People often ask me if this newsletter is the first step towards a future where I’m making money from my writing.
Sometimes the question is more general: do you want to make money from your work? How do you think about getting there? Other times it’s more specific: asking about “monetization” (gross), or assuming that the default path for a newsletter is to get to a certain size and then turn on paid subscriptions.
Whenever I’m asked about this, I think about how the idea that you can or should be making money for your art is, in the grand scope of things, a relatively recent development. For the majority of recorded history, most artists who weren’t suffering in poverty either were independently wealthy or had a wealthy patron. All things considered, professional artists are just a blip.
Even patronage didn’t work the way we tend to think it did. The popular understanding of patrons is that they were basically grantmakers, but in reality they were more like directors. They usually commissioned an artist to execute on a creative vision, with the artist being more like a laborer for hire. Take the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling: we tend to ascribe its creation solely to Michelangelo, but he was commissioned to paint it by Pope Julius II, who had a very particular idea of how he wanted it to look. Many of the specific scenes depicted were chosen by the Pope, and those that weren’t (like “The Creation of Adam”) came about only after Michelangelo persuaded him to depart from his original vision—a type of pushback that wasn’t common in the patron/artist relationship. In fact, Michelangelo had originally wanted to turn down the commission entirely—he saw himself as more of a sculptor—but he felt like he couldn’t say no to the Pope.
In my own life, through sheer luck, I’ve ended up stumbling into what I think is often the best of both worlds: I have a career that I like, that supports me comfortably, and that also gives me the space to make art.
Or maybe it wasn’t just luck. When I graduated from college, after studying writing and even having a few things published, I knew I didn’t want to try to “be a writer”—whatever that meant—right away, because I had a strong desire to be useful. Not that writers as a whole aren’t useful—they are. But the average fresh-out-of-college twenty-two-year-old trying to be a writer is decidedly not.
And sure, some of that impulse was probably just insecurity in disguise, but perhaps subconsciously I had a vision of a different kind of writer’s life. After all, the artists I’ve always been most inspired by are the ones who had more than one successful career: writer-doctors like Oliver Sacks and writer-lawyers like Wallace Stevens, or comic actors who go on to become the President of Ukraine.
Because the truth is that all even “full-time” artists only spend a part of their day actually making art. Most of them have to teach, or take side gigs, or apply for grants, but even for the ones who don’t, it’s usually not possible to productively spend a full day on your craft over and over. You need room to breathe.
Besides, the barrier to creating more is almost never time. I always think I’ll get more writing done when I have more free time, but in practice, the opposite usually turns out to be true. It’s easier to motivate yourself, and to be less precious about your work, when you know you have a time limit. If I have all day, I’ll take all day; if I only have the two hours in the morning before I have to start work, I don’t have time to procrastinate.
My job also triggers an emotional feedback loop that prevents me from falling into the common trap of adopting the lifestyle trappings of an artist without ever actually making much art. Having a “real career” makes me self-conscious about not being a “real writer,” which makes me want to prove myself twice as hard. Without my job, I think I could tell myself I was a writer even if I wasn’t actually producing much. But since I work in tech, I know the only way I can honestly call myself a writer is if I’m actually writing all the time.
None of this is to say I’ll never charge for my work. I do aim to make some money from writing eventually, but when that time comes, I think I’ll actually be better at it if I’m not relying on it as my only source of income. Free from the pressure of having to use my writing to support myself, I’ll be able to focus on the other reasons to charge for my work, like as a signal of legitimacy or as proof that people really value what I’m doing.
Because after all, what’s the point of making money from your art other than to give yourself the ability to keep making it? I’m lucky enough to already have a way to make money and a way to make art—my career makes me, in effect, my own patron. So I don’t see any reason to rush to change things.
Yours in feeling extremely self-conscious about the implication that I consider myself an artist, but alas, this piece would have been unreadable had I kept appending disclaimers about my use of the term,