Can we transact between creative and financial accounts?
On June 6, 2014, I heard something uncommon: a novelist interviewed on a Wall Street report radio program. The novelist was Mona Simpson. Forgetting the supernatural suavity of host Kai Ryssdal’s voice, let us look at these wise words from his “Marketplace” guest that day. This is my transcript of the end segment titled (with classic Ryssdalian aplomb) “Here’s the Thing.”
For best results, please put your feet up when reading.
Ryssdal: Here’s the thing about numbers—economic numbers, anyway: You gotta put ‘em in context. In context in the economy, of course, but also in our culture, or all you’ve got is statistics. So to wrap up our author’s series today—people who are in the business of words—author Mona Simpson.
Simpson: […] When I was in my twenties and trying to write my first novel, I thought it would change my life. I believed if I could sell my first novel, my life would completely, completely change. And I spent five years supporting myself—you now, sort of hand-to-mouth with part-time jobs as my student loans were coming due and my socks were wearing out. You know, when I went to a party, I wore the same dress, for years, that my mom had bought me on a visit.
[“My socks were wearing out.” I love that. — Ed.]
And then when I did sell the novel, the first offer the publishing company made for it was $10,000. And my agent said, “Well, she has a lot of student loans.” So it got up to $12,500. And if you look at those numbers, you think, “Well, amortize that [over] five years—it’s not very much money.”
And yet publishing my first novel did change my life in many more ways than money. [People ask me], “Do you make a lot of money?” And the answer is, you know—“No.” Novels take me four or five years, sometimes ten at the most, sometimes three at the least. And if you amortize the money fiction writers earn from them—we’re not CEOs. We’re not hugely successful in that way.
But, on the other hand ... you’re spending most of your life making something that you find beautiful and that’s deeply satisfying and fulfilling. And, you know, in a way, love is the real economy. If you’re spending your time—which is really the scarcest commodity there is—if you’re spending that doing something that gives you a lot back, that’s a kind of love.”
Well, that took a surprising turn. A finance show brings us a message about the economics of love.
Now let’s add to this something I heard much more recently. It’s February 2021, and I’m in my car playing the Ram Dass “Here and Now” podcast (EP 37 — Consciousness and Energy).
If you know Ram Dass and his many lectures, you won’t be surprised to hear that in this talk he’d been waxing eloquent about the usual things, such as how everything is energy and how his Indian guru, Neem Karoli Baba, was often locked into rooms overnight only to be found walking down the road at dawn.
“What is your time worth? What are you about?
Well, my time is worth $20 an hour.
How poignant. How poignant.
How much an island unto yourself.
How little energy if your life is only worth $20 an hour.
My life is worth everything. And nothing.
My time is valueless. It’s invaluable.
I just can’t estimate what my life is worth.
‘Had ye but faith, you could move mountains,’ said Jesus.
Well, … Boy, it costs a lot to move a mountain!
In other words, he’s doing what Simpson did, and finding some equivalence between the spiritual and economic. Is it a false equivalence? Well, he’s musing for a moment in the voice of someone reality-based, and contrasting it with the fantastical-sounding perspective of a spiritual economist, who makes a strong valuation of life. Butting up against Christ’s teachings, the real-world grounded perspective sure sounds naïve. Which is precisely Ram Dass’s point.
The leap from one context to the other makes the position absurd. Our lives are not a quantifiable asset, a currency, like you’d find circulating in a market, or in an economy. Our lives transcend that.
Let’s point out that some would call this a “religious” view. I’m not concerned with that term.
I’m concerned with the fact that there’s no bank that can tell us the balance in our life account. A writers’ work is nothing like that of the laborer or the careerist, the professional, the office drone.
(Nor, for that matter, is it as important as that of the surgeon, teacher, and many others.)
Yet, we live in a world where an accountant would be quick to tell you that the price of mountain-moving services only holds on the assumption that someone is willing to pay for said services. Until then, it’s theoretical.
So you’re spending your time doing your writing, doing your art, working on your stories, your prose. It’s what you’re spending your life on. That’s a big deal. And it’s true for writers of all kinds: the hopelessly devoted, the dabblers, the weekend warriors. But the point can’t be the quantity or quality or your output. You’re investing your life.
