Pursuing a Life in the Literary Arts
by Paul Hunter
During the last four thousand years, where art existed at all, for most artists making a living meant begging from those in power. Historians call it patronage, though most of it went without saying, part of the facts of life absorbed by osmosis. Some rich person, king or noble, bishop or abbot, cardinal or pope would be approached by an artist, a painter or sculptor or poet, and if the rich person liked what he saw, the two might arrive at an understanding whereby the artist would be clothed and fed, perhaps given supplies and a stipend along with a series of commissions which were really command performances. He might also sometimes be given a tedious, responsible job as personal secretary or teacher of the rich man’s kids, in return for his work being sponsored, tacitly approved, owned and enjoyed by the wealthy man and his family. If the artist remained properly subservient, the arrangement might be lifelong. To some extent patronage still goes on today, politely veiled through a couple of mechanisms I will come to in a minute.
Today perhaps an endpoint is approaching for the written arts, where nearly everyone is an artist, a poet, though maybe not even a writer, and there is no professional publication only self-publication, no need of it really, no shame in its absence or limitation, perhaps because with everyone an author, and each reading only himself, the real need is to connect with others for the endless jockeying that constitutes a career, that seems a lot like waiting in line for your turn at that proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. And for that all you need is a smartphone, tablet or laptop and a Wi-Fi hookup. As for friends—well, there’s that old saying, misery loves company.
Let’s face it: the situation for a person craving a career in the literary arts looks pretty bleak. Publishing as we have known it isn’t just in decline, it’s on life-support. Never mind serious criticism, reviewing is practically defunct. When even Copper Canyon has to aggressively fundraise to launch a new book by a luminary like W.S. Merwin at the peak of his powers, has to rely on flogged pre-publication sales to close the deal, publishing has become terminally risk-averse. Everything has to be a best-seller. And why? Because most of the old publishing houses have been bought by media conglomerates who have no patience with the cash-flow problems of the book trade. As a business with benefits lasting years, even centuries, it is hard for book publishing to stand or fall by quarterly balance sheets judged by those who possess no love of the word—written sung spoken or otherwise.
Before we go further, let’s introduce the central metaphor of my title—boarding house reach. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, poor young working people moving out of their poor parents’ homes, getting their first jobs, along with older people who never married, never made enough money to even have a life, might live in what was called a boarding house, that offered a bare cell and a bed, and a meal or two a day as part of the rent. Often widows or single women with children ran such boarding houses, did the cooking and laundry, and that landlady would sit at the head of the table, surrounded by boarders who were paid up and in good standing, while those poor boarders in arrears might be clustered at the lower end, “below the salt” as the medieval saying went. The landlady would pass out the most desirable food to the paying customers, ladle out the gravy, then what was left might be passed down the table, where what you got might depend on your ability to swing a sharp elbow, and be quick with your boarding house reach. As one of a family of eight, that came from a world of large families, I can tell you that sometimes you might get forked on the back of your hand while reaching for that last potato or biscuit.
What I am trying to say is that not all the arts are equal in the boarding house of life. The arts that demand and usually garner the lion’s share are symphony, opera, theater, film, public sculpture and architecture—arts that depend on the cooperation of artists and artisans from many disciplines, artists of diverse talents straining for a unity of vision. By comparison, the written arts can be done alone, in silence, with just pencil and paper, or these days with a laptop and printer and Wi-Fi. And it can even be done with much less. A famous political prisoner in an Indonesian prison, for decades denied pencil and paper, would write all over a bar of soap with a burnt match, and every morning he would read that small piece of his novel to six other inmates, then wash his hands and start on the next day’s installment. It took years to finish the book, which then existed only in the minds of that small secret cluster, and those they told on their afternoon gatherings in the exercise yard.
But now, having implied that writing is the lowest of the low, perhaps defunct or at best obsolete, I want to cheer you up. Writing is at the heart of many cooperative arts—opera borrows plots and stories and characters from Don Quixote and Shakespeare and the Norse Sagas, and theater demands condensed expression, and at its best moments poetry. Film depends, more than it might care to admit, on novels, short stories, novellas. For most cooperative art forms, writing creates the armature and glue that hold it all together. Which is to say that writers, poets and storytellers of all kinds, if they learn to work with others, can have lucrative careers. Not that the writer is the boss, they’re usually not, but that a cooperative spirit can carry one a long way.
