Sunset, 2/7/19

Another week down. Enjoy the weekend!

Day Jobs, Creating, and the End of the World

Because I assume most people lead full, rich and happy lives that do not revolve around the Internet, some of you may not be aware that a couple of days ago Writer Twitter blew up because a writer and editor named Jason Heller wrote a thread about day jobs, the first post of which was this:

(click on the tweet for the full thread)

Writer Twitter blew up at this advice and thread because the general mass of writers on Twitter consider this absolutely terrible advice (including, in the interest of disclosure, me). Things got testy, as they do on Twitter, because it’s Twitter, and a bit of the plot was lost. But now, a few days later, I think it’s worth looking again to see why this is still pretty bad advice in most cases, and also to note the few circumstances when it is not.

Let me preface by saying I’m pretty sure that the place Heller is coming from is something along the lines of “don’t let fear keep you from the work you’re meant to do” and also “seize the day.” Which, if that’s indeed where he’s coming from, is not bad advice! The time you have now is all the time you will ever have in the world, so if you’re not making the time within it to do the things you want to do with your life, you’re cheating yourself. Don’t do that. Do the things, creatively, you want to do. It will take time to get to the level you would want to be at, so starting sooner is better than later.

However (and this is where Heller is giving bad advice, and why Writer Twitter blew up at him), not only are having a day job and following your dreams not mutually exclusive, much of the time a day job is the thing that allows one to continue working toward those dreams, because it provides the things people need in order to live life generally, including money, health insurance (in the US, at least) and the relative stability that alleviates stresses in one’s life. Stresses like “oh, shit, how am I going to pay for rent this month” or “I’m out of my medications and can’t afford any more, which means I might die” or “I can’t feed my children, what’s up with that, the state frowns upon starving one’s progeny.” All of which can, in fact, put a damper on one’s creative drive.

Now, Heller addresses this by noting that he was punk and had been poor and didn’t expect a middle-class standard of living anyway. Well, that’s fine for Heller. But not everyone wants to be punk, and not everyone romanticizes poverty as an acceptable lifestyle if you have the ability to make a different choice. As it happens, I also have stretches of poverty in my history, occasionally of the “we don’t have a place to live and also here’s a box of Raisin Bran, let’s try to make it last a week” sort. I find valorizing that sort of scenario as an acceptable lifestyle choice odious, especially if other people are involved and are essentially hostages to your choices. Desperation almost never leads to art (and especially, good art). It mostly leads to making poor choices to get through one’s life because poor choices are the options one has.

But at least you have time to work on your art if you quit your day job, yes? Well, no, not really. Speaking again from experience, poverty and desperation are really time-intensive. One still has to live in the world, and when you’re poor and have limited resources, navigating a world designed to cater to people who can solve problems with money takes effort, and time, and the willingness to thread through all the barriers that are put up against the poor in our society. At least if you have a day job, the hours that you aren’t able to fill with creative work are exchanged for money (and health care, and 401(k)s, and such).

(Not to mention that even people who are full-time writers and creators aren’t always exactly clocking in eight hours a day on art. I do four hours a day max when I write because after that my brain is like “I’m done being creative for the day.” Sometimes I’ll get two hours. Sometimes less. So what do I do with the rest of that time? Shit, I could do a day job with that time — and did, for years, because I was working as a freelance writer and consultant. It was fun making money after my brain turned into a flan!)

Heller says in his Twitter thread that “You can and should say ‘fuck you’ to conventional wisdom and throw yourself off the cliff and see if you can learn how to fly on your way down.” Okay, but here’s the thing about that: Never in the history of the world has anyone ever thrown themselves off a cliff and learned to fly on the way down. Physics is not conventional wisdom. What people who fling themselves off cliffs do is accelerate, falling faster and faster, until they hit the ground and die, or if they’re lucky, merely break every bone in their body and take months or years to recuperate, if they do at all. Jesus, Scalzi, it’s a metaphor, I hear you say. Sure, it is, but look at the actual metaphor and what it says: See if you can do the thing literally no one else has ever done. It’s gonna be awesome! Meanwhile, right here by the cliff is a trail that will lead you to the bottom safely — sure, it’ll take longer to get to the bottom, but your arrival will not be occasioned by a broken, shattered body, and along the way you may have time to think and plot and strategize, so that when you arrive where you want to go, you have a plan for where to go next. Sexy metaphors are sexy, but there are better ways to actually lead one’s life.

“It’s so fucking harmful that we’re instilling writers with this dull, gray terror of taking risks or hurling themselves recklessly into their passion,” Heller writes in his Twitter thread. But I think his position is, intentionally or not, disingenuous. First, and again, it’s not either/or — one can take massive risks and live dangerously in one’s creative life, and still have a day job, and a comfortable material existence. Indeed, when one’s basic physical and psychological needs are met, one does not have to expend mental cycles on those needs and has them available for one’s creative work. Second, it’s not actually “fucking harmful” to tell writers (or any other creators) it’s all right to acknowledge they live in the world, and the world is set up in a way that they have to navigate, and also, can navigate and still have time for their passion.

