Say Goodbye to the Starving Artist Mentality

Last week, Robert Brewer was competing for 2010
Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere

(Robert is editor of
Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and runs the very popular Poem-a-Day
in April.)

As the final hours of voting ticked by, he
and another poet were in a dead heat for the win. It’s one of those
moments when you wonder if it’s appropriate to call grade-school friends
to go and vote.

You might wonder why I cared so much.

Robert is one of the most generous and good-natured people I
know, and he’s not only an invaluable contributor to Writer’s
Digest, but he’s a beacon of inspiration and encouragement to poets in
the online writing community.

So, I wanted to see his efforts
publicly recognized and rewarded.

In those final hours, something
remarkable happened.

The CEO of F+W sent a late-night e-mail to
all employees, asking them to support Robert’s run for poet laureate of the blogosphere.

last-minute call ultimately put Robert over the top, though the
competition had become so contentious by that point the contest
organizer decided to call a tie

It was a bittersweet end.
Robert’s affiliation with Writer’s Digest had been used as a black mark
against him, since he works for a business. In other words, because there is a
commercial interest supporting him, the company that benefits from
his presence should not support him because that’s unfair.

Two thoughts I have on this:

  1. Robert is a passionate poet, and he is passionate about helping other poets. That’s a constant no matter who employs him. In the
    U.S., we have a bad habit of assuming people are their titles. (Go read
    THIS post.
    ) Robert is not his title; he is not his employer. He is
  2. There’s an implicit judgment that poets (or artists)
    who are “starving” are more authentic and deserving than those who aren’t struggling. (Go read Dana Gioia‘s take on this.)

Christina Katz
and I discussed this phenomenon when we attended AWP a couple years ago:
the persistent myth of the starving artist, or that real writers
eschew commercial concerns and are ill-suited for the workplace.

responded by pitching a session for 2010 (that was accepted) on The
Prosperous Writer.

It is her mission (as well as mine) to do
battle with this idea that artistry/creativity
cannot be mixed with business.

Here’s a post that has an
interesting slant on this: “The corporation strikes back.”

another interesting interview comes to mind, with the Whole
Foods CEO, which was featured in the New Yorker. Here’s a small snippet:

Mackey is
adamant, and not merely unapologetic, that his company—any company—can
and should pursue profits and a higher purpose simultaneously, and that
in fact the pursuit of both enhances the pursuit of each.

more at The New Yorker site.

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10 thoughts on “Say Goodbye to the Starving Artist Mentality

  1. Tim Keeton

    Hear, hear!

    A poet may be starving; by choice, or by circumstances out of the poet’s control, but it is certainly not a prerequisite.

    Many of the darker and financially "leaner" periods of my life have given me much poetic fodder, but that is not to say that they still didn’t suck as periods of my life.

    I believe I could still wax poetic even if I possessed scads of filthy, stinking lucre, and as a matter of fact, I am willing to be the guinea pig in an experiment – someone give me loads of money and I will see if it affects my writing.

    Any takers?

    (Congrats Robert Lee Brewer on the "tie")

    Tim Keeton
    (Undead)Poet / Wizard / Teller-of-tales

  2. Dana

    Thanks, Jane. I agree it’s a fascinating subject. On a side note, I was talking with a friend who is from Brazil, and she said artists in North America tend to be much less political in their art than artists in Brazil.

    I tend to believe that pursuing art is a political act, but I get her point that many don’t use art to confront what they see as social ills, etc. That article by Dana Gioia catalogued how the same seems to be true for work life and corporate America.

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Dana – Many thanks for your comment. One day, if we’re ever in the same city, we ought to have drinks together and talk about the prioritization of profit. An endlessly fascinating subject for me – and more broadly, a topic that I don’t think artists/writers tackle frequently enough in their work, or objectively enough. Our work life (and the corporations usually involved in our work life) play an enormous role in our social lives, in our overall livelihoods, in how we think & feel over the course of a lifetime. It deserves more attention.

    Great stuff from Ebert, too.

  4. dana

    Oh, I almost forgot. Roger Ebert has a beautiful post on this and related topics):


    "Now I was truly astonished. I found them (twitter friends) writing on all possible topics, and they were often more evocative and gripping than the usual mainstream sources. Most of these bloggers wrote for the joy of writing, because they wanted to and had something to say. What more do you want?"

