“I don’t look poor, so everyone believes I’m wealthy,” my grandmother said to me one day. And it was true. She wore beautiful fabrics and her hair was always set. Chic, I think, would be a word you’d use to describe her ways.
Thing is, she died without a cent.
Thoughts of my grandma came to mind a few months ago when a friend said to me that I don’t look like I’m broke. I’m not entirely sure what broke looks like. But the thing is, now as I approach my mid-forties, as I tally my commitments, my income and assets, I realise I am broke. I mean, I can afford to feed my kids and all. But apart from that, I’m a financial planner’s example of how not to be.
And that’s not because I’m stupid, or I don’t know how to use my money, or I’m a spendthrift.
It’s simply because, as a writer and thinker, I have perpetuated a few of the prevalent myths of living ‘an artist’s life’. To my detriment.
The past few years have forced me to contemplate my commitment to my craft, as well as to devise the means for making it work. I’m going to share here what I’ve learnt.
But first, to Gloria Steinem. In a keynote speech in 1998 at Stanford University’s ‘Herstory’, an event to celebrate women’s leadership in research and the arts, Steinem offered her now famous aphorism, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Some of what I’m about to write may piss you off.
Because it’s about money.
Conversations, dissertations and essays about how to make art are explicitly – and neglectfully – devoid of references to making a living. I grew up as a young artist who eschewed my need to give even the slightest of nods to the commercial aspects of my work. Rather haughtily, I didn’t want to give the community what they were willing to pay for; I’d give them what they needed. What nourished their souls.
Looking back I see what a privilege and freedom it was to think that way.
And I also see it was only a set of special circumstances that permitted me to hold such a view. I had a partner who supported me financially. Any money I made from the freelancing and teaching was extra. It paid for personal and professional luxuries. Never the rent. Nor the food bill. That was all taken care of.
They are circumstances that don’t apply any longer.
But don’t get me wrong… I’m glad.
My story isn’t an especially tragic one. Nor is it uncommon. In 2012 after – say – a decade of fighting the knowledge I had married someone I was fundamentally incompatible with, I told my husband it was time to end our union.
*Add emotional turmoil
*Add hurt feelings
*Readjustment for the children
Now, contextualise all of this with economic destabilisation.
Side note: many working artists either ‘work’ on a romantic partnership that provides them a living and/or they work within – at best – the industry linked with their art. Or retail outlets. Or hospitality venues.
Please don’t misunderstand. This is not a critique of my colleagues and fellow creators.
What I am critical of here is the silencing of the personal costs of making art, as well as the lack of financial return for artists. Broadly, the creative industries and the institutions that support them perpetuate a culture that, first, offers (at best) a fleeting sideways glance at the pragmatic, business-oriented imperatives of artists’ work and, second, reinforces this neglect by their refusal to accommodate the mention of money in the same breath as conversations about art.
In all the years I spent teaching creative writing at universities, for instance, there was not one course offered, or even part of a course, on managing a writing business. And yet, there was a lot of talk about being a ‘working writer’, how to get published, how to create. Truth is, if graduates stand a hope of being working writers, they will have to run their writing careers as businesses. And this takes skill and training.
Back to my story for a moment. At 40, I moved to a two-bedroom apartment, living on a sessional teaching wage, government support, and the grace and generosity of my parents and friends while working on my PhD in literature.
I spent most of that time anxious about my lack of money.
And I remain scared. Though I’ve finished my PhD, I also know that I cannot but write. And yet, here I am, at an age when I can no longer fluff around, with an ongoing sole financial responsibility for my three kids, and also with a personal responsibility to care for myself, but having lived on an income far less than the national average for the past four years.
And, just like my grandmother, you wouldn’t guess it – but I don’t have a cent to my name.
Here’s the go.
I’m not writing any of this so you’ll take pity on me, but because the situation I describe is faced by many people who have made the choice to write, paint, sculpt, make films, think abstractly or invent new machines that change the world. I refuse, though, to join my brethren in celebrating my poverty. Or getting angry about it. Instead, I want to use my words to alleviate it.
And I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few years about how creators and thinkers and artists can avoid the terror of having no money, earning their living by doing things they don’t care about or sleeping with someone in exchange for the freedom to pursue their art.
A model I have been drawn to, maybe because of my fascination with French culture, is that of the atelier – the artist’s studio. But in France atelier actually represents more than that. The atelier (etymology: “splinter” or “shaving”) was a physical space where artists created their works, but also where apprentices learnt their craft from their master. And it was where they could learn about the pragmatic aspects of planning their day, keeping their physical and mental environment clear (we’d call that decluttering and organisation) and running the business of the studio – getting commissions, getting paid, balancing books and more.
It was on the back of my research about the processes and functions of the atelier that my idea for creating the website giveitmouth.com came about.
The name ‘Give It Mouth’ comes from Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. In Great Expectations, the convict Magwitch, who incidentally ends up leaving the protagonist Pip a stackload of money and, with it, “great expectations”, asks Pip his name. Pip mumbles a response, to which Magwitch replies, “Once more… Give it mouth!” And I think this scene can be read as a representation of many artists’ lives.
For many, the constraints of not earning a living through what we make means we’re mumbling; our messages aren’t as vociferous as they could be, because we’re distracted by the thoroughgoing pressure to keep our heads above water financially. Ask me, though, if anyone has the ability to shift the world, it’s the creator. The artist. The thinker.
I believe, equipped with the means of our own and a sense of entrepreneurship, there is no greater force with which to give it mouth.
And though I have often fantasised about having my own Magwitch, I actually realise that having the internet now, with its capacity to disseminate ideas, construct visions and send messages, is like being given great expectations from a benefactor.
Now, more than ever in the history of communication, creators and artists and thinkers can publish and distribute their own products and artefacts. And though we still require the use of platforms, we are our own micro-presses and galleries. Pretty powerful stuff.
Through branding, the commercialisation of intellectual property (in ways that suit our artistic message as well as the demands of the ‘market’) we can benefit from this freedom to disseminate our work – our way. Not so we can be capitalist cronies, but so we can responsibly raise our families, care for ourselves and eschew the past glorification of the ‘struggling artist’.
But many of us need to learn how.
Because many of us are stuck in thinking earning a living is not a lofty enough occupation for an artist.
So my vision of Give It Mouth is to bring creatives together and empower them with commercial knowledge. So they can provide for themselves and their families through their own successful freelance businesses.
Honestly, I still wake each day with a sense of anxiety, knowing I’m only one unpaid freelance cheque away from financial destitution. And if this were just my story, I probably wouldn’t share it. The shame of it would be pointless. But I hope that through Give It Mouth we can open the conversation about how creatives can inspire and transform the world, and also about how our own lives can be sustained through a sense of entrepreneurship and agency in the process.
A writer and founding editor of Give It Mouth, Naomi Stekelenburg is obsessed with ways to mainstream complex ideas. She loves Zumba dancing and adores her rescue greyhound, Alphonse. You can find Naomi’s website here: http://giveitmouth.com/