Third, as noted by Annalee Flower Horne in her own Twitter response, some people like their day job and find it a source of validation and inspiration. That’s right, you can actually enjoy your day job and find it fulfilling! You might even use it as a wellspring for your creative life! And even if you don’t, you might still decide that as a person, you are living your best life with your day job and a creative job. It’s possible! And for some people, even essential.

The short version of this is it appears either Heller doesn’t know you can live dangerously and passionately in art and comfortably in world, or is aware of it, but is kinda contemptuous of it. If the former, well, he’s been told now, by lots of people, over and over, and it’s up to him to internalize it. If it’s the latter — and it might be, as his thread comes off as dismissive of people who aren’t willing to throw themselves off a cliff — then, as he might say, that’s a choice. It’s also not a choice everyone else has to make, or is often the best choice they could make, either for themselves or for the other people whose lives are tied to theirs.

Mind you, Heller may also believe his advice is predicated on a ticking clock. As he declares at the onset of his thread, “The world is ending.” So, here’s the thing about that: The world’s not ending, either physically or with respect to humanity. Physically, the world will end in five billion years when the sun, as a red giant, expands to engulf the planet. You will probably not be around for that. Before then, the world will still be here.

Now, that’s probably not where Heller is going; he’s probably suggesting that “Creeping fascism + global climate change = end of the world for humans.” And to be sure, it’s not a great combination. But then, in the 1980s, “Cold war + Mutually Assured Nuclear Destruction = end of the world for humans.” In the 1930s, “Rise of fascism + economic ruin of nations = end of the world for humans.” In the 1910s, “The First Global War + virulent supervirus = end of the world for humans.” In pretty much every era the equation is “[social/political issue] + [existential threat to human supremacy on the planet] = end of the world for humans.” It’s not to discount that creeping fascism and global climate changes are serious problems we need to address. Please, let’s. It’s to say there is always a potential end of the world.

And yet in every era, people created and held down day jobs! It’s possible to do, even when staring down the gaping maw of nothingness and oblivion. You can do it! If you want to! Also, the world’s probably not actually ending — it’s changing, but that’s not the same as ending — so maybe don’t use that as a serious assessing factor. Even with global climate change, it will take several decades for it to suss out. You’ll probably be dead for the worst of it anyway. Meanwhile you still have bills and need to eat (and also, hey, maybe agitate politically against global fascism and climate change denial, that would be awesome of you).

So, in sum: Yeeeeeeah, you don’t usually have to quit your day job in order to throw yourself into your art. And in fact, most of the time it’s probably not a great idea. So maybe don’t.

After all this, you may ask, when should you quit your day job to throw yourself, recklessly and passionately, into your art? Well, alone or in combination:

1. As Nick Mamatas notes in his own Twitter thread, if your day job (whatever it is) is giving you a life no better than what you would get being a starving artist anyway, why the fuck not?

2. If you have a spouse/partner/family who has a stable income/benefits and is willing to support your freeloading ass while you whittle away at your creative work, then, sure. But also be sure to acknowledge, to yourself if not to anyone else, that you’re catching a hell of a break here.

3. If you hate your job with such a passion that it sucks your will to live no matter how well it pays or how awesome the benefits, then you should probably consider leaving that job regardless of any creative aspirations. However, maybe see if there’s a different job with similar pay/benefits you could move into, one that doesn’t make you want to collapse into a ball, before just ditching it all. It’s amazing how fast the money runs out.

4. If you’re already financially doing so well with your creative work that your day job is acting as a drag to your income (which can happen!).

5. You are independently wealthy and you’ve been keeping a day job mostly as an affectation and/or have been awarded a grant (or book advance!) large enough to cover your life expenses for years as you create.

6. You have no dependents, are of a social demographic where taking years out of the labor pool to fuck about on a creative endeavor will not be taken as inherent flakiness (hello, straight white men!), and think starving in a cold-water bedsit is a cheeky adventure to be experienced, not a fate to be avoided.

Otherwise? Consider your day job may be a positive, not a negative.

In the end, the enemy of creativity is not a day job, or indeed, anything else that might exist in your life other than your creative impulse (which includes but is not limited to family, friends, spouses, pets, hobbies, politics, entertainment and the world in general). The enemy is you — and your choice to use any of the above not to engage in the creative life you believe you should have. The world is not ending, but you will. You will not be here forever. You have to make the decision to throw yourself into your art, with whatever time you have. If you decide it’s important, then you’ll find the time. Even with a day job. And all the rest of the world, ending or otherwise.

