So this is really depressing. Meditate too much on the, uh, surplus of creative writing graduates, and the scene become reminiscent of the proliferation of serfs in Europe before the Black Death. After reading Gessen’s incisive little exegesis, it’s tempting to see money as a sort of chalk outline around one’s writing career.
(For the living circumstances of poets, that is. Fiction writers can get their hands on actual financial remuneration—as opposed to payment “in kind” or other intangible rewards—though as Gessen points out in the article, it doesn’t necessarily make the ledger sheet a whole lot better when applied against writing a novel full-time for a few years.)
I’m not totally convinced that Gessen’s economic destinies (teaching, journalism, or odd jobs) for writers is really as Calvinistic as all that.
Granted, editing and a good deal of arts administration jobs really do fall under the category of subsistence level living, but I think that underestimates the job value of English majors who can handle rhetoric, write a decent memo, communicate with a high degree of verbal facility, handle and organize a heavy paper workload, and stare for long hours without blinking at documents, thanks to reading interminable and thickly forested texts. Corporations (and the Government, I might add, which is already quite gray and only going to get more so in the next 5 years) badly need just such folks. Maybe this is because I’m a poet, with, on the face of it, a time commitment to a finished piece that is less daunting than that of a fiction writer, but I don’t think so. I regularly eat up two hours a day with writing, and would be perfectly happy to eat up at least four more. Though I think Gessen is right in that having a full-time other career prohibits (or severely limits) a lot of the business of writing (i.e. correspondence, interviews, handling readings, applying for grants, sending out manuscripts for publication) and well as the secondary activities (writing reviews, essays, blogging, commenting on other manuscripts, working for literary magazines or sites).
Having another non-writing career requires a sort of continuous hallucination in oneself as a writer. You have to believe that you are in conversation with other writers far removed (or, most often, dead). On good days, you feel subversive. On bad days, irrelevant. (Or perhaps in a form of economic/cognitive drag.) Is this worse than checking your fellow English department committee colleagues to see if they have latched rings, Medici-style, or wondering when the circular firing squad might come to town in the name of doctrinal correctness? I guess it depends on how distanced you feel from the means of production, so to speak. (My biggest fear on leaving the academy was that I would pine for the 15 story library, but then I found a spectacularly good interlibrary loan system in a major metropolitan center, and that really cushioned the blow.) This past weekend, I went to the Center for Book Arts in New York City, and while it was awesome, I’d be lying if I didn’t walk out of there feeling a little despondent.