On The Privilege And Assholery Of Being An Artist

By July Westhale

flickr/Helena Perez García
How are single moms, or poor folks caring for their poor families, supposed to make time to compose, to be religious about their scholarship?

“I just don’t understand what you can do there that you can’t do at home,” says my friend Kay, my mother, people at a bar — who are not writers. I am packing to go on yet another far-off writing residency in a remote location for a month, this time out of the country, to a place I’ve never been before: Flanders, Belgium.

In truth, I’m not sure how to talk about it to them without sounding like an asshole. To be fair, it’s hard to talk about being an artist in any capacity without sounding like an asshole. I work for a lot of artists (mostly ones with money), and I hear artist-talk all the time — there is very little to do about it. If you take yourself seriously as an artist of any sort, you’re going to sound big for your britches — at least a few dozen times in your life — especially to people who don’t run in art crowds.

I confess to fighting the stereotypes surrounding the creation of art as much as the next person: that you must be sad, that you must be in a garret somewhere, that you must be either a) starving or b) infused with endowments (see the characters of Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant in An American in Paris).

If you take yourself seriously as an artist of any sort, you’re going to sound big for your britches.

I’ve been through varying stages of acceptance and self-torture about this point. A part of my working-class self (the stubborn part) can’t stop thinking that making art is a privilege — that it’s something that only people with time and money do. Something I have no claim to it as a queer woman raised in rural California.

These statements both are and aren’t true. It is true that art is, to a certain extent, a privilege. I harness my life-long desire to write with the tools and materials gifted to me by paying for the two degrees that hang on my wall, receiving fellowships, private endowments, grants, work study, etc. (Though really, my student loan debt is such that basically the government owns those degrees.)

I have a rich community of people who understand literary citizenship, and skill-share and swap poems and line-edit. My degrees from expensive schools (where yes, I was on scholarship, but yes, I also paid through the nose with money I made as a secretary as well as high-interest loans) has given me the enhancement of critical thinking, the exposure to both canonical and non-canonical literature, the dexterity of multiple languages, and the ability to travel.

I am super privileged to live in a part of California that can afford to pay writers for their work, and I’m lucky enough to have rent control and enough steadiness in my freelance work that I can be a working writer (for real for real).

And as a queer woman, art both is and is not mine to claim or to access. As I stuffed clothes into my teal hardback suitcase in preparation for a writing residency for the third time that year, I tried to talk about Virginia Woolf. About A Room of One’s Own, and the poverty of the sexes (but really the poverty of marginalized people versus the richness of the privileged few).

I tried to talk about the institutions that were awarding me the opportunities to travel and write that were founded on the principle (particularly for marginalized folks), that, like Woolf said, one cannot write well if one does not live well.

“You live well here,” my mother pouts. We are on the phone, but I can tell through the line that she’s pouting. She looks a lot like Naomi Watts, but Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, not King Kong.

I sigh. I can’t argue that. Still, as I’m restraining myself from trying to jam just one more book into my suitcase, I try to frame it a different way.

“Here, I have dishes to do,” I say simply. That does it. If my mother had a domestic bone in her body, she’d have scoffed at me. As it was, I could hear her voice changing into a woolen suit of understanding.

“They do take up a lot of valuable time,” she agrees.

This trip, I am flying to Brussels, then taking a two hour train to a place called Deinze, to grab a taxi to an even smaller village called Olsene. I’ve read all about the residency on the website, but I’d been so busy in the months preceding my trip that I’d done little research about the surrounding area. When I arrive at the beautiful brick farmhouse in the middle of stretches and stretches of cornfields, I am delighted. Flanders, for all its cows and pigs and long, lithe canals could be a prettier, Belgian version of my orchard-lined hometown in California.

I’ve been invited to come to this place and write for an entire month. My room is upstairs, South-facing, the one of the three with a double bed. A reading chair looks out over a small pasture where two tiny ponies mostly stand around and eat grass, though sometimes they surprise an onlooker by dropping to the ground and rolling around lasciviously.

The hostess, a poet from the Minnesota who has been living in Europe for ten years, says that their names are Pony and Pony. The other resident I am staying with, a beautiful, curly-haired Greek girl named Clio, calls them barrel-butt and dancing-one in Greek. I catch her talking to them while walking along their electrified fence every afternoon.

I am invited to this place to simply write. All meals — home cooked, delicious, and mostly from the big garden — have been provided. My job is to wake up in the morning, write and read and work on the project I’d proposed in my application, be respectful of the house and grounds, and show up to meals on time. I am working on a collection of essays, as well as a new poetry manuscript. I spend my mornings writing, my afternoons hiking the various tractor paths along the canals, and my evenings reading and having excited conversations about theory, craft, and literature with the other occupants.

It is perfect: the light, the days that stretch, the endless hours I find myself obsessing and reworking and configuring and learning, the way my brain (as it always does after about a week and a half of uninterrupted work) becomes externalized and fills the whole of the room I occupy, so that I am but a small creature inside it, inspecting all the curves and crevices with the attention of a paleontologist.

Though I still keep up with projects that will help me pay my rent when I return to the United States, I spend the majority of my time in the monastically regimented work of scholarship. I wear my hair long and unkempt, an oversized denim workman’s shirt with a heart patched onto the front. I put on a little lipstick for dinner, but then go right back to work when I’ve cleared my plate.

It isn’t just the dishes back home — that’s just the umbrella I use. It’s the way that life seeps into all the cracks: the responsibilities of keeping oneself alive are endless, as are social obligations (read: I’m not complaining about having an active social life), demands on my time. But more than that, it’s the pervasive sense of duty when one is home to be doing something — anything — other than writing.

Woolf’s essay, though dated in context, is true in this sense, comparing (rightly) the ability of those in positions of privilege to work on art in uninterrupted ways. The works of Shakespeare would not, for example, have been possible without patronage. Single white men with no real responsibilities can spend hours and hours painting in their bedrooms, quitting and then getting re-hired for their jobs based on the whims of their art (I am thinking here of a specific person, which is by no means the norm necessarily). But how are single moms, or those with chronic pain, or poor folks caring for their poor families, or people with overwhelming responsibilities supposed to make time to compose, to be religious about their scholarship?

There are many facts that support the statements Woolf makes about the poverty of women and the wealth of men. To name one, between the years 1901–2011, twelve women won Nobel Peace Prizes. Just about one every 10 years. Women and people of color are routinely left out of the canon, pushed instead to anthologies or tokenized positions that make literary organizations look good.

Do I have to bring up the horrible incident of Sherman Alexie and the Best American Poets fiasco? Please don’t make me do it.

Perhaps the home of the man I know, the man who regularly quits his job to write, then picks it back up again when the muse has passed, does not weigh in on him in the same ways that my home, literally and figuratively, weighs in on me when I am in it. For him, it is possible to stay home and create, feel wealth, have assurance that everything will pick back up exactly as he left it when he went into the garret.

But for me, I have Belgium. And Vermont. And the perfect, precious weekends when I go with another writer friend and rent a cabin for a few days, where no one can bother us, not even each other. And, with a little time, a little space, a little provided food, I am back inside that womb-like brain again, the best place I know.

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