But let’s go back to matters of funding and patronage. Most of the poets in the United States live by teaching creative writing in one form or another. I know of only two poets fortunate enough to live by their writing in the past century—Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. Somewhere in his fifties Frost reached an agreement with his publisher Henry Holt, that he would receive a regular advance on royalties from his books, which eventually amounted to $1,000 a month—though he still supplemented his income with readings and teaching the occasional seminar. Bukowski’s arrangement with Black Sparrow Press was similar, starting at $600 a month, but his arrangement was unique in this respect. His publisher, John Martin, told him that all he wanted him to do was fill a manila envelope with what he wrote each month, just keep it coming. He didn’t have to title the pieces or arrange them in any way. And Martin then organized and titled his books, treating what he wrote as ore in a gold mine. When Bukowski died in 1994, there was no falling off in quality or volume, since there was so much material that hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Finally, a dozen years after Bukowski died, John Martin retired, and Bukowski’s literary journey came to an end.
But let’s get back to patronage. It was really killed off by the Revolutionary age, that strenuous period of class struggle that started with the American Revolution in the 1770s, and carried through the French Revolution of the 1780s and ’90s, which resulted in a dictatorship and the Napoleonic wars that ended with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Then the nations that finally finished Napoleon at Waterloo agreed to put all the crowned heads back on all the thrones, and as they said then, turn back the clock, pretending that the rights of man—liberte, egalite, fraternite—all that had never been. But it wasn’t so easy, especially not for the poets who had grown up at that time and tasted the sweetness of new subjects, forms, and voices all their own, not dictated by someone who also commanded that his boots be licked till they shone.
So starting with the great Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats (and forerunners like William Blake and John Clare)—there arose a new vision of writers in garrets who worked at menial and specifically non-literary tasks, who were free to starve, but who in return might astonish the world. Make no mistake, these were revolutionaries, rarely welcomed into the drawing rooms of wealth and power.
A century passed before a replacement was found for patronage, by the aging robber barons in the early 20th century, some of whom were persuaded to give large sums of money to fund civic enterprises. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Fulbright, Guggenheim, Whitney, Mellon and others, at first endowed culture in the form of libraries and museums. But then the government allowed families to create their own tax-free foundations, stipulating that seven percent of the assets be spent every year on some worthy social or cultural causes. Why would a family give its money away, you might ask. The answer is, because if you have enough, what else is there to buy or build or do with it? Family foundations let those fortunes be kept intact and used to support causes approved by the family, which is a form of social clout, of power. Early on most of the boards were family members, though it is serious work giving money away, and these days the family will select and pay an executive and staff handsomely to conduct the foundation’s affairs.
During the Great Depression one further player was created, and lives on as a model for state, county and local action, in the shape of the arts commission. As part of creating jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935-1943), President Franklin D. Roosevelt included artists, writers, directors, musicians—giving them suitable tasks. In the case of authors, writing state and regional histories, and others filming, orchestrating and giving voice to ambitious projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the control of flooding on the Mississippi River. These arts projects, which included all manner of artists, have carried on in the regular grants offered by arts commissions, paid for by public funding.
Now finally we arrive at the imperative—what should I do as a writer, in order to have a career, and live a sustainable life? First I would suggest that you find a craft, a paying gig, and make it something that will feed you more than just money. Perhaps supply you with a wealth of subjects for your writing, sharpen your powers of observation and reflection, and deepen your human connection. Practically any craft will do. Blake scratched out a living as a professional engraver. He was considered an artisan, not an artist, though he used that skill to engrave and illustrate his own poems at a very high level. John Keats was studying to be a doctor, had he lived. Teaching creative writing is tough on those who choose its path, because the teaching can turn you inward, and when it doesn’t lead you to imitate your own students, can too often make your writing self-reflexive and didactic. What do I mean? Here’s a tipoff, when a poet at a reading uses a phrase like, “As I always like to tell my students…” The game is practically over when you start quoting and congratulating yourself.
