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When an Artist Refers to a Body of WORK
It’s like gesturing to a museum exhibit
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. This one, posting on March 7th, 2023, is the Official 2nd Anniversary of Paid Subscriptions edition. Exciting! I’ve been considering taking on this “writing life” subject for a few weeks now, and that it is happening today is merely coincidence/serendipity, whatever. Which is to say, if this topic seems premeditated and actually planned for this momentous occasion, it totally wasn’t. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes, doesn’t it?
I hope you all understand that what happens here, for three years now in total, wouldn’t be happening anymore without all of your support, whether you pay to read or not. I am immeasurably grateful to all of you. Some weeks are more difficult than others to come to this space and think of something to write but I haven’t stopped enjoying it. Not a bit. I try not to care too much either about how many paying subscribers there are but I do pay attention to it. It’s worth noting that, at $50/year, or $5/month (I have no intention of raising prices any time soon), it works out to about $1/post for paid subscribers. That’s not so much when you think about it that way, is it? It really is a kind of mutual aid network you can participate in, whether you are subscribing to me or any number of other worthy creative types. Perhaps soon I will do a post just rounding up some of my favorites, I don’t know.
Even so, if you’re someone who really digs this newsletter and wants to see everything, including the “for paying subscribers only” garbage as well but simply can’t add more to your overhead, I get it. Just contact me and let me know, no questions asked, and I’ll hook you up. I want a community here, not customers.
What is Work
On a couple occasions recently I’ve encountered friendly acquaintances I haven’t seen in a while. During the inevitable catching up that happens I’ve been asked what I’m doing these days and when I answer that I’m writing full-time it sparks some confusion. Saying I write for a living outside the auspices of traditional employment is as unfathomable to them as saying I roam the hinterlands hunting yeti from the back of a furry unicorn while naked but for a loincloth. You can almost see the words, “Is there a living in that?” flicker across the backs of their foreheads. There is indeed a living, friends, even if it feels like a scramble sometimes. But it’s worth it, because I really don’t answer to anyone but myself and that is worth all the so-called security the traditional working world allegedly offers. Will I die of some treatable illness I can’t prevent because I can’t afford the costs with my garbage version of use-only-in-the-case-of-graphic-and-catastrophic-sudden-injury health insurance? Probably, but so what? I don’t need much more from my lifetime and I feel like I’m making the best of borrowed time as it is.
"I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed."
My friend Kelly Schirmannwrote a piece on her newsletter a couple months ago called “Work Notes” that I’ve been thinking about. In talking about the “work” we do and how we make money, she writes these particularly compelling paragraphs:
What is my WORK in this world, what are my outdated ideas about WORK, how to create and maintain a sense of purpose divorced from the American idea of WORK = IDENTITY or WORK = VALUE. Some of these things are easy to figure out, and some of them are not.
When an artists refers to a body of WORK, it’s like gesturing to a museum exhibit. Everything catalogued, photographed and dated, the WORK taking up physical space in the world, each piece of WORK in the body of WORK accumulating invisible power, and therefore representing not just labor and time but worth, increasing worth, as each piece of WORK is as solid and complete and essential as a brick in a temple, which the public can walk into, shelter under, marvel at, and appraise.
But other WORK isn’t solid at all, just an immeasurable and constant streaming of time and energy, never complete or catalogued but constant: every day a floor to sweep the crumbs from, emails that make more emails, WORK that doesn’t represent a life but takes from it, WORK that prevents a sitting-down-to more meaningful forms of WORK (WORK that might one day represent to the world who you are, instead of obscuring your soul in its stream).
I was born to two WORKaholics who became adults under the papery wingspan of Ronald Reagan, and whose ideas about WORK were irreparably hardened by his: “If you want it, WORK for it.” Something he might have said. My WORK is about class and freedom and technology and what happens to the organic being within the electrified grid of industry. I WORK at a school (a stream) and I WORK for myself (the laborious construction of a temple).
I wish I had more money, but everyone wishes that.
Kelly is one of my comrades. I can’t think of what I do as anything else but “work” and I'd use a different word if I could. Work gets a bad rap for all the reasons Kelly mentions, another word stolen for nefarious reasons by the capitalists. But I like work. I like my writing work. I like the work that involves shoveling snow or splitting wood or hauling my ass up a trail. Of keeping power steering fluid in my truck and the books on my shelves organized.
