Privilege and the Arts

I recently got into a bit of an altercation on Twitter.  I’m hoping I’ve smoothed it over, because I reacted poorly in the initial exchange, and the person I got into a conflict with kept inadvertently making it worse, even though I know he meant well!  He kept giving me advice that sounded to me like, “Let me explain how to tie your shoes.”

It got me to thinking about how economic privilege has always been the watchword of the arts.  We like to think that talent will triumph over economic circumstances, but the truth is, that’s only going to happen with a bit of luck. And thus far, my luck has been pretty poor. Or, maybe I suck.

It started like this:

#WIPjoy is a fun writer’s hashtag game I just started playing. The rest of the month has been great!  But I groaned when I saw this. Maybe it’s the way I ask for help, because gods know I never learned how to do it well, but I never seem to get the help I ask for. But I thought, What the hell? And I took it seriously, and I asked a question that I seriously hoped for an answer to:

D5 Anybody here broken into market-level magazine publishing? I think I’m having trouble figuring out what they’re looking for

I’ve been getting a lot of “love your style, not for us at this time,” and I wanted to know what the next step was. Obviously I am on the right track but not breaking through. I often find for whatever reason (maybe it’s CPTSD, maybe it’s mild autism, not sure, but I know something’s wrong) there’s often a “next step” in life that’s obvious to most people but I’m oblivious to it.  I hoped someone would tell me what I was missing so I could do it.

To be fair, I got some great advice! Someone suggested I do First Reading at such a magazine (Apex is looking for people, just might do it!) A couple of the magazines responded to tell me what they were looking for (that’s really helpful!)  But there was also advice that struck me as patronizing. Here’s a small paraphrased example (identities left out to protect the guilty):

  • I shouldn’t worry about publishing, I should just write for its own sake.
  • I shouldn’t worry about making money, nobody makes money right away.
  • I should make sure I write every day.
  • I should write the best story I can and send it to them.

The last one sent me into a tizzy.  Because, you know, I make a habit of churning out any old crap and submitting it.  This was followed by an admission that said person had offered up something he didn’t think was working and they’d bought it.  So that means I suck then, right?  Since my best is not as good as his worst?

And I do write every day.  Minimum 1500 words, except in NaNo season. Sometimes it takes me an hour and sometimes it takes me six.  Stephen King says he does 2000 words a day but I wanted a more modest goal so I could make sure I did it.

Then there was the “I’m too lofty for money” crowd.  Well, this article is for you guys.

Everyone wants to think they’ve succeeded because of personal merit. But the truth is, nobody recognizes their own privilege. One of the people so advising me was a teacher so she worked for a living.

I’ll be the first to agree that teaching is a hard job that’s working for a living. But teachers don’t seem to realize that even they have privilege.  Because they got a scholarship, or a student loan, or someone paid for them to go to school.

When I was in high school, my mother was bipolar and it was untreated. I now recognize that living under those conditions screwed me up worse than I realized.  There’s something called CPTSD, and I think it fits my life pretty well.

About the time that other people were writing for scholarships, I was suffering from suicidal depression and an eating disorder. I had no spoons for scholarship writing; I was having enough trouble resisting the urge to draw a knife across my wrists on a daily basis. There was no one who encouraged me and my parents were hardly what you call “joiners,” so those options were limited anyway. There was no church, no Eagles club, nothing like that. I might have written for my dad’s union’s scholarship, and received $1000.

I left home the day before grade 12 started because my mother and I got into a fistfight.  There was no “youth agreement” available then like there is now.  I had to fight tooth and nail to get a basic stipend out of social services to live without quitting school. I had a 3.85 gpd, even with all my psychological struggles; damned if I was going to drop out!  Finally I wheedled something out of them by lying outright, and managed to stay in school. Calling myself in sick when I had the flu was a surreal experience.

I got a job right after high school. It was 1993; you know, the middle of the big Recession?  My partner says he started in Vancouver and drove across the country until he found a job. He ended up in Toronto.

