The World Doesn’t Need Your Art That Badly
Hustle culture as applied to art and why it’s toxic
A few months ago, I saw a tweet that said something like this: “People often ask me how I write novels and work full-time. I watch their eyes widen with alarm when I say that I write for an hour every day after work, I write 9 to 5 on weekends, and write through all of my vacations.”
When I first saw this, I felt guilty, because I work full-time as a copywriter and carve out time for working on novels and short stories on the weekends. I set aside time for writing, but not that much time. I’ve taken time off to write, but I don’t use all of my paid time off to do it. I felt bad. I felt like I should be doing more.
But then, I thought about it a little more and realized: that tweet is bullshit. It’s hustle culture as applied to art, and it’s not healthy. I posted about this in Notes and someone snapped at me, saying, “She’s doing what she loves. Your opinion is crap.” Sorry, commenter, but you’re wrong. If she were simply doing what she loves, she would say something like, “It’s a lot of work, but I love it.” Watching peoples’ “eyes widen with alarm” while you tell them how hard you work is hustle culture.
According to Dr. Olga Molina, D.S.W., LCSW, “Hustle culture is working excessively without regard for one’s self-care needs and relationships in order to reach professional success.” Dr. Molina goes on to say, “Hustle culture has a negative impact on mental issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress. It can also cause burnout due to work-related stress and long working hours. Workers in a hustle culture have lost the ability for a work-life balance that’s critical for positive mental health.”
If you want to work 60 hours a week working full-time and writing novels, go right ahead. But once you start bragging about it, implying that others can’t match your grind, that they don’t have what it takes because they don’t have your level of commitment -- that crosses a line.
During my first year in college, I took a course called Philosophy of Religion, and one of the things we discussed was the difference between “I know what God wants for me,” and “I know what God wants for you.” A person who knows what God wants for them is spiritual. But a person who knows what God wants for you is a fanatic.
The problem with fanatics is that they are everywhere. People love to dish out advice on everything, from relationships to workouts to writing novels. The problem with the advice people give is that they’re telling you what works for them. For a whole variety of reasons, that same advice may not work for you. Here are some other bits of writing advice that I’ve discarded over the years:
“Get up at 5 a.m. and write before work.” I am NOT a morning person, so that is not ever going to happen. I roll out of bed at 7:10 to get to work by 8. 5 a.m.? Don’t make me laugh.
“Live like a pauper.” What, like those kids in RENT? Most of the characters in that show came from rich families. They were LARPing as poor artists squatting in a tenement and didn’t have student loans to pay back. Romanticizing poverty is gross.
“Work a crap job and write.” I’ve tried this. The problem with crap jobs is that they’re, well, crap. I’ve ended up having to take a second job which left me with even less time to write. Plus, these jobs don’t pay enough, offer little to no paid time off and don’t come with good health insurance. Plus, if I am still going to have to work full-time while publishing novels, I might as well have a career and a job that offers a decent salary so I can build my 401(k). Long-term care can cost around $300,000, and publishing royalties probably aren’t going to be enough to fill that bucket.
Speaking of salary, isn’t it unfortunate that writers who publish a novel (or novels!) each year still have to work full-time jobs? Shouldn’t the publishing industry make it possible for writers to live entirely off their work? Shouldn’t we be having that conversation, instead of competing to see who puts in the most hours?
It is a problem, but I don’t know how to solve it. There are simply too many people who want to be writers and too few contracts to go around. It’s supply and demand; a writer who demands more may simply lose out to the next person in line. There is one thing that publishers could fix, though: they can stop expecting writers to do an ever larger share of the book’s promotion.
Then again, many people who work for book publishers and who are responsible for publicizing new titles are underpaid and burned out too. I’ve heard rumblings that there may be a push to unionize publishing houses. If conditions improve for people who work in publishing, maybe things will get better for writers too.
It took me three years to write Tough Love at Mystic Bay, my first novel. Tough Love at Mystic Bay was published in 2020, and I’m still working on my follow-up. My current project is an ambitious historical novel about women’s baseball in the 1950s. I work on it a few hours a week, and it’s hard. Would it be better if I devoted a few more hours to it? Possibly. But when I get home from work, I have other things to do, like walk the dog, cook dinner, practice the piano and get ready for my voice lessons. Moreover, after writing about Medicare Advantage plans all day, I’m tired. My brain needs a break. I could force it to do another hour of writing, I suppose, but I doubt that the product would be all that good.
“Write what you know,” is another oft-repeated piece of writing advice. I don’t totally buy into it, but if you spend all your time at a keyboard, then typing is what you know. If I had followed this writer’s advice, I’d never have had time for Krav Maga or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, both of which I did for many years. Tough Love at Mystic Bay features several Brazilian Jiu-jitsu scenes, set in a converted garage where mirrors fog up on cold mornings, just like the gym where I trained several days a week for nearly a decade. If I had been home writing instead of training, I would never have been able to write those scenes realistically -- I might not have even thought to write them at all! Tough Love at Mystic Bay opens with the main character at a BJJ gym, where her training partner pins her and causes her to have a flashback to her teenage years which she spent in an abusive reform school. The point is that what you do away from the keyboard is just as important as the time you spend at it.
Before I close, I just want to make one more point, and this one is going to piss people off, but here goes. With the state of publishing being what it is, writing is always going to be a labor of love for all but a lucky few. Is burnout really necessary? When people ask me for advice, I tell them that they have to find what works for them. If you have a contract in hand and have to grind temporarily to meet a deadline, do it. But until then, go at your own pace.
I’m reminded of an interview that George Harrison did not long after John Lennon was assassinated. The interviewer asked George whether he was afraid that some madman might come after him. He said, “It’s like the man who told a psychologist that he was afraid to get on a plane because it might crash. The psychologist said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you die in a plane crash because you’re not important.’”
All my life I’ve dreamed of making my living from writing novels. I’m going to keep trying but I also have to accept, for the sake of my mental health, that it may not happen. If it doesn’t, it will suck for me, but it won’t matter that much to the rest of the world.
If you derive fulfillment from spending an extra 20 hours a week writing, that’s great. But if you’re grinding hard and finding yourself another day older and deeper in debt just so that you can put your art out into the world, isn’t that a little narcissistic? The world won’t fall apart if you take a day off, or if that novel takes two years instead of one, will it? Ten years passed between Junot Diaz’s first collection, Drown, and his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I bought Oscar Wao on the day it came out. People can wait.
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