Artists as the Working Poor

I live in a town where some of the best young writers come to the nation’s best writing school. They get their degree from the workshop that has created more Pulitzer-Prize winners than any other institution of its kind. And then, newly minted, the bulk of these writers finds a minimum-wage job. Many of them stay there for years. You take a cab in Iowa City, and you’ll run into a guy who’s working on his manuscript. I have friends who’ve worked on road crews, and who signed up to de-tassle corn. I worked for three years alongside African refugees, as we provided personal hygiene for adults who were developmentally disabled. We did more than that, and it was deeply meaningful work—but my point is that for every artist who finds acclaim, or even a teaching job, there are a dozen who become the working poor.

I’ve spent six years writing a 900-page novel that *might* see publication, and that *might* earn more than the average first-novel advance, which is $10,000. After publication, royalties usually come in at $2.50 per hardcover book sale, and writers don’t see a dime of that until the royalties pay back their advance. Furthermore, if a store—such as Walmart or Amazon or Barnes and Noble—sells their book at a discount, the royalty payment goes down accordingly. Payment for paperback publication—which is essentially a much-hoped-for second publication—goes down even more.

Am I complaining? Well, kinda, because the research for this post has made me depressed. But my larger point is that artists need financial support from outside organizations. Typically writers practice their craft within the gaps of a full-time job. And if they have a family to feed (and to spend time with!), they probably write less often than that. Art, you’ve probably heard, is the soul of a culture. It is its conscience, and its reflection, and one of its greatest sources of mutual empathy. We saw slavery more clearly after reading Roots or Beloved. We thought deeply about war after Slaughterhouse 5, or Catch-22, or The Things They Carried. Marilynne Robinson, who is a freak of a success, got her scholarship to Brown University, from the Department of Defense, because back then, people like Eisenhower knew that artistry (and education) provided cultural defense. 

There is a reason why programs like the NEA exist. They provide breathing room for the folks who speak to us through story—which is to say, encounter. And when the whole country can no longer agree on either the facts or the rational argument that would come from those facts, then I’m afraid the empathy from the artist-made encounter is one of the only ways we can ever hope to find common ground again.

(Originally posted March 18, 2017)

Dumbledore’s Army

Well, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to the Obamas, in part because I have faith that they aren’t really gone. So instead, I’m looking at literature. Our children’s stories—some of our favorite ones—have prepared us for this new era. Be brave, and compassionate, and inquisitive, and true. We must all be our childhood heroes now.

(Originally posted January 20, 2017)


From Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness:

[The politician] wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, although he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.

It is a durable, specious metaphor, that one about veneer. . .hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies all at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness. . . . Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.

(Originally posted October 7, 2016)

In Memory of James Alan McPherson

He was the first African American to earn a law degree from Harvard. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Elbow Room. He was a mentor and friend to countless authors who came through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And he was deservedly one of the most beloved people in Iowa City. Once he played my classmates a recording of John Coltrane, as Coltrane crashed through some horrible, disjointed music. “That’s him,” he said. “He’s learning.”

Jim McPherson died this week.

(Originally posted July 29, 2016)

The Tyranny of Genre

Well, not to sound too petulant about this whole thing, but I’m starting to learn that as soon as you mention how your novel “happens in another world,” lots of people place it in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. That is an issue, because people rarely take genre work seriously. Look. This is a problem with contemporary literature. In fact it’s a problem that bedevils all contemporary communication—including education. We balkanize our subjects and their sources. There’s frequently a penalty in crossing a border. I spent ten years writing stuff even I didn’t like, because I felt that I had to write the parlor (or apartment) drama that we all study when we seek classical training as writers. I don’t regret the education; it makes my work serious and character-driven. But it took an abject failure with a publishing house—a canceled contract, the works—for me to realize that this was not who I am. It took failure for me to say, “Well, sh!t. If I’m going nowhere, I might as well have fun on the way.” I started to write what I liked to read. I started to ask the questions I wanted to answer. And I came up with a novel that’s far more vivid than anything I ever wrote before. Have I written Barbarians & Blasters? Heck no. But in fact there is a bit of magic in my world. There’s a touch of it, hard-earned. And why not? Why isn’t it fashionable to do what the story asks? Dearies. If I ever teach writers, I will tell them never to fear their own imaginations.

(Originally posted June 23, 2016)


Honestly. I’m trying to decipher a note I left on my phone, about my book’s finale. If I left it on my phone, I must have been excited enough to think it was important–but autocorrect has rendered the line as follows: He has a butt full of stars. 

I know that’s not right.

(Originally posted May 3, 2016)