The Myth of the Starving Artist

Jeffrey Erkelens
Nov 29, 2019 · 8 min read

Before anyone starts sending me canned food and old shirts in the mail, let me clarify: money’s extremely tight, for sure, but I’m not starving.

Clearly, I’m not writing this on toilet paper like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o used in a Kenyan prison when working on ‘Devil on the Cross.

Neither am I chronicling a gruesome experience while interned at a Nazi concentration camp like Viktor Frankl’s illuminating memoir, ‘In Search for Meaning,’ though the relevance of Frankl’s sources of meaning — purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty — will be made clear later on.

My circumstances are nowhere near that dire, but for all my efforts, I have yet to earn the barest-minimum from my creative work and time has run out.

When I first started making my work public, many well-meaning writers suggested I should try my hand at listicles, like, ‘The 10 Steps to a Sizzling Sex Life,’ or ‘How to Earn Six Figures on Medium.’ But I am old enough to know that anything that sizzles will fizzle and no easy roads to riches exist, which is why their advice sounded like they were urging me to bake Twinkies and Wonder Bread, instead of the harder-to-digest whole grain loaves I was bringing to market hoping to nourish readers, rather than ply them with false and empty promises.

“No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the masses.” — H.L. Mencken

If I started copying everyone else, I further thought, how would I ever find my authentic voice? And what about my integrity and the integrity of art?

My uncompromising attitude now has me on food stamps and Medicaid. A fine mess.

I sometimes wish that before launching my writing career with the bravado of a young trapeze artist scoffing at a safety net, I would’ve read this advice from Ursula K. Le Guin:

“It’s delightful for a writer to be sheltered and shielded while at this intense work, given solitude and freedom from human responsibilities, like Proust in his padded cell, or the people who keep going to writers colonies and having their lunch brought in a basket; delightful indeed, but dangerous, because it makes a luxury into a condition of work. What you need as a writer is exactly what Virginia Woolf said: enough to live on and a room of your own. It’s not up to other people to provide either of those necessities. It’s up to you, and if you want to work, you figure how to get what you need. What you live on probably has to come from daily work, not writing.”

At other times, I’m not so sure. Not only because of the inordinate amount of time it takes me to get started on a project and the hours of simmering I need before tussling with a blank page, but also because I am an incorrigible romantic. Playing it safe has never been my style, and, like any diamond forged in the bowels of earth, I only shine under extreme pressure. Besides, the decades I wasted trying to write while holding a full time job were all the proof I needed to launch myself on this reckless journey on the knife’s edge of uncertainty now approaching year three. In that time though, I have completed three books and baked over one hundred loaves of what I believe to be nutritious bread. Hardship, I’ve discovered, is the perfect cure for writer’s block.

“The best poet,” said Pablo Neruda, “is he who prepares our daily bread. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. If the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an immense activity — the building of a community; the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.”

To me, that sounds far more romantic and worthwhile than baking Twinkies and Wonder Bread, but you have to be willing to pay the price. You also have to be slightly out of your mind. Living one’s truth, I recently wrote, is only for madmen. Above all, you must be prepared to serve your fellow man before yourself. That’s where Viktor Frankl comes in.

The “duty of fellowship” to which Neruda referred, is the same expansive love Frankl considered as one of the three essential ingredients for a meaningful life. He and Neruda were referring to agapē, a Greco-Christian term referring to an all-encompassing love for humankind.

I used to not give a flying fuck about my fellow man. Not one bit. That is, until the universe decided to smack me down to proper size twenty years ago by taking away everything I owned, pricking my princely arrogance with one devastating blow. One humble job after another — in shared grief with the many who live hand to mouth — blessed me with a conscience, and the gift of compassion, which means “shared suffering.” This is the reason I no longer use the word “loser,” but “unfortunate,” and also why I don’t consider my work as work, but as an ofrenda, Spanish for work done in service to others. When sitting down to write, I now imagine myself breaking bread together with my small audience.

