“What am I going to say? Amount of work I do, me & my friends, support the writing habit — as poverty is outlaw writing is outlaw — computer — great — but no more money — I get off & I still have a body & I still have to eat…” — Kathy Acker, as quoted by Chris Kraus in her 2001 essay “Shit On My Sleepmask”
I’ve spent much of the past two weeks flat on my back, dealing with some sort of spinal neuralgia situation that makes it difficult for me to go to my office (i.e., my laptop). I’m otherwise healthy, it’s relatively mild, it will pass, etc. — but it’s a sobering reminder of what’s to come. So many of my writer friends know the drill of acupuncture visits, physical therapy, increasingly baroque ergonomic systems, all in the hopes of mitigating the insidious wrecking that comes with our work.
The sitting, the typing, the slouching, the endless hours at makeshift work stations that aren’t designed with bodies in mind, the inability to afford preventative health care and the predisposition, perhaps, to ignore physical information… 1
Meanwhile, it’s August, always a scary time for freelancers. The bills don’t stop coming, but the gigs do. When my health insurance payment ($469 for catastrophic coverage that will not cover this current nerve fiasco) is deducted from my account in the next few days, I will have $128 remaining in my checking account.
Meanwhile x2, I’m currently owed $6,700 from a variety of museums, theaters, arts organizations, art magazines and web sites, for work stretching as far back as January. 2 The check is always in the mail. 3
In other words, now is a tricky 4 moment for me to be thinking about labor.
I remember the bulky, cyborg-like braces adorning the arms of one of my first editors at the New York Times. I was so young. I remember her saying, specifically about women, “When you turn fifty here, you disappear.” 5
I don’t have a day job, but rather a cobbled-together network of contract work and one-offs, which run the gamut from ridiculously pleasurable to mind-numbingly tedious. I’ve been at this long enough that I can ignore — or treat as pro bono if the task tickles me — insultingly low offers from highly designed publications to write lengthy essays. 6 I’ve graduated to the nonstop juggle, freelance hustle. I’m guessing many of you know the drill: pitching the next funder or institution while scurrying to finish the old project and diving into the current one. More and more and more. It’s “The Evangelism Game,” and we’re all expected to play in the arts: “Please explain, in 300 words, how your new XXX will meaningfully contribute to the field.” It’s advanced practice for how to never live in the present. 7
Kraus, again on Acker: 8 “…of course she’s completely aware — publishing a novel once every two years, giving interviews, writing articles, touring two weeks out of each four — that the only way she can possibly support herself as a writer is to maintain being a star.”
It’s easy with all of this to lose sight of the fact that I am paid, generally, to do a thing I love, within a wider culture that doesn’t care very much about that thing. This seems an important point to make, 9 though it can feel like sliding perilously close to that loathsome romanticization: “It’s my passion.”
As if there is heroism in want, or purity in giving it away. 10 “I do it for love.” At any rate, I find myself on the cusp of apologizing. Another way in which women disappear.
I am not a star. I am successful enough that I have the luxury of wondering how I can sustain the level of production that we have all, insanely, agreed is necessary — and which seems to me to be at the root of many of these problems. 11 It seems the Culture Wars really did turn us all into mercenary puritans. We have smartphones. We have student debt. We forget to be amateurs. This is how we “make it work.” 12
What am I going to say? I get off & I still have a body & I still have to eat…but I don’t see writing, nor poverty, as outlaw. 13 I don’t need to convince you of anything. 14 And please don’t forget, I’m being paid to write these words; 15 in this sense, at least, I know that they have value.
- “I’ve spent my entire life pretending I don’t have a body” is something a young European writer said to me when I was coaxing her into an embodied writing exercise during a workshop I taught at ImPulsTanz Vienna International Dance Festival. It’s starkly apparent, the toll dancing takes on tendons, joints, muscles — but it also gives so much to the body, including the tools needed to care for oneself. It doesn’t allow for an avoidance of certain, shall we say, facts on the ground. Ignorance is bliss only while youth is being wasted on the young.
- It’s roughly a month since I wrote this. The piece is now being edited and I am owed merely $3,625 (including, still, for the January work). My checking account is at $485; the first, (mercifully) automated payment for my fall teaching gig will momentarily arrive. And here you might be thinking that $485 is pretty healthy by a lot of artist standards — but the point I want to make is not that I am a starving artist — I’m not! — but that it’s the not knowing when anything is coming in ever, despite you having held up your end of the bargain, that is both stressful and enraging. If you know you are getting a check in a week, then $485 is fine. But if your health insurance alone wipes that out, and it might be months before more money comes in…. And while we’re here, I’d like to point out that the mindset of “so many artists make do with so much less!” is not, actually, helpful.
- The longest it ever took anyone to pay me was OUT Magazine, which needed fifty weeks to pay me a lousy $227.86, and only after emails that included lines like: “My most recent emails to you have not even earned me the courtesy of a response. Perhaps I should try Twitter? Take out a billboard? Send carrier pigeon? […] My address has changed. The one in the contract (which you all clearly take so seriously) is no longer correct. My check, if it comes before I die of old age, should be sent to XXX. If I do die of old age, please send a donation in my name to the Freelancers Union.” It’s exhausting to forever play the nag.
- Maybe I mean the opposite of tricky. Pain makes its host into a blunt instrument. I’m not interested in being taken out to lunch right now.
- I remember walking into an editorial meeting around that time, a veteran male reporter looking me up and down and saying, with approval, that I had lost weight. All the men in the room gazing clear-eyed into the future, all the (not that many) women’s heads trained downward.
- These offers tend, tellingly, to be broached as “honoraria” — it always, inevitably, swings back to issues of class. Artists get honoraria — so genteel — freelancers get cash — so crass. And yet the line between freelance/artist is ever murkier, part and parcel of the grand “creative class” lie.
- There’s something about this future gaze (footnote 5, hello) — the always saying yes, the check always about to come, the project six or nine months down the line infinitely more tantalizing than the one you are currently embroiled in, only up until the moment immediately following your commitment to this future-perfect project, which then becomes another problem to solve, to get past, and onto and into the next the next always always always the next next next.
- Yes. Kraus and Acker’s stew of abjection and exoticism is intensely, magnificently problematic within this (any?) context. They’re not especially good examples, which is partly why I like them.
- Whether as point of pride, or cautionary tale, I’m not sure…
- And not that I give it away, by and large (I could probably stand to more often) — though at a certain point the promised payment does begin to feel like monopoly money.
- As in, why can’t we all agree to pay ourselves more for less? Okay, this is too simplistic to be taken seriously. It’s the sort of footnote that might make a reader give up. And it would mean some big shifts on the part of the arts MFA industrial complex (which yes, I am a part of), for starters.
- This isn’t, of course, the same as working. Does that go without saying?
- You’d have to be born a rich girl, as Acker was, to say that, no? Fair enough.
- Less clear to me is whether I want to.
- This is my first contribution to Open Space. I am told payment here is timely.