Being an artist has never been a walk in the park. Every generation is tempted (and often succumbs) to imagine some Arcadian past when things were simpler and easier. “Oh, if only to have been a playwright in the 1590s, 1930s, or 1960s” – choose your decade.
I was recently reminded of this truth when I read the following in a book on plotting by the late novelist Patricia Highsmith, published almost 30 years ago: “Economics are a problem, and writers are always preoccupied with it, but this is part of the game. And the game has its rules: the majority of writers and artists must hold two jobs in their youth, a job to earn money and the job of doing their own work. It is a bit worse than that. The Authors League reports that 95% of writers in America must hold another job all their lives to make ends meet.”
Highsmith, no stranger to misery herself, went on to observe that the love of writing and the need to write can provide writers with the strength to prevail over these hardships.
And it’s not like writers are the category of artists being picked on. In Seattle, a city reputed to have a robust theatre community, I doubt if any actor or other independent theatre artist makes a living today solely on theatre income. I can’t think of a single actor –and Seattle is blessed with many fine ones – who has been in enough productions over the last year to have survived only on stage work.
All this can depress or console or fall somewhere between. Arcadia is a mythical Edenic land that Virgil and other classical writers mentioned. The most famous phrase associated with it is “Et in Arcadia ego.” When tempted to indulge in an Arcadian fantasy about the superior past, it can be useful to reflect on what the Latin actually says. Loosely translated, it is “And in Arcadia I also am present.” The “I” is death.
Embrace the present, even with the impoverished earnings and all the other crap it throws up at us.