I’m Too Busy Being Poor To Be Creative

By Ayla-Monic McKay

“[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” — Virginia Woolf

“Find what you love and let it kill you.” — Charles Bukowski

“What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered?” — James Rhodes

What do these quotes all have in common? Dedication to craft? A plea for people to take their passion seriously?

Or — perhaps — classism?

An artist I know recently shared a 2013 article by James Rhodes on social media that got to me. In the article, titled “Find what you love and let it kill you” after the Charles Bukowski quote, Rhodes argues that people should spend their free time pursuing art instead of the next Netflix marathon or the next big paycheck.

I don’t disagree that creativity is a worthwhile pursuit. I do, however, disagree with his main supporting argument. Rhodes does some math, allotting specific amounts of time to the “various etceteras” of life, concluding that each day, “[w]e are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want.”

Firstly, I take issue with his math. Rhodes argues that “eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries.” I want to know what kind of history education he got in school that would lead him to believe that. Certain classes of people have been working more than eight hours a day for as long as there has been economic stratification. To name a few: laborers of all kinds, servants, not to mention actual slaves. Most people have been working for more than eight hours a day for most of human history, and those who didn’t were able to work less because they could afford to either pay someone to work the rest of the time or they owned slaves.

Secondly, he claims that “[f]our hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing, and the various etceteras.” In what universe is four hours enough time to do all of that? Does that four hours include getting the children dressed and out the door in the morning? Does it include time spent on public transit if you can’t afford a car? Does it include the kind of time it takes to care for children who are not neurotypical or who have special health needs? When has child care ever taken only four hours a day?

Oh. Right.

Statistics compiled by the Government of Canada in 2010 revealed that women generally spend more than twice as much time on child care than men: women spent about 50 hours a week, while men spent about 24. That actually works out to about four hours a day for men and about seven for women. So Rhodes was half-right. He probably does spend about four hours a day on all the “etceteras of life” — while his wife picks up the slack.

Virgina Woolf, also quoted above, is even more obvious in her classism than Rhodes’. You could argue that Rhodes, while drenched in the privilege that his class and gender provide him, might be largely ignorant of their existences. Woolf, though, simply doesn’t bother to engage with any of this complexity. For her, only a certain class of people get to be writers (or artists in general). I guess we can appreciate her forthrightness.

Bukowski’s classism, like Rhodes’, is more subtle:

“Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weight you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.”

It’s romantic. I will admit, I am attracted to the tragic artist narrative. I am a sentimentalist: the idea of suffering for my art in monastic euphoria, pining away in a studio, smoking myself to death and cutting off my ears or other body parts, really speaks to my inner emo kid.

But poor kids don’t usually get to be tortured artists — there is no realistic opportunity to do so. I found my first job at 14 so I could help my single mother pay the power bill. I babysat my little brothers because child care was unaffordable. I worked two jobs while taking out as many student loans as I could so that I could maybe, just maybe, get a degree that would move me up the food chain just enough so that life might not be a permanent struggle.

When you are working your ass off so that your potential children won’t have to get their first job at 14 to help pay the power bill, because you remember watching your parents working longer and longer hours and still needing you to pitch in, it’s hard to find the time to play the piano.

Even now, with a university education, I am a full-time student at a community college and working about 40 hours a week, some of which is unpaid labor that I need to complete in order to get the work-term hours required for me to graduate. That first degree I got while working and digging myself into debt didn’t exactly move me up the food chain as much as I had hoped. When I look at my calendar, I am lucky to find a few hours here or there to maintain a neglected friendship or to just give my exhausted brain a break. I wish I could find six whole hours a day to devote to creative pursuits. But at the end of the day, I am exhausted — physically, mentally, emotionally.

Elena Bardasi and Quentin Wodon describe this is as being “time poor,” which means you work long hours while also being poor financially, or running the risk of becoming poor financially if your working hours are reduced. Two conditions combine to create time poverty:

1) not having enough time to rest or for leisure after all the work is done

2) the inability to reduce working hours without either driving the household into financial poverty or making existing financial poverty worse

Their data also “suggest that women are significantly more likely to be time poor than men,” which makes sense when we consider that women tend to do more unpaid labor than men. This concept of time poverty shakes out to what Tania Burchardt argues in her work on time and income poverty: that those with increased resources have more flexibility in determining how to use their free time.

When it comes down to it, Rhodes — and everyone else pushing this rhetoric — is coming from a place of deep class privilege. When Tim Corley wrote about the habits of rich people, implying that lacking those habits is why poor people are poor, Ben Irwin had a great response. He outlined 20 things that poor people do every day, many of which are either time-consuming or indicate circumstances, like homelessness and hunger, that have significant effects on cognitive function — and by extension, on creativity, especially among children.

Arguing that we all have six hours of free time a day because an eight-hour work day should suffice is absurd, and completely ignorant of the reality of what it’s like to be working poor, let alone homeless or otherwise financially incapacitated and struggling with the time-consuming never-ending-ness of poverty. The monotony. The sickness. The emotional deaths. When you consider that 1 in 5 Canadian children live in poverty — a statistic that is even higher in both the U.S. and the UK — you have to recognize how common poverty is.

When I have periods when I’m not worrying about how I’m going to pay rent, I write, paint, create. But when I’m working three jobs and going to school, or unemployed and trying to find work and eating from the food bank, the emotional and physical energy required for creation simply does not exist.

And creation does require energy. Physical energy to sit up and do things. Emotional and mental energy to draw out and into your art. Without energy, you can’t create. I don’t have six extra hours in a day after work, school, and the “various etceteras” of life as a single poor person. Poor people with children have even less time, less energy.

“Find what you love and let it kill you.”

I wish we could all afford to do so, because I would love to fill the world with artists. Anybody with an extra six hours a day could of course do amazing things. But in a capitalist economy like ours, where profits are more important than people and their passions, we can’t have that.

Or rather: some people can have that. There are many other people who would also love to rise to Rhodes’ call to creative action, but we can’t.

Unfortunately, we’re too busy being poor.

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