On Villaging: Work, Money, Art

by helenzuman in General

[This is my October column for Livelihood magazine. I’m posting it here, temporarily, until it appears on the Livelihood website. Enjoy!]

In past columns, I’ve purported to know what I’m talking about. This month, for a change, I’d like to explore something that remains mysterious, perhaps to you as well: how to create and maintain right relationship between work and money, money and art.

Over the past few decades, I’ve done all kinds of things for cash: worked as a field hand on an organic market farm; installed and tended organic vegetable gardens for suburban homeowners; “walked” a dog who couldn’t walk; wiped soot off the interior surfaces of a house that had suffered a furnace explosion; handed out liquid refreshment to half-marathon runners; served as an extra in a film about Sarbanes-Oxley; delivered cargo by giant trike; pedaled passengers, via pedicab, around the denser parts of Manhattan; played personal assistant to an art dealer; ironed leaf and grass images onto sheets and pillow cases; edited college-application essays for overprivileged teenagers; and so on and so on. That is, I’ve shuttled from gig to gig, seeking (and, generally, finding) enough Federal Reserve Notes to purchase the goods and services required to keep myself healthy and well.

Perhaps this list looks familiar; perhaps you have one like it. Perhaps you’ve already figured out that I’m an artist who’s yet to figure out how to make a living through art.

Not that I haven’t tried. A year and a half ago, in spring 2018, anticipating the launch of my first book, I made an aggressive play to shift income generation from an editing gig I was pursuing solely for the money to writing, authoring, speaking, performing—things I’d do anyway, because they attach to my soul’s purpose, because they feed what I love. I even hired a life coach to help (using cash left over from the Kickstarter campaign I’d conducted to fund my book’s publication).

The upshot? I gave some talks. I sold some books. I decided that bringing in FeRNs (Federal Reserve Notes) through anything other than my soul-work would mark me a traitor and a failure. And found myself, within a month or so of my book’s release, in a state of pure financial panic.

Luckily, I encountered another book, around this time, called The Business of Being a Writer. In it, author and publishing pro Jane Friedman lays out the financial realities, as she understands them, of making money as a writer, and shares a breakdown of where her own cash comes from (hint: mostly from activities other than writing). She also offers perspective on how writers have navigated finances in the past, and gives the lie to the idea that succeeding as a writer—contributing something of value—means satisfying one’s material needs and desires, during one’s lifetime, solely through royalties. As I read, I began to grant myself permission to go ahead and do, for money, the kinds of work for which the market was willing to pay, while continuing to write what mattered to me without expecting it to float me financially.

Since then, I’ve figured out how to spend less time than ever making more money than ever (via a gig I pursue, intensively, maybe three to four months per year), and developed a fresh story about art and money that brings me greater joy, and more calm, than some others I’ve tried on: as an artist, I could doggedly seek grant funding, with no assurance of success, from foundations laundering cash for the world’s most skillful extractors, while struggling to shove my various projects into funder-friendly boxes. Or, I can continue to work for money intensively, a few months a year, then grant myself eight to nine months of complete artistic freedom.

What I do for money matters. It leaves an imprint—on me, on my family, on my community, on the web of life. In my dream world, my surest income streams align with my greatest gifts. Within corporate capitalism, however—which I see as a catastrophe with sprinkles on top—it seems like my best bet is to perform a service I find neither overly emotionally costly nor excessively morally odious for those who’ve made a killing (turned life into cash) in more and less objectionable ways. Do I suffer from a lack of imagination? Perhaps. If you are an artist (or the like) facing a similar dilemma, I would love to hear what you’ve come up with—how you’ve reconciled the pull of your vocation with the demands of this peculiar story we share, in which humans need money to live.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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