The rewards of purposeful work — Frankl’s next ingredient for a meaningful life — is not measured in dollars and cents or claps, but in mended hearts, healed wounds, rekindled passions, and a shared sense of awe, wonder, and delight — Neruda’s “bread, truth, wine, and dreams.”

Frankl’s last ingredient — courage in the face of daunting obstacles — is the life force that has kept me from giving up. “No courage is greater,” said Roman philosopher Seneca, as that born of utter desperation.”

The word “courage” comes from the Latin root ‘cor’ from which we get the word “corazón,” meaning “heart,” in Spanish. To have courage is to have a brave heart, and to have a brave heart, you need something worth fighting for. My current quest to help boys grow to become good men fires my heart with such zeal and resolve that it makes my limited circumstances seem almost essential to sharpen my sword. It lends the myth of the starving artist a heroic and spiritual dimension.

Human beings have always been mythmakers. We are meaning-seeking, imaginative storytellers. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. A mythical narrative is designed to push us beyond the safe certainties of the familiar world into the unknown.

Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. — 2 Kings 7, Verses 1–2

“Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented,” says Karen Armstrong in ‘A Short Story of Myth.’ “In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. It was an early form of psychology.”

“The part of our journey where we feel crucified, losing ego, being lost in the wasteland, being in the belly of the beast — nowadays we strip it of poetry and give it clinical names — stress, depression, and burnout,” said Robert Bly.

Casting our suffering in such sterile, cold, and meaningless light, might make pharmaceutical companies rich, but leaves us numb and helpless, which might explain why they do it.

Armstrong says that “the stories of heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters, brought to light the mysterious working of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their interior crises.

LASCAUX CAVE PAINTING. Photo by Peter80 @ wikimedia.org

Almost certainly, it was from the experience of ritual in shrines like those of Lascaux, and from the experience of the shaman and the hunt, that the myth of the hero was born. The hunter, the shaman, and the neophyte, all had to turn their backs on the familiar and endure fearsome trials. They all had to face the prospect of violent death before returning with gifts to nourish the community.

All cultures have developed a similar mythology about the heroic quest. The hero feels there is something missing in his own life or in society. The old ideas which have nourished his community for generations no longer speak to him.”

For many years, I had felt the old ideas of manhood to be, not just obsolete, but responsible for many of today’s shit storms. Then, about a year ago, I felt called on a hero’s quest to lend my voice to guide our boys to live lives of noble purpose. The trials I am enduring are integral to every heroic journey. I accept and welcome them as a man, agreeing with writer G.K. Chesterton who said an inconvenience can become an adventure if properly conceived.

“We often dull our lives by the way we conceive them,” says American psychologist James Hillman. “It is not the stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise, we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of hero.”

I think the world could use more stories written by common people facing great odds. People who are closer to the bloody floor of life’s slaughterhouse. Those, like me, who have seen the shards of all their dreams scattered on the floor beneath them and the floor dissolving under their feet. Common heroes, who’ve spent years inside the belly of the beast and have managed to claw their way out and now wish to gift humankind their stories of survival and transcendence… their epic tales of death and rebirth.

More blood-spattering, red meat stories — however unsophisticated or sloppy — and less cotton candy yarns spun by those whose names are trailed by so many acronyms they remind me of clattering cans dragged by white limousines whisking newlyweds away from church. Like peeled soup cans, they all look and sound the same.

“The longing to be reunited with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards — he will make them as he goes along — he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable.” — Henry Miller

“Gone are the cornball days,” lamented author Jim Harrison, “when book jackets proclaimed the writer had worked as a truck driver, a proctologist, a stripper, a dishwasher, a furrier, a cowboy, an unlicensed plumber, a Peace Corps worker in five different countries.”

If you, like me, are living the heroic myth of the starving artist, take heart in these stories. You’re in good company!


Follow my journey.

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Writers Guild

Hone your craft. Share your story.

Jeffrey Erkelens

Written by

Flying fish. Iconoclast. Currently writing ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys: https://www.facebook.com/bookforboys/

Writers Guild

Hone your craft. Share your story.

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