RMIT Gazette: Is it really all about the money?

Jessica Pethick  

The RMIT Gazette is a dynamic daily newspaper produced, published and distributed around Melbourne during the Emerging Writers’ Festival. We’ll publish the Gazette’s top stories online during the festival.

The stereotype of the starving artist is a real thing, and we creative types often perpetuate—even revel in—this myth, as though it were a badge of honour. Proof that we’re really living the creative life. Look at me, look how much I’m willing to do, how far I’m willing to go for my art.

Maybe this is our way of coping with the facts of the creative life. In Show me the Money Izzy Roberts-Orr said that the annual earnings for a published author last year averaged at just $13,900. Other numbers I’ve heard are only marginally better. According to Honor Eastly’s Starving Artist podcast, the median wage for an artist in this country is around $22,000 a year if you’re doing it full-time. By Australian standards, that’s still well below the poverty line.

Financial stress—such as the anxiety you feel when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent—has been scientifically proven to lower a person’s IQ. Worrying about money actually impairs your ability to think, which then affects everything from concentration to the generation of new ideas. The real effect of financial troubles on our artists, and consequently on our cultural landscape, is profound. As Roanna Gonsalves writes in an article for Southerly, ‘the creators of contemporary Australian literature are unable to invest themselves wholly, to dedicate themselves completely, to the task of expressing [the] nation’s stories in all their diversity and complexity.’

Yet the topic is rarely brought up—beyond the myth, that is. Most of us were taught early on that it’s not polite to discuss money, and in the arts, we take it further. Our craft is our passion, and you can’t sully passion with pesky details like the need for financial stability.

In Eastly’s final podcast, two points are raised that really speak to this issue. Firstly, she highlights what should be obvious: you can’t take anything at face value. It’s impossible to know someone’s financial situation by looking at their lives or careers or social media. Nevo Zisin said the same thing in Issue 6 of The Gazette. ‘It seems the more traction you gain, the richer people think you are,’ they explain, ‘but it’s often a misconception. I do lots of interviews for radio, publications, some television and I don’t get paid anything for them.’

What appears to be ‘success’ or ‘happiness’ may be just that—an appearance. In any profession, people feel the need to look like they’re making it even if they’re not. Madeline Dore also spoke to this in an ArtsHub article a few years ago when she wrote that, ‘if we don’t speak frankly about our finances and the associated challenges, artists will continue to be shut out from honing strategies to develop a career, as well as look after themselves in the process. People will simply give up on their creative pursuits because… it is just too hard. What we need in the arts sector,’ she states, ‘is a committed shift towards transparency.’

During EWF we’ve published a daily column at The Gazette with that aim in mind. In our ‘All About the Money’ series, artists have spoken frankly regarding their financial situations and strategies. Melissa Lucashenko highlighted the importance of maintaining low overheads; Manisha Anjali called it ‘the art of living cheaply and beautifully.’ Joshua Pomare and Andy Butler both emphasised the positive impact that a supportive partner can make. Ellen van Neervan prioritises work that has meaning to her as part of her sustainable practice, and Mark Brandi saved up in a ‘normal’ career before dedicating his time to writing. Isobelle Carmody encouraged us to have a Plan B because, as Nevo Zisin reiterated, ‘going down this track is not necessarily going to result in much money.’ Stuart Grant, on the other hand, never tried to have a Plan B—he just puts ‘the creative work [he wants] to do’ first.

Each artist’s situation is unique. One thing that almost all of them had in common was they do other work besides writing to make ends meet. And, it’s not only about money. In Don’t Quit Your Day Job and Burn Baby Burn we heard a number of reasons why other work can be beneficial. Mental health was high on the list. Being broke is obviously a source of stress in itself, but even just leaving the house to go to another workplace can help get us out of our own heads and focused on other things.

We all need money to live in this world. Fact! But, money is only a tool and like any other tool, it is a means to an end and not the end in itself. The question of what a healthy, sustainable lifestyle looks like to you—to any of us—is an individual one, and the pathway to living it is equally as subjective.

If there’s one thing we’ve seen through all these interviews and panels it’s that there isn’t only one way to be a writer. You don’t have to be struggling to be a real artist. We can stop perpetuating that myth. One of the speakers shared that she’d been called a ‘sell-out’ for having a day job and it’s sad to think that this is a pressure we put entirely on ourselves, and consequently on each other. It’s time for us to grow up. To ‘work smarter—not harder,’ as one boss used to say to me. Find the job that fits with your writing, one that will allow it to flourish. Remember that day job isn’t synonymous with ‘real’ job, no matter what your parents have told you. It’s just another kind of job. And it might just give you the freedom you need.

Words by Jessica Pethick. Illustration by Ella King. For the full article and to read more from the RMIT Gazette, click here.