When it comes to the art nature of writing – of my writing – I (generally) don’t do it for money. I just do it, and there are people – largely you glorious people – who appreciate what I do (my work) enough that you are willing to compensate me for it.It's an important distinction. I'm not doing it for you, friends. I'm doing it for me and what I feel compelled to contribute to the world and you participate in the sharing and shaping of it. Despite occasional moments of weakness to the contrary, I try not to think or care too much what your expectations are. I think it's better for both of us that way.
As for the other things I do – teaching, workshops, whatever – I do them the way I want to and if the folks asking me to do it don't like it they can get someone else. As soon as work starts to feel like a J-O-B I will be gone so fast the door has no chance to hit me in the ass.
Where the Money Comes From
We need money to live and my work does provide that. While I don’t keep track so well of my publishing history I do keep track of where the money comes from.I generated this little graph from last year that might be of interest to some of you. As you’ll see, much of my income isn’t so much for writing as it is for writing adjacent activities. Opportunities that have come my way because of the writing.
A few notes about the chart:
Nothing comes close to the 40% slice of my income pie that this newsletter provides. This is certainly writing income and I love it! I love all of you paid subscribers! I also recognize that Substack could collapse any day and all that would disappear in a poof, so it’s also a little terrifying. But so are floods and wildfires and gentrification.
In second place at 19% is teaching. That’s the stuff I do with kids on the reservation every spring and also the Storytelling class I taught at the University of Montana last fall. These are on a year-to-year, month-to-month, week-to-week, moment-to-moment, no guarantee basis as well. I like the interactions and mental stimulation that comes with students of all ages. I’m not too keen on, or very good at, the idea of teaching anything, though.
If I combined – and maybe should – the Consulting/Honoraria (10%) and Workshops/Presentations (11%) options that slice would be second at 21%. This is an arena I think will expand more once Becoming Little Shell comes out. At least that is my plan. I’ve dialed back going out and talking about the Little Shell until the book is imminent, then I’ll be back to it … and then some, I hope. Maybe. I just don’t have the emotional energy to talk about the book or anything related to it much anymore without its physical presence. Doing so I think has made it all take longer (finishing the book, I mean) too, though all that bloviating has served other long term purposes. It’s all so complicated sometimes!
So even though I don’t like to talk about it, here I am talking about Becoming Little Shell again, this time as it relates to Book Sales and Advances/Royalties. The 6% in sales is almost 100% the copies of OSJ and Descended from a Travel-worn Satchel I provide to and sell through Fact & Fiction, and the occasional ones I sell myself at workshops and presentations. The 4% in Advances/Royalties reflect the pittance I receive from Riverfeet Press for One-Sentence Journal sales through other bookstores via the distributor, Amazon, etc. It’s tiny.The number also includes the remainder of the advance I received for writing Becoming Little Shell, which I received when I turned in my first draft last year. That advance was also tiny. In fact, I think I’ve made more these first 2.5 months in newsletter subscriptions than I did for the total advance. It’s also entirely possible that that is all the money I will ever make for BLS. I’ll say that again: It’s entirely possible, even likely, I’ll never receive another penny for writing BLS and it’s not even out yet. That’s simply because if the book doesn’t earn out – i.e. generate more money in sales than the advance was – I don’t get paid royalties. It’s a risk I was willing to take because it’s not like I wasn’t going to write it anyway, with or without money up front or a publisher saying they wanted it. However, given the small size of the advance, the reputation and savvy of the publisher, and the interest I think people will have for the book, I'm pretty confident it will earn out and I'll generate some (likely small) royalties, for a while, but there is no guarantee of that happening and I'm not counting on it. Let’s just say that if I am counting on anything from the book it is the expanded opportunities its existence will provide for more writing adjacent income. There’s already one big one looming in 2025, contingent on BLS being out in the world, that will be about a 30% increase on top of what I made last year in total, which is kind of a big deal. It's also possible it could generate more subscribers to this newsletter provided Substack even lasts that long.
