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Sweet Lemons: The Upside of Poverty for Artists

Another comment on writing and money, prompted by the fact that my paying jobs continue to disrupt my writing schedule. This quotation from Victoria Nelson’s book, On Writer’s Block, has been on my mind:

Considered in the narrow prism of professional recognition and monetary reward, the vast majority of serious writers can be said to literally lead disadvantaged lives. They must hold another job. They must be willing to sacrifice, for a lifetime, quotidian status, money, or even recognition in their own field. This is a test of character that most professions don’t require of their initiates. In what other vocation can you do your most advanced and difficult work — at the level of, say, a full professor — while holding the position of department secretary (and receiving the equivalent wage?)

Dear me. Taken out of context, that quotation sounds quite self-pitying. Nelson intends to turn this state of affairs into an advantage, however:

Though it may seem mad to say this, lowered expectations can be an advantage to the serious artist and, in the right spirit, can keep the creative environment at its ideal gestating temperature of benign neglect. . . . Since having little money is a reality anyway, an inner decision not to count on large financial rewards or wide recognition means you will be more likely to stay on your own path in this complicated business of writerly unfolding.

“Sweet lemons,” Nelson calls this, making the best of a bad situation. And until writers are paid a more fair wage for their contribution to the world, it’ll have to do.


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