So I worked at bullshit jobs for years, often under the table at less than minimum wage because that was all I could get. I spent so much time on the system that they made me do the Canadian Adult Achievement Test.  I scored well up in the post-secondary levels in every category, including things I had not studied (like physics.)  I was asked why I wasn’t in university.  I said, “Give me the money. I’ll go.”

I didn’t get a student loan because I knew I wanted to be a writer, and my English teacher had taught me that taking a course on writing was probably not the path for me, so why spend a whole bunch of money I had no idea if I could ever pay back to do something I didn’t really want to do anyway?  Everyone urged me to go into journalism; I didn’t want journalism. No one could seem to understand that this was nothing like writing the stories I wanted to write.

But I lost my way for a while, because all of a sudden my boyfriend had custody of his son, and he needed a mom.  Then my husband got sick and I needed to take care of him.  Then, when after many years I finally got a steady full-time minimum-wage job, just as I was starting to think seriously about having a baby, he (now my husband) was in a life-threatening car accident that left him disabled.

Eight months in the hospital. I left my job and everything because I didn’t know if he would live or die.  He lived.

But at first especially, he needed a care aide.  I had actually done that briefly in my long haul doing every bullshit job in the book.  So I took it on. But that limited the jobs I could take, so we invested some of our insurance money into a small retail business, a metaphysical store. I wrote a book on witchcraft and it actually did pretty well.

But I live in Western Canada, not the Bay Area, so the store folded, and unlike many other authors of witchcraft books with more fortuitous placements I couldn’t make any money on workshops or speaking fees.

I decided to concentrate hard on the fiction writing, once again reinventing myself.  I went back to my roots.  I read all the beginner stuff.  Took a course, this one with James Patterson, who might actually know something about writing commercially.  I got a part time job at a bookstore.

The job folded.  They tell me I’m a failure at retail.  Maybe so.  But I’m a damn good writer, and I’ve been taking this seriously for many years now.  I’m not expecting a million dollars.  I don’t expect to make a living at this unless I churn out stuff on Amazon (I’m slower than that) or sell the movie rights.  But you know, selling a story to a good-paying market would make a big difference to me, when my only regular income is the hubby’s disability cheque.

Why pursue publication when I’m already indie publishing?  Well, because I’m terrible at the hustle.  I’m an introvert.  Indie publishing is sales/sales/sales all the time, always pursuing new methods. I can’t do it.  It takes too many spoons.  I’m hoping that by doing both, they will feed into each other.

I don’t make a habit of being so personal.  I like to keep myself to myself.  But I’m speaking out because I know I’m not alone.  I have come to know a lot of writers in the community, the vast majority of whom are women.  Some have wealthy husbands who can pay for their hobby.  And some, like me, are struggling to find a real income out of limited options.  Many are disabled, or are taking care of disabled people, like me.  And all of them have moments of real despair because for them, like for me, it’s do or die.  It’s not realistic for them not to care about making money.  If you have that luxury, be grateful.

I’m a blue-collar, working-class writer.  Don’t tell me I should have a real job; I’ve tried that, in just about every form I can imagine.  I’m like Robert Heinlein. I have to make this pay.  I have no choice.  So please, be a bit more careful before you dispense your advice.  Try to check your privilege, and your judgment, at the door.

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4 thoughts on “Privilege and the Arts

    1. Merri, thank you. They will be. I’m going to do the Wyrd West Chronicles in print collections yearly, because then they’ll be the length of a good-sized novel. Wyrd West 1-6 will be published in print March 2018 (still deciding on the title). I prefer a good print book too, and the truth is, most people still do, according to all the studies. The ebook readership is still a considerable crowd, but it’s a thing of its own, and often, people who read ebooks don’t read print and vice versa. I considered publishing each of the novellas separately in print, but I just want to give a good value to people, and make the book they bought worth the cost of shipping it. 🙂

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