Lastly, freelancing. I could boost this amount if I ever wanted to start pitching things again and sometimes I consider doing so. People continue to make a living doing that. I don’t know that I will ever try very hard to move more in that direction, though. I have a friend currently wrangling to get compensated for a piece that came out two months ago and it sucks and that is a neverending battle in the freelance world: the struggle just to get freaking paid what has been agreed to. I was recently offered to interview another Indigenous writer for a publication claiming to be “the world’s first and longest-publishing online journal of place” with all kinds of clout and cred and they wanted to pay me $50 for 3000 words. I was insulted and largely told them so. I wish I knew who makes those kinds of decisions for them because I’d like to track them down and tell them to take their fancy website and their illustrious list of board members and (volunteer) editors and their anthologies and shove it all up their ass.Not to mention the pittance they are offering for having an Indigenous person interview another Indigenous person for their certainly overwhelmingly white readership in light of their “statement on racial justice”. It's just so typical and gross. But when folks come to me for stuff and they aren’t stuffy about magnanimously offering me “exposure” I’m happy to oblige. I did the piece for the Wildsam folks last year and every step of the process was great. They approached me, the editing process was professional and light-handed, and they actually paid me an agreeable amount before the book even came out. I’ll do stuff like that any time.
I’m very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, in the position I am. I wrote a piece a couple months ago for the Inbox Collective called, “Launching a Paid Newsletter Gave Me the Freedom to Say ‘No’.” That remains very much the case. And if I can keep WORKing, things seem to be continuing on an upward trajectory. Even when I bog down here and there – and it happens – it’s not like I have anything else I can do. At this point, I’m all in. I’m more traditionally unemployable than ever.
“On January 27, J. Elliott Lewis, a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, tweeted a picture of a ‘Now Hiring’ sign from the popular burger chain Five Guys. The salary on the sign was advertised at an average of $17.85/hour, and the job comes with free burgers. ‘The Five Guys on the Syracuse University campus is hiring, and they’re paying $17.85 per hour. That works out to $37K per year. Attention local TV station managers: If you are looking to hire our graduates, are you paying better than Five Guys?’ Lewis wrote.
My pal Lyz Lenzwrote this excellent piece about journalism recently called “Media’s Money Problem.” It’s sobering. The demise of quality, living-providing local journalism is a dangerous turn of events. How are we going to solve this? I know from personal experience people are willing to pay for good writing and reporting, so I think it is up to us to solve it ourselves and not rely on legacy corporate, capitalist infrastructure to handle it. It’s easy for me to act all fearless because all I really risk is losing a few personal subscribers when I am particularly irritable and that doesn’t really affect my livelihood but it’s different for people under the yoke of traditional employment. It’s something to be thinking about. Read Lyz’s piece and think about what you might do beyond wringing your hands and I will do the same and maybe sometime we will have a conversation about it. It’s a big deal.
What is the role of the artist in this space?
Writer and super creative Anna Bronesasks these questions in a recent newsletter that echo the ones I think my friend Kelly was raising in the reference I opened this newsletter with:
What is the role of the artist in this space? What is the role of creativity in this space?
What does it mean to be a working artist within the confines of capitalism?
What does it mean to have a sustainable amount of work?
What does it mean to challenge hustle culture, to move more slowly, to be more intentional, even when it feels like you still need to hustle sometimes to make it all work and pay for your self-employed health insurance and cross your fingers that nothing detrimental happens?
What is the point of making art in the face of all of that?
She answers question 5 herself with: “Everything. I truly mean that.”
I’m asking myself these questions all the time. I do hustle but I try and do it slowly and at a measured pace. Does that sound impossible? I don’t think it is. But there are moments of panic. Writing in the aftermath of coming off a recent retreat (which is exactly how I feel after every single one of the in-person workshops I’ve ever done), Anna writes:
The following day I was still riding on that high, a sense of purpose and direction pushing me forward, recommitting to my own creative practice. But then that glow started to wear off, and the twitchiness I had been feeling before going to the retreat set back in.
An impending sense of stress and financial frustration when remembering that I still didn’t have any big work projects lined up for spring. A lurking darkness when my brain started to think about taxes. And then an overarching questioning of, “what are you even doing?”
I agree with Anna about the point of making art. Art is so important, not just for the people trying to make a living at it but for everyone. But I – and every other artist I know – constantly ask myself what I’m even doing. Sometimes I freak out about it. I’ve lined up big projects for spring and summer but they don’t happen if not enough people sign up for them so that income – which isn’t all that much either but I do count on it – is no guarantee either. So community participation is always a lingering worry.