Follow this calculus. (I’ll see if I can.)
IF we’re all of inestimable value, and no one requires you to write (the world has no official use for your writing), you must THEN be doing it because you love it. So do it with that love. Don’t do it out of bitterness or spite or for ego. The value of your life is too high to spend it on any lesser good (double meaning intended, but arriving by happenstance).
Like Mona Simpsons says, the economics of writing are that the returns are great. They just aren’t monetary. Also, you have to invest it. You can’t want to be the next ___________ and hope you’ll just luck into it like the lottery. You have to put into it what your life is worth. Put what your life is worth into what you express on the page. That means not selling yourself short, and not selling the world short.
How do you do that?
Wait a second. Selling the world short. You mean like a short sale? Like those crummy shrub fund — I mean hedge fund managers do, the ones that Redditors just showed a thing or two to?
Walking the Walk
I’ll be the first to say that it’s real easy to sit back and spout truisms like this about the writing life and artistic purpose, sounding like I’m all full of integrity and right thinking. The fact is, though, it’s something I struggle with.
A few weeks ago, I took a student to task for employing the “shooting gallery” approach to story. That’s my term for setting ’em up and knocking them down. Introducing characters and calling them dufuses and dressing them in band t-shirts and revealing their utter shallowness and rotten souls. I charged my student with Literary Piety, or High Superciliousness.
Then something I didn’t anticipate happened to me, just like something in a good story. I spent a lot of time writing up my heated feedback and really expounding on how it’s just too easy a game to play, and we have to, as writers, rise to the occasion and balance our characters. Show their redeeming traits as well as their faults. In fact, I spent so much time that I ran out of time and shortchanged another student whose story I was supposed to review.
Short-changed? Like, currency? Like a cashier?
Let’s call this student Roberto. Yep, for the first time in 11 years I came to class not 100% prepared: I did not read Roberto’s work in its entirety. Yes, I had read it in an early draft form, as a homework assignment, but that was only a portion.
I told Roberto I’d get comments to him later, and discussion happened without me. The next morning he emailed saying he felt emasculated. He said my professional ethics were terrible. He was certain I’d dismissed his work because it was crap and for no other reason. He told me about several people in his life whom he paid good money only to insult his writing. They felt his work was crap, and so I must too.
I apologized, asked for his number so we could talk, but he declared himself resigning from the class.
That put me in my seat, spiritually, for a few days. In my humility, I also realized that what triggered me so much about my student’s work is that I have committed the same sin, to some degree in my current book-length fiction project. I had to admit that in certain chapters, I was taking a lot of pleasure in revealing the fatuity of certain characters. In fact, I had just paid for a full editorial assessment of this novel first draft, and the editor said of one chapter that it “takes more than it gives” and that I’d made a major character out to be an “imbecile.”
This realization came with its own set of writerly pains. In the Writer’s Hospital Reference Manual, my nurse pointed to the listing for 1) Pain of Realizing a First Draft’s Flaws, and 2) “Revisionist’s Denial,” a condition first recorded around the time of Emile Zola, and 3) Straight-Up Hubris.
“Straight up Hubris?!” I yelled.
I was given a sedative.
Earlier I was talking about pride, and recognizing your worth and being big and writing big…. And now I seem to be confessing and acknowledging that the writing life requires a great deal of humility.
“Yes!” the writer yelled confidently. “I knew I could do it. I found the recipe. This is the recipe. It takes both! Thanks, grandpa!”
No, no. I’m only playing.
What is so radical about what Ram Dass and Simpson say is that it gives us another currency to consider, one more incomprehensible than BitCoin. But one that is far more meaningful, I think, and most artists would agree, than the dollar. Invest in the Cosmic Bank.
Now I could drop the Walking the Walk subhead a second time and report without any humiliation that later that week I had the chance to help someone who needed help, and that felt a lot better than anything I’d written recently. It put me in good spirits and the right frame of mind to work to improve my character who I’d depicted unflatteringly, and to cut the chapter that took more than it gave. The project feels more valuable now to me than ever, and crucially I’m getting better results than I had gotten when dreaming of making a killing off it.
Which I for sure did.
Follow up: Roberto emailed 6 days later saying maybe he need to grow a thicker skin, and see you in class tomorrow!