump further into the fray. Further in … we’ll see where that leads!