On Making a Living Doing What You Love
By Nicolette Bethel
When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would invariably answer, “A writer”. The responses I got were various. “Oh, that’s nice,” some people said. They didn’t mean it one bit.
Others laughed as though I’d told the greatest joke this side of Las Vegas. Others stared at me as though I’d just said something foreign, as though my tongue had not formed words that were English at all. And one person – my geography teacher – told me, “Oh, no, you’re too good for that. Writing will never earn you any money. Why don’t you think about being a lawyer or something like that?”
But a writer I wanted to be.
And here I am, all grown up, my answer still the same. What do I want to be when I grow up? A writer. But. Time is running out for me. Writing is a jealous hobby, difficult to do well, arduous when you want to make the right point, time-consuming, greedy. It’s too selfish to be a part-time thing, and I have to make a living.
And making a living writing is something that is impossible in many countries — at least for those who choose not to settle for journalism as the next best thing — no offence to journalists. I needn’t list the reasons that it’s impossible; I’m sure you can think of several yourselves. It’s the rare writer who can survive off his or her earnings, unless they are in advertising or journalism or the law.
Zadie Smith has been able to make a successful living from her writings
And so I teach others how to write. You know the saying: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I have always fought it; it suggests that teachers are failures, second-rate beings who can’t succeed at what they want, and so they teach. But more and more the saying rings true. It’s not that I am not capable of writing.
But I cannot make a living doing what I love — doing what, I dare say, God called me to do — in the land in which I was born. And so, because I cannot (through no good fault of my own) write for a living, I teach.
And I am not alone. I speak as a writer, because that is what and who I am. But there are hundreds of us, perhaps thousands, or millions, who have been gifted with the ability to create new realities out of thin air — people touched with the need to express themselves in movement, in colour, in line, in song, in film, in music, in performance, in the assumption of another character, in illusion, in the written or the spoken word.
Only a tiny handful of us can do it, and that handful is struggling. The rest of us have to labour in jobs that are second best for people who do not understand us or what we do and squeeze our talents around the edges of our lives.
And so what? You wonder. Why should this matter? Why should being able to make a living doing what you love be at all important?
Well, first of all, because you love it, and because it’s not frivolous. Despite what many people imagine, the arts — which begin in self-expression, develop through social commentary, and conclude by illuminating the human condition — are really the foundation, and not the frill, of human civilization.
A society that does not express itself artistically is simply a conglomeration of people who live side by side. Because there is nothing concrete to link one to another, they are simply a group of individuals walking down the same road together, but they could as easily be enemies as friends, and there is nothing at all to stop them from killing one another.
And second of all, because it is the creative impulse that makes us human. I’ve said it before, but I’m not sure that we have fully grasped the concept yet; we’re too busy consuming what others have produced, and we don’t value either the process or the product of our own artists and innovators. As a result, the humanity of individuals has been compromised. We allow ourselves and our reality to be defined by other people, because we have made it difficult, if not impossible, for our creative artists to make a living doing what they love.
In order for us to create a society out of this population we have living within our borders, art, self-expression and creation cannot be regarded as luxuries that can be sacrificed whenever the subject of money is raised.
Every civilization worth remembering has made a place for its artists. It has supported them, by commissioning individuals to write or paint or sing for a living and for the state, or by allowing them to support themselves.
From Toni Morrison to William Shakespeare, from Chris Ofili to Pablo Picasso, from Confucius to Wole Soyinka, from Homer to Derek Walcott, the greatness of a civilization has far less to do with the apparently “necessary” professions than we imagine.
Without the works of artists, teachers have nothing to teach, construction workers will have nothing to build, and retailers will have nothing to sell. You may counter by saying that others have already done the work for us, and that we don’t have to produce anything original of our own.
But that is how we have built our society already, and what we have built is coming apart at the seams. The clothes we have put on were designed for other people, and we should not be surprised when what we have borrowed doesn’t fit us all that well.
The time has come, I believe, for our society to place emphasis on allowing people like me to make a living doing what they love.
Of course, this will mean starting to pay one another for their art. It will mean understanding that when we approach a writer to ask for a play to be written, or a director to produce a show for a purpose, or a musician to play somewhere, we will have to pay them for their action; but when we do, we will discover far more about ourselves than we knew before.
And we will begin to create a community out of this group of individuals all walking along the same road together; and maybe, after some time, ours may become a civilization to remember.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas .
She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections.
She blogs at Bahamapundit
Main image: Courtesy of New Jersey's Kitabu reading and discussion group
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