The Big Idea: Keith R.A. DeCandido

In today’s Big Idea, Keith R.A. DeCandido is here to represent for The Bronx, and why it’s a fantastic setting for his new urban fantasy novel, A Furnace Sealed.

KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO:

Finding an urban fantasy novel that takes place within the confines of New York City is about as difficult, to quote that great philosopher Edmund Blackadder, as putting on a hat. Just in general, the Big Apple is a very popular setting for fiction, not just of the urban fantasy variety.

But when you say “New York City” to the vast majority of humans, what they think of is the Manhattan skyline. They think of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower. They think of the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge and the 59th Street Bridge (and then they feel groovy). They think of Central Park and the Theatre District and Greenwich Village. They think of Harlem and Chelsea and Chinatown.

In other words, they think of Manhattan south of 125th Street. To most folks, that’s what New York City is. Maybe, maybe they might throw Brooklyn in there.

A Furnace Sealed is my attempt to remind folks that there’s a lot more to the Big Apple than that. The city has five boroughs. There’s also Queens to the east and Staten Island to the south. There’s Inwood and Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan that is often forgotten.

And there’s the Bronx, my home borough, the northernmost portion, the home of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Yankees, the only part of the city connected to the mainland.

The Bronx has a long and fascinating history. It also has an image problem, as the only image most folks can conjure is the South Bronx forty years ago. Fort Apache, the Bronx was released in 1981, Howard Cosell famously said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during the World Series in 1977, and all too often when I tell people I live in the Bronx, they think it’s still like that. “Do you carry a knife?” (I used to carry a Swiss Army Knife, but post-2001 airport security has gotten me out of that habit.) “Is it safe where you live?” (Very.) “Are you the only white people?” (No, and also, even if we were, so the hell what?)

But the Bronx has Little Italy (the real one, not the tourist trap in lower Manhattan), the aforementioned Bronx Zoo, City Island (a New England-style fishing village off the east coast of the borough full of great seafood and adorable crafts stores), several huge parks, the New York Botanical Gardens, Woodlawn Cemetery (where many famous personages from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Miles Davis to Fiorello LaGuardia are buried), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, several great universities (Fordham University, Manhattan College, Mt. St. Vincent, etc.), and very soon an independent bookstore, the Lit. Bar. It’s where Edgar Allan Poe spent the last years of his life and where break-dancing and hip-hop were born. Alan Alda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all from the Bronx. And there’s so much more besides.

It’s because most of you reading this probably didn’t know most of what I just wrote about that I conceived The Bram Gold Adventures, of which the first book is A Furnace Sealed. Bram Gold is a Courser, a supernatural hunter-for-hire. He’s the guy you hire to wrangle a unicorn or babysit werewolves on the night of the full moon or get that pesky leprechaun off your lawn. And he works and lives in the Bronx. The first story I wrote with him appeared in the 2011 anthology Liar Liar, which had some fun with the history of the Marble Hill neighborhood, which used to be a physical part of Manhattan, then an island, and now is physically part of the Bronx (though politically still part of Manhttan).

The theme of the urban fantasy world I’ve created is that most of the creatures are not quite what you expect—much like the borough where the book takes place. Unicorns are, in fact, surly beasts any time they smell a male (which is why virgins can calm them—they don’t have man-funk on them). Vampires are total wusses who are pale and sickly and don’t like sunlight. Werewolves are mostly just people who turn into big dogs once a month.

And Coursers—and magic users, for that matter—are just people doing a job. In addition to letting people know that there’s a whole ‘nother part of the Big Apple to the north, I also wanted to make sure that I portrayed characters who need to feed and clothe and house themselves. Most people make decisions based on what they can afford, and fictional characters should do likewise. At one point in A Furnace Sealed, Bram has to put his investigation on hold because he’s working a shift at Montefiore Hospital. (In addition to being Bram Gold, Courser, he’s also Dr. Abraham Goldblume, who works two days a week as an ER doctor. He changed his name for the former job because if you want your nasty monster hunted, you’re not gonna hire a schmuck named Abe Goldblume. Bram Gold, on the other hand, sounds like he can get stuff done.) He has to work that shift, because he’s already called in sick too often, and if he does it again, he’ll get fired, and it’s hard to find more work when you’re fired for poor attendance at your only-twice-a-week job.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to go to a lot of different parts of the Bronx. It was that work in particular that got the wheels turning about the manifold glories of the Boogie-Down Bronx, and I wanted to bring them to the world in a way that I hope youse guys (as we say in da Bronx) find entertaining. And if you do, rest assured, I’m already hard at work on Book 2 of The Bram Gold Adventures…

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A Furnace Sealed: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords

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