Where’s the line between supporting yourself and driving yourself crazy?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
Supporting yourself: I mean, doing the minimum to pay your bills, your rent, your pub landlords. I do not mean doing the minimum to simply survive. I consider supporting yourself to be survival + luxury, of a sort. The luxury of a pint or two; the luxury of buying a new pair of boots when your old ones disintegrate (I know a lot about this; I’m dealing with the loss of my favourite old pair); the luxury of not waking up in the middle of the night every month coated in sweat wondering if your rent cheque is going to bounce, again. That kind of luxury–not the business-class, designer shoes, king-sized bed kind.
Supporting yourself to this degree shouldn’t be–and generally isn’t–difficult, provided you’re content with your work; or at least, not actively aspiring to do something else. If you are actively aspiring to do something else, things become complicated. It suddenly becomes tempting to think that if you cut a few hours at the office here and there, you’d have so much more time for your art (or whatever it is that wants your time more than endless phone calls to the IT guy and empty lunchtime chitchat). And of course, you could cut a few hours. You could tighten your belt. You could avoid the pub at all costs, wear jumpers with holes (which are sure to come into fashion at some point, anyhow), eat like the mythical starving college student, swear off travel, bookshops, wine–whatever it is that you sink your money into. With all that inherited time, you could make something great.
It doesn’t work, of course. I know it doesn’t work, and there are plenty of people ready to remind me when I can’t remind myself (try him if you need it spelled out in plain and ever-so-slightly annoying English). I know it doesn’t work from experience. I’ve had several spells of voluntary unemployment, and here’s what I did: I bought things. I burned through several thousand dollars worth of savings. Then I avoided going hungry by cutting out every pleasure I could think of. I worried. I sweated. I cried. I lived off credit cards and desperation. I picked fights with everyone, especially the poor sod who has to live with me and who doesn’t, as a freelancer, make enough money to keep both himself and his book-buying girlfriend afloat. I’ll tell you what I didn’t do, in any of those intervals: write anything that made it all worth it. It turns out you can’t just cut things from your life and carry on as you were before. (And I obviously can’t cut the pub: it’s where some of the most inspiring and exciting collaborative things often happen).
I’m certainly not sitting on three-quarters of a novel because of the times I didn’t work. I’ve got my 60,000 words because I did something stupid a few months ago and took on two jobs (one of which I genuinely love) and a full-time Masters, and then when I got home, or to the pub, I sat and wrote. Was it some form of inertia? The effect of the MA? Or was I simply motivated by how much I did not want to have to make photocopies for a living anymore? Impossible to tell; but I can say with some confidence that being able to buy the occasional dress on eBay and order takeout Chinese helped. Perhaps after all, it’s simply about focusing your energy, using it not for fretting but for creation.
I know all that. But still. It’s tempting. What I wonder is, where is the point at which temptation becomes distraction? At the moment I can just about bear my photocopying job with a pained grin, but on bad days I sit at my desk fantasizing about artfully worded letters of resignation. The thing that always stops me is that simple little thought: support yourself.
So. Here’s what I want to know. (It’s okay if there isn’t an answer. In fact, I doubt there is. But I want it to be talked about anyway, because I think it’s important, and because I’m selfish enough to hope that with enough talk I might be able to find an answer for myself.) Is there a way to support yourself, as an artist/writer/musician/dancer/thinker/collaborator/whatever, that balances survival with intellectual stimulation? Or is that friction between want and need part of some necessary process in the early days of a creative career?
Let me know. Or don’t. But do think of me if you’re ever in need of a writer/researcher with a background in politics and literature who hates photocopying and big, boring, black PCs.