How to make money as creative. That is the question.
For me, it all started with a pubic hair that wasn’t mine.
It was curly, blonde and extraordinarily long, and it sat on my bathroom floor, harmless if not for the fact that it had come from the crotch of a complete stranger. Three things occurred to me in no particular order:
1. How does a person let their pubic hair grow that long?
2. Maybe letting strangers into my home was a bad decision.
3. I know way too much about my Airbnb guests.
Writing is a notoriously bad life decision if one has goals of financial stability, sanity, or any other kind of secure grounding.
All creatives make their own compromises. Kafka worked in an asbestos factory to pay the bills. Jack London sailed to Alaska to join a gold rush, where he developed scurvy and lost four teeth. Cheryl Strayed was a New York Times bestseller and on a book tour for Wild when her husband texted to say their rent check had bounced.
That’s the way it goes.
Nothing about art-making is reasonable in the practical sense.
Perhaps the worst part about writing is a book is that you have no idea if you’re pouring all energy and resources into something of value, or if you’re building a large, papery tower of self-indulgent madness. Even if you hit the literary jackpot of advance money, $200,000 divided by the years it usually takes to write and promote a single work is still likely to be a monetary downgrade to flipping burgers full-time.
That’s the way it goes, but some of us feel compelled to do it anyway.
Writing my first book was a lot easier. My ex earned a steady income and he encouraged me to quit my day job and focus all efforts on that story. I did. That gift gave me enormous creative freedom, but the relationship faltered soon after the launch. When love is dying, terrible insults can get tossed around out of hurt and anger, and one of the terrible things was, “You could never have written a book without me.”
I believed him.
From that point on, I forgot how to string written words together to make meaning. Even writing a 100-word email was a crippling battle with imposter syndrome.
This carried on for years.
Unrealised ideas can back up inside of people.
This can so quickly become a chronic psychological ache, a constipation of trapped magic. If you don’t relieve these blocks, there are repercussions. You can tell if a person is clogged up with ideas. Just look at their forehead. It is marked by a distinctive map of distress from being a keeper of unsung songs.
Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Nobody enjoys the company of a person who hasn’t washed their stinky soul. Creative energy turns back in on itself and becomes toxic. It hardens into regret and then resentment.
I could feel every day life building up within me. I was starting to get dusty and furrowed, regretful and resentful.
While on the phone one day to my friend Bruce, I was pouring out my frustration at being blocked when he said, “You will write another book and you can write it alone. I know it.” He was so certain.
I was certain too: certain that he was wrong.
As he talked, I gazed at the shelf where my first book sat and tried to see what he was seeing.
There it was: the spine of a second book, as clear as day.
I broke into tears of relief.
On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, creative writing sits a the top of the pyramid above more essential needs, like food, water, connection, security and safety.
Ironically, welcoming complete strangers in my home brought me all of these necessities. My bills were paid. That meant I could eat, sleep and write. I had company. That meant I was never lonely. Sometimes, in order to profit from renting my whole house out, I stayed with my mother and wrote from my childhood bedroom while Mum made me cups of tea and delicious dinners, but much of the time I lived with my guests.
A peculiar form of temporary companionship formed between me and an ever-changing cast of characters—
There was the young Swiss mathematics professor who taught me that math is like creative writing, but with numbers instead of words. Her work was in creative problem solving too, and we had far more in common than I ever would’ve guessed.
There was the cyclist from Germany, a professor in human-computer interaction, who didn’t seem to care much for human-human interacting – or doing his own dishes.
There was the 20-something Swedish student who got robbed at my front door while letting herself in late at night. A man put her in a choke-hold while he took her phone and money. I called the cops and, as they sat in my home taking a report, they asked the two of us if we’d like to go out for beers. “We can teach you about the Australian culture,” they said. My Swedish guest, still trembling from being choked, said, “What is happening, Torre?” I told her I had no idea and that I was very sorry.
There was the 59-year old art therapist who had been told by a fortuneteller years prior that she would die at age 60. She was sucking the marrow from her last anticipated year and had an uncommon openness about her that led us into deep conversations about life, love, art and dying. (Two years on, she’s still very much alive.)
There was a celebrated Australian author who gave me comforting advice on writing, telling me she’d never paid off her advances, meaning her books were produced at a loss for her publisher. Despite this, they published eleven of her books – presumably because some rare and beautiful artefacts in this capitalist world still transcend the need to be profitable. She died only months later of cancer, two days before her 52nd birthday.
There was the married lesbian couple who moved in with me for eight months, who became my dear friends, who showed me what true love looks like.
There was the 20-year-old optometry student who peed on my couch while sleeping on it, and then denied it, even though I found her wet pyjamas balled up in a corner. There was $1,000 deposited into my bank account to pay for furniture damages, courtesy of Airbnb.
And finally, there was my book: 80,000 words long and ready for submission to my editor.
As it turns out, I can write a book on my own… with the help of 50-odd strangers. And my mum. But that’s close enough for me.
On the day I finished writing the final draft, I took flight. I laid down on the pee couch (well cleaned) and stared up at the ceiling, and there I began floating just above my own body. It felt as though every cell of my being was so light that they’d all become airborne at once. If art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life, I was thoroughly awash.
It made me think of those near-death stories people tell of floating in a warm space of pure bliss. A celestial womb. I stayed in this position for most of a week, floating outside of myself.
Writing is a notoriously bad life decision if one has goals of security, but I guess that, in order to fly, you have to lose touch with the ground.
I’m delighted to announce that my book is out now!