I'm not doing it for you, friends. I'm doing it for me and what I feel compelled to contribute to the world and you participate in the sharing and shaping of it. Despite occasional moments of weakness to the contrary, I try not to think or care too much what your expectations are. I think it's better for both of us that way.
I hope some of this ramble was a little enlightening. I’m making this writing life happen because I show up one way or another every day and supporters like you are helping me make it happen. Sometimes I wonder what I can do here that you might like better and then I put the kibosh on that kind of thinking. I’ve been doing what I want and people seem to be interested in it so I’ll keep doing it. I’ll ask now and then what you might think of something – the audio version of the recent sentences post,for example – and maybe I’ll do more or less of it and maybe I won’t. As I said in the Inbox Collective piece, “I decided that I was better off just writing what I want to write and hopefully creating an audience for the things I write about.” That is working out for me, and I hope it is working out for you too as people who come here to read what’s on my mind. I’m always open to input and I am always grateful for it. I just might not always seem to listen but I do. It’s just that it’s my sandbox, and I trust you respect that.
Speaking of Big Projects That Don’t Happen If People Don’t Sign Up for Them
Still taking registrations for the following (I think):
April: Rewilding Bodies, Rewilding Writing via Zoom, register HERE
May: Poetry as Spiritual Practice, In Person in YNP!, register HERE
July: Good Ancestors with the Freeflow Institute on the Missouri!, register HERE
Finally, you may apply for Freeflow Scholarships by clicking HERE
I particularly love it when Irritable Readers participate in these things.
Miigwech for all the support, for three years now and into the future. Here’s to more and more and more….
An Irritable Métis is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The blog I had that predates this newsletter was called “Naked But for a Loincloth” and I regularly lament ever changing the name. Would it be more fun then to refer to you all as “Naked Readers” rather than “Irritable Readers”? Both are awesome, IMO….
I did one piece last year that I will say was 100% “writing for the money” and I hated it and it totally brought to mind the Bowden quote that is this header image. It was for a big national magazine that, by the time it went to print, was so much not my writing that I don’t even talk about it and the paycheck, while welcome, was not close to worth the hassle. Never again.
Yes, Mara, in a SPREADSHEET.
I should also point out that OSJ has exceeded my wildest expectations despite sales that a big publisher would sneer at, and numbers well below what BLS will need to earn out. I’m still asked to do things on the strength of that book and the opportunities it has generated are literally why I am here. It changed my life! The secret, beyond people liking it more than I expected, is I took a pretty regional approach to marketing it and I never gave up on it. I still haven’t. Measured against what BLS will have behind it as far as marketing and distribution isn’t an apples to apples comparison though when it comes to overall sales expectations.
A shared one with the publisher, I might add. The advance is their investment in hopes of future returns for both of us.
And it will be or I will be 100% dead and none of this will matter.
I also have a goal when it comes to pre-orders when they are available, hopefully by the end of the year or so: I want to bury Fact & Fiction with at least 500 requests for signed, personalized copies. I think that might be unprecedented for a hardcover but also doable. It’s good for my ego, sure, but also really, really good for the store.
Yes, that sounds particularly irritable. But if you’ve been around since the 90s and haven’t figured out a way to pay your contributors decently you just aren’t fucking trying and I resent it on behalf of all artists and creative types. Not to mention paying the volunteer editors who have to offer these pittances to frustrated writers. If an uneducated luddite like yours truly can make this work, well….
Her MEN YELL AT ME newsletter is one of the best out there and inspires me regularly. You may check it out HERE.
Friends, I made significantly more last year than I would have at that Five Guys, just so you know. Not so much more worth bragging about, but enough to keep me out of a stupid red shirt with grease stains all over it.
Whenever I post anything there is always a big drop in subscribers, every single time.
Anna writes another simply fantastic newsletter. Please consider checking out CREATIVE FUEL right HERE.
And yeah, these things look expensive on paper. But no one involved is getting rich; everyone is barely making a living if they are at all.
It’s funny to me that these “sentences pieces” are arguably my favorite things to compile and write and are far and away the least popular things I post, based on likes/engagement/etc. And that they are for paid subscribers only is not the reason because the photo essay pieces, also for paid only subscribers, are generally the most popular.