Saturday, August 21, 2021

stability & uncertainty | the creative life

The past few years, I go through strange bouts of contentment and sudden, sharp jabs of discontent. These usually have to do with workloads and money and forever, the unpaid work of being a writer and an editor. Of being permanently understaffed at the library, where I've often taken on things far beyond my pay grade, but also had things foist upon me due to staff changes (things that used to be whole other positions, sometimes in other departments).  It seems tacky to talk about job woes on the internet, but I have always tried to be honest in this space. And these aren't things I haven't said to my superiors dozens of times, but they too, have limited abilities to change things--budget cuts, institutional stinginess, lack of hands, hiring freezes.  They are good people and I consider them friends. They are trying.  I am trying.  Covid threw a wrench in a lot of things, so these are minor. 

I have the dream to eventually be able to float on my own creative work and the press (and therefore, be better and more intentional at these things as well.)  But it's a risk that sets my Taurean heart into a tailspin of panic.  Even outside of things like health insurance and retirement saving, there is living and existing in a rather expensive city where I live alone and shoulder all expenses. I nearly topped the whole house of cards trying to pay two rents in the fall of 2019.  My living expenses are just covered by my library job (just), but I live as frugally as I can/ was raised  (waiting for sales, thrifting most things, buying second hand clothes. watching my restaurant/entertainmment budget, using public trans, cheap electronics, and very little traveling even before covid.)  Because I live paycheck to paycheck. I have no real savings beyond my 401K, which is still smaller than it should be.Occasionally there is some money left over for small treats like iced lattes and fancy bath gel. But not always.   

When I was selling Etsy in the late aughts, there were more ample extra funds from selling vintage and other things--art, paper goods, soap, jewelry.  There was money flowing in, but I was neglecting all the things I wanted to make--namely more books and zines.  To focus on the reasons I started the press (rather than spend rare studio hours making custom bars of soap or wedding invitations.)  Eventually, by 2011,  it was getting hard to be seen there and more expensive to sell, so I moved the shop to freestanding, but lost a lot of internal traffic. When I decided to focus more on books & zines, with the other stuff more as a side offering (art, prints, stationery), what followed of several years of making do, kicking in with my library income when we had a slow month.  The chapbook series mostly eats it's own mostly in toner , ink, postage, and paper stock. Other things I sell eat up more in supplies and packaging. Profits from one book get rolled into producing others, some of which sell well, some with slower rolls. Nothing, however, is guaranteed from month to month. I got really tired explaining to people how I couldn't afford to go to things like AWP and when I did manage, it nearly wiped me out and took months to recover from financially. (well, that was before they tried to kill everyone with covid in 2020, so I certainly won't be going again.) 

I was thinking about unpaid work and the stresses even those things entail. Even creative work, especially something you put so much into that gives little material reward.  The hours devoted to perfecting a poem or manuscript.  Doing the work of submitting and editing and keeping track of things. Battling printers and assembling books. Designing covers and interiors. A couple months ago, I went around thinking I wanted anything but this. Grad school, new jobs, new directions.  Anything but poetry and libraries. Maybe film studies, or graphic design, or marketing. I eyed the tents pitched along lake shore drive and the food assistance lines on my commute and had sudden fears that I was one paycheck from the streets and always would be continuing to live the life I do. Not that there is shame in these things in any way. Shit happens. The world is fucked up and the rich get richer on the backs of everyone else.  But, without any safety nets,  my own fear is very real.   I pictured myself 20 years down the line...the retirement savings I only barely have--how it's impossible to save when you live paycheck to paycheck. And does it even make you happy anymore?  Does anything? And even if it does most of the time,  should I be living some other sort of less rewarding or creative life to make sure I can sustain myself later? 

The winds shift back of course.  Much like my winter doldrums, the spring returns and I feel again, if not enthusiastic all the time, at least neutral. I spent a lot of time building this life, making sure I made the right choices, but why do I sometimes hate it?  If money was no object (had I married a rich or been independently wealthy) I would choose this life. I did choose this life, all along, each decision a choice to get me to the present.  But sometimes I feel like my priorities were wrong somewhere along the way.  That in seizing some things, I gave up important ones--ones that would have made me more financially secure. Just more secure in general. The early days of the pandemic terrified me.  I though for sure I would lose that job that I sometimes complain about. That academia would tumble into rubble.  That society would crumble into rubble. (all of these things in addition to getting sick.)  On the flipside, my priorities are different somehow in terms of  my creative practice.  It also, however,  made me scared and therefore, apt to cling to it even tighter. I know I can't work in a state of instability.  Of uncertainly.  Creatively or otherwise.

Which  is, of course, the worst of all puzzles.  To have the stability that allows writing and artmaking to happen, but also to not get swallowed so completely by that other work that there is nothing left for the poems or art. What do we give up in terms of stability and work we may even enjoy to do this work we somehow still need to do. And even the those things, how we keep them from feeling like cages of a different sort. 

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