I know three fine poets who are pediatricians, following in the footsteps of William Carlos Williams, and though I don’t know how they manage it, I can hear their daily practice singing through their work. I know a few fine poets who are farmers, as is Wendell Berry, and I have a better guess about their sources of quiet contemplation and strength. Ted Kooser and Wallace Stevens were insurance executives, which doesn’t seem to have harmed either poet’s work or character. Eugene O’Neill was a deck hand on a tramp steamer. Work outside the craft of words will enrich and enliven any writer.
As for myself, besides farming I worked as a mechanic, fixing cars to get through college. I also had a bartender job on a river boat, that I might still have if it hadn’t sunk when the river flooded one night. I had a job as a night librarian in a classics department, that was more interesting and mysterious minute by minute than any class I ever took. One summer I worked in a county welfare department as a clerk-typist, and the paperwork moved so slowly past that I wrote most of a novel while just pretending to look busy. And my education? A major in English Lit, with minors in History and Philosophy. The classic Humanities student, who went on to teach a combined Humanities curriculum that included scientists and other thinkers alongside politics and the arts—Darwin, Marx and Freud, alongside Napoleon and Lincoln, Whitman and Dickinson.
It should be no surprise that there is a secret network of support for all the arts. One of the best actresses I know, for years had a job as a bank teller, with an understanding boss who would let her take a leave of absence whenever she got a role. I know musicians who work in music stores with that proverbial understanding boss who will let them go on tour, come back to work and not suffer.
Earlier I painted a dark picture of the future of books and writing, but I don’t really believe it’s that bad. In the last year or two some of publishing has been coming back from the abyss. And I don’t think it will ever go away, or be replaced by social media, because for all the connectedness, some facts can’t be altered. That we are born and die alone, and yet reach out ceaselessly to connect with others who are just as solitary and as easily misunderstood as we are. That the calm quiet voice of the writer in your ear some nights can save your life.
So here is what you should do: Read everything you can, and toss out whatever insults your intelligence, whatever feels contrived and false. Why? Because writing is a subset of reading, a completion of the transaction that is the written word, that you should grow to understand and deeply love. Next, write every day, even when you don’t feel like it, and do three kinds of work. The first kind is new stuff, that breaks the ice of the blank page. While you’re at it don’t be in any hurry to decide what it is you’ve got. It might be a song or a speech from a character in a play or story that is not you. Coax it out—let it show you what it is. Ignore it if it starts to lecture you and explain itself. Then do some rewrites, work on things that have been sitting in the dark a while, that may be confused, and are certainly unfinished. Almost there but not quite. The third kind of daily work you should do is the work of finding an audience. Which means reading magazines before you send out any work. Which means wondering what the editors are up to, and seeing where you might fit in. Which may mean going to an open mike and listening to people you don’t know agonize and struggle just as you have been doing, sometimes getting it wrong, and sometimes getting it right.
And there is one other kind of work you should do that is especially vital now, when the written word is under such duress, and that is laboring in the vineyard, for the common cause. Doing something that is not just for you, but for the enterprise you share and hope to benefit from. That might mean volunteering to sell a magazine at a book fair, working behind the scenes to help a reading series or bookstore carry on. Helping collate a newsletter, helping with proofreading or stapling or any other of a thousand thankless tasks. When you join a worthy enterprise you might gain the most from it, feeling joined yourself, and not alone.
Paul Hunter: For the past 20 years Paul Hunter has published fine letterpress poetry under the imprint of Wood Works, currently including 26 books and over 60 broadsides. His poems have appeared in Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Bloomsbury Review, Iowa Review, North American Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Raven Chronicles, The Small Farmer’s Journal, The Southern Review, Spoon River Poetry Review and Windfall, as well as in seven full-length books and three chapbooks. His first collection of farming poems, Breaking Ground, 2004, from Silverfish Review Press, was reviewed in the New York Times, and received the 2004 Washington State Book Award. A second volume of farming poems, Ripening, was published in 2007, a third companion volume, Come the Harvest, appeared in 2008, and the fourth from the same publisher, Stubble Field, appeared in 2012. He has been a featured poet on The News Hour, and has a prose book on small-scale, sustainable farming, One Seed to Another: The New Small Farming, published by the Small Farmer’s Journal.
This essay was presented on Feb. 4, 2016, at Seattle Central College Library as part of their Conversations on Social Issues Series. The topic was: “How Artists/Writers Rule the Information Economy.”