    "What the internet is creating is a class of literate, gifted amateur writers, in an old tradition. Like Trollope, who was a British Post official all his working life, they write for love and because they must. Like Rohinton Mistry, a banking executive, or Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, or Edmund Wilson, who spent his most productive years sitting in his big stone house in upstate New York and writing about what he damned well pleased. Samuel Pepys, who wrote the greatest diary in the language, was a high officials in the British Admiralty. Many people can write well and yearn to, but they are not content, like Pepys, for their work to go unread. A blog on the internet gives them a place to publish."

  5. dana

    Interesting post, as usual. I think there is room for starving artists on the planet. And of course there is room for commercial artists who aren’t starving. It surely can be a complicated, personal issue.

    I spent some time as a commercial copywriter and certainly learned a lot about writing, creativity, business, and politics in that position. Now I prefer to look inward and pursue projects that are more personally meaningful. It’s just where I’m at. For others, working with the structures and demands of the commercial environment may lead to more satisfaction and productivity.

    Over the weekend I watched some executives from Goldman Sachs talk about how they do business. It reminded me of how people and corporations will do whatever they need to do in order to keep their numbers moving upward. This has, or course, been true for a very long time. Perhaps since the very earliest marketplaces of human history. Perhaps even before that.

    One thing I have a problem with is that throughout the history of the United States, big business have used the considerable wealth they have generated to buy opinion. For example, if you read about the history of corporations, you discover that the earliest corporations had charters that demanded they dissolve after a fairly short period of time. They were not allowed to do business across states. The founding fathers were not in favor of giant corporations with no expiration date. Also, corporations were not allowed to own pieces of other corporations. Railroad barons and steel barons bought rule changes by buying judges and politicians in the early 19th century, rewriting the face of our country. Today, privately held and publicly held business play tremendous roles in shaping public opinion and experience. As an artist I am interested in exploring how the history of the profit motive has led to our present cultural climate and how it influences the interplay of business and art in my own experience.

    I am a spiritual person, and I tend to favor the idea that as a world, we would be better off prioritizing the well being of people and planet rather than prioritizing profit. I am simplifying, of course, well being is a damn tricky concept. For some, enjoying the spoils of our culture is quite wonderful, and there well being is just fine, thank you very much. But still, there are many like me, who aren’t comfortable with the present political-economic-cultural state of things and who will continue to enter into discussions in order to try to explore whatever it is that’s going on. I am grateful for the opportunity to post my thoughts on the topic here. I’m glad for the links to the various other articles–much food for thought.

  6. Christina Katz

    Here is a nice recap from our panel at AWP 2010:

    What I like about Robert most, besides what a nice, humble, soft-spoken guy he is, is that he serves writers. There’s always going to be a place at the prosperity table for writers who serve while keeping a conscientious eye on the bottom line.

    For those of us who write to put food on the table as well as to inspire, educate, entertain, and inform, the idea of separating words and money is absurd. Everything is connected including writing and money. They are only no longer connected when we tear them apart.

    If we do so in the name of righteousness, or to tear someone else down, or (heaven forbid) to create drama that better belongs on the page, then shame on us.

    I can’t read up on all the hullaballoo surrounding the vote because I have work to accomplish today. Instead I’d say, writers, be careful where and how you invest your emotional energy. Check your motives. And make sure, above all, that your intentions are to serve and not to tear someone else down. Because that nonsense will come right back around and bite you in the rear. And pretty quickly too.

  7. janflora

    Another good post, sure to cause debate 🙂 It makes me sad that there would even be infighting among poets. All the nominees were chosen on equal terms, so anyone had a chance. The title is Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, which in my simple mind means, the poet who has the greatest presence, influence and grasp of how poetry in the 21st century works within the tangled Interwebs. Robert has done so much for the world of poetry, he deserved it, not only because he obviously has more readers and admirers than many other online poets. I do not want to belittle anyone’s work, but anyone can start a blog and post their poems, heck I did it last year for the PAD. There is more to being a Laureate than just poetry. Kudos, Robert, for all you do 🙂

  8. Erin Reel

    Well said, Jane. In today’s writing climate, if you’re writing for publication, that is, you ARE your own small business. What better dream come true than writers supporting themselves with the fruits of their work?!