The reality of the creative life

By Caitlin Kelly

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This essay, from LitHub, is brilliant and spot-on:

The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?

While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.

(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)

Everyone wants to be a writer!

Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.

The catch?



Life costs money.

I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.

Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.

Yes, really.

Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.

But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.

Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.

The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.

As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”

I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.


So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.


It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.

It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.

This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.

Here’s a post I wrote in 2011 about this dilemma — would you rather be creative or (the great American fetish) productive?

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!

The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.

Now….how to be creative?

What does that look like to you?

It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.




TapTapTapTapTap — Ding! The Return Of Typewriters

Typewriter adler3
Image via Wikipedia

Typewriters are back!

Not only are they back, but hipster kids newly discovering the joys of a Smith Corona (not some obscure beer) or Olivetti (not an olive oil!) are even holding type-ins to celebrate these quaint, sturdy little writing machines, reports The New York Times:

“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.

They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.

As someone old enough to have begun her journalism career working on a typewriter, I remember well the joys and frustrations — fingers covered in Wite-out! No delete key! Physical cutting and pasting! — that went along with it.

My first typewriter was a lightweight correspondent’s model with its own vinyl shoulder carrying case, a Hermes Baby. My lifelong dream was to file from exotic locales and, for decades, this was the tool to use! I loved its turquoise letters and drop-proof metal casing. As long as I had the essentials — paper and a fresh ribbon — I could write anywhere, anytime, knowing, and feeling a cool sort of kinship with, all the others before me who had filed their dispatches in similar fashion.

The part I miss the most?

That delicious Ding! when you hit the end of a line.

Not to mention the delicious crunch-and-toss of every offending page that just wasn’t good enough.

Where Ideas Come From

Image by tore_urnes via Flickr

I spoke today to a  class of 20 freshman journalism students at New Mexico State University about writing for a living. Their world is very different from mine, and will be throughout their careers, in one significant respect — unquestioned, socially approved, if not demanded, access to, if not addiction to, the Internet and its enormous pool of images, ideas, data and opinions.


It’s also the graywater of received wisdom, inflated ego, unfounded or salacious rumor. Can anything fresh, clean, valuable emerge as your life’s work if this remains your primary or exclusive source of intellectual or emotional fuel?

As I said then — Picasso and Gauguin didn’t zip on over to or to envision and paint the images many still consider extraordinary in their vision, beauty and creativity. They created them.

I told this group of fresh-faced kids, one even a high-schooler visiting for the day, to do the unthinkable. Turn off the damn computer. For a day. For entire days.

I just spent five days in a desert home on 26,000 acres, nurtured and recharged by a silence punctuated only by the yowls of a mountain lion, the squeaks of skittering quail, the wind in the trees. We had no Internet or television and listened, briefly, to NPR on the radio before turning it off in favor of…silence.

Without withdrawal, reflection, isolation, creativity is, I believe impossible.