Two years ago, at the Arts Schools Network conference in Dallas, one of the session leaders played “Uncle Henry is Wrong,” a short, animated video that refutes naysayers who proclaim that careers in the arts are not wise choices. Since then, I’ve shown it in my Creative Writing classes, because not only does it explain with cold, hard facts that arts careers are viable, it also reminds students – who are still trying to decide what to do with their lives – that they don’t have to make this existential choice: a pragmatic but unhappy life whose most recognizable trait is stability or a rambling foray into dashed hopes, periodic starvation, and overall degradation. Of course, to the mythical Uncle Henry, those are the only two options that exist: a “real job” or the arts.
I was reminded of every creative person’s least favorite relative the other day when I read Isa Burke’s “On Quitting Your Day Job” in No Depression. Published in late May, Burke’s article is a farewell to readers, since she will be leaving the magazine to tour with her group Lula Wiles. In it, Burke writes:
As I’m sure you know, “Don’t quit your day job” has long been used as a snarky insult to be lobbed at a creative person. The implication, of course, is “This work sucks, so it will never make you any money.” It seems that creatives are often asked to qualify their work in financial terms, as if you can’t be a “real musician” unless you meet some arbitrary threshold of hours per week or percentage of money earned.
She then follows up with this:
However, I want to reject any mode of thinking that privileges financial gain over personal fulfillment, and assigns value to art by its profitability or its dominance in a person’s financial life. A band whose music pays the bills is not necessarily a better band than one whose music doesn’t pay the bills. That’s not to downplay the hard work that my bandmates and I have done, or the quality of our music, but humility demands that I acknowledge this truth: If you do well in a creative field, it’s not necessarily because you deserved it. The opposite is true as well: If your creative career never takes off the way you want it to, it’s not necessarily because you didn’t deserve it.
Burke is exactly right. Please, please – whatever you do – don’t equate financial success with artistic merit. On the one hand, financial success is wonderful, and any sane person would prefer it to the alternative. And a lot of artists, writers, and musicians won’t achieve it. Yet, let’s be clear: there is a whole bunch of money-making “content” out there – I won’t call it art – that is not worth a shit. Watch the episode of Maron with the YouTuber, or think about “kinetic sculpture” in Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, or consider of the some the one-hit wonders you’ve liked. People have paid millions of dollars to listen to songs like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell and “Higher” by Creed. Better yet, I’ve got these two words for you: Milli Vanilli.
As a creative person who makes a living in my field, I’ve always resented this pretension that we can only declare ourselves to be a [fill in the blank] if we make enough money at it to pay for housing, utilities, food, healthcare, childcare, and transportation. Otherwise, we’re not a [fill in the blank]. People regularly refer to me and introduce me as a teacher— not as a writer, only as a teacher. Because that’s the Uncle Henry-approved job that causes money to appear in my bank account on the same day every month. However, if I weren’t a writer, I couldn’t do the teaching work that I do. I wouldn’t know what instructions to give in a lesson or what to mark on a paper, if I weren’t a writer myself. Likewise, for those people, my published books, my dozens of published stories, poems, and articles, and my years of blogging don’t amount to as much as that one qualifier: a paycheck. Perhaps arrogantly, I usually correct the people who introduce me as just a teacher. I make my living as a writer and a teacher.
It’s a damn good thing that money isn’t the real qualifying factor in life. My wife has never paid me a dime, but I’m still her husband. Same for my children, I’m still their dad. Those, more than writer or teacher, are the jobs I’ve given my most sincere effort to, and they’re the titles that I’m most proud of. I’ve earned both, though I’ve never earned any money from either. I’ve also never paid Uncle Henry for his advice . . . but that doesn’t stop him from giving it, and ironically, that lack of monetary compensation also doesn’t stop him from thinking that his ideas are worthing listening to.
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