I Didn’t Think Art Could Make Me Rich, But I Thought It Might Pay Some Very Cheap Rent (Nope)

After graduating college, I pulled together a poetry tour of the East Coast with three friends. We couch-surfed and split small sums from homemade book sales and venue entry fees. Our biggest check—$2,000—came from working with a small city’s public library. That money made it possible for us to break even after a month on the road, but only just. It was a start, we thought.

Years later, one friend is in graduate school for archival science; another is in school to become a Unitarian Universalist minister; and the third works at cash-for-gold stand in the mall. I schedule appointments at the office of a moving company.

None of us have been able to rely on writing as a sole source of income. None of us have jobs in the arts that pay our rent. There was a time when this would have surprised me.

I initially went to school to be a painter. Well-meaning family members gave unsolicited advice on how to better use my talents. (“Go into graphic design!”) Concerned parties were relieved when I switched my focus to writing: writers can become teachers, at least. Nevermind shrinking public school budgets and layoffs: my family had already built a new dream for me that involved circle time and oak tag.

I let them have their dream. But my dream had to do with the actual making. I wanted to be a working artist. I self-published poetry chapbooks and wrote every single day. My hopes for after graduation were a modest lifestyle and a communal apartment. I was fairly certain I’d have to get a non-art-related job in order to make ends meet, but that seemed like a temporary thing until my art became more profitable. I knew art would never make me rich. But I thought that it could get me by.

There was definitely cognitive dissonance at play—I never had a financial safety net. I did not study something practical, yet I was convinced I’d be able to make it work, just as an artist. In school, I saw a lot of people perform who seemingly were making a living off of their art. But I never asked the practical questions. How did they do it? I now know how they did it: a combination of some teaching, some incidental art money from sporadic gigs, some flexible service jobs, some family money.

Three years after graduation, it has become clear that being an artist is not something that will ever provide me with a living wage.

After graduation and after the poetry tour, I moved in with my sister, paying a quarter of the rent while working two full-time food service jobs. I started submitting my poetry and fiction to literary magazines and journals. I edited poetry submissions for free for a small magazine and wrote a weekly column for their website. I twice received modest checks—under $50–from literary journals that published my writing. I was on food stamps for a little over a year with no savings and two maxed-out credit cards with high interest rates.

I considered an MFA, hoping that a stable teaching position could sustain a concurrent creative career, but only a handful of MFA programs provide full-funding for their graduate students, and most of the writing programs in major cities charge exorbitant application fees. And after, the options are scarcely better: Many MFA writing graduates end up as adjunct professors with low salaries, no benefits, and little job security.

The harsh reality of making art in America is that there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. Grants are highly competitive and unevenly distributed. Upstart presses require their authors to organize and execute national book tours on their own dime in order to promote their own titles. Staff and contributors of most literary journals go unpaid for the efforts, no matter how high the quality. The magazines that do pay charge a reading fee to support themselves, unable to count on donations and subscriptions alone.

Residencies charge application fees for consideration; many programs do not provide stipends or cost-free housing during an artist’s tenure there. Workshops, festivals, and retreats are just as bad in terms of financial accessibility. Attendance requires a flexible work schedule, or a job that you can disappear from for months at a time without consequence.

Nearly three years post-college, I am just now nearing my first continuous year with a stable job including salary, insurance, and paid vacation days. It has absolutely nothing to do with what I want to be doing with my life. I perform my cubicle duties from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday. I edit creative pieces on my lunch break, send out submissions to literary magazines and article pitches to editors in between fielding phone calls. At night I write, or paint, or photograph paintings for my Etsy store. If I’m honest, the amount of money my art makes me—and costs me—renders it an unsustainable career path. I still consider it the most important work I do, though it has been—and may always be—relegated to a secondary position.


Emily O’Neill lives in Somerville, Mass.


48 Comments / Post A Comment

katiekate (#1,051)

As someone who is in a similar position – but working in arts education/programming/admin – i’ve been thrust unwillingly into the life of a starving artist. I hang out with a lot of artist friends who are trying to make it work. This girl is incredibly naive – which she admits, but hasn’t seemed to integrate that knowledge into how she thinks about her life. Those friends who make it work? They are successful artists. They are what successful artists have ALWAYS BEEN. I mean, imagine this article if it were a struggling artist resentful that they haven’t won a part in a tv show three years after college graduation?

That said, this girl is clearly pretty awesome and is simply young so I will say this: If you don’t want to live like your “successful” artist friends, then you are in trouble. If you do? Then you’ll make it. You’ll make a life. But what do you want?

Lily Rowan (#70)

@katiekate At least this author doesn’t sound resentful — more wistful. But seriously, how many people make a living from poetry? Ten?

katiekate (#1,051)

@Lily Rowan Right? I mean I’m probably just as broke as she is and i have an Ivy League MA in Arts Education and work five jobs (three volunteer). I mean, the arts just don’t pay, hon!

That said yes, I appreciate her attitude. It seems like shes getting her first reality check and handling it well. Probably where I was at her age, honestly. I can’t judge!

@katiekate I’m fully aware the arts don’t pay, and I don’t think I was naive to hope I could make it work. I think we all hope to make it work, and we do, to varying degrees. My current job isn’t ideal for me because of how much energy it robs me of. Being a working artist is something that does take a lot of juggling, and I am fully aware of and accepting of that. I even like the juggling a lot of the time. My life feels full and interesting. The article was just an expression of how exasperating the arts can be when you put more energy into your art life than your work life but your work life is still somehow more lucrative.

@Lily Rowan I think the last economically successful poet was maybe Robert Burns? Though he died when he was 37 so.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@stuffisthings Well, Maya Angelou, right?

@Lily Rowan Not expecting to make a living solely from art, just looking to shed some light on on the financial side of things for someone in my shoes. And the finances of young artists are pretty much the same as the finances of most young people in this economy–depressing. That’s why the article reads rueful.

EM (#1,012)

It might be impossible to make a living as a poet, but hopefully you can find a job you enjoy (even if it’s unrelated) that compensates you well enough to do your low/non-paying creative pursuits on the side. Take the time to work on your non-poetry career– it might be more feasible to, say, work towards a job that provides the money and flexible time off to allow you to attend writing workshops or take more classes, than it would be to struggle towards making a full-time living as a poet.

EM (#1,012)

@Michelle I realise on second-reading that this sounds like boring condescending advice; I probably should have said that having a fulfilling but not all-consuming day job that leaves me time to write and make magazines for zero dollars is how I get by with the reality that I know I couldn’t make a living off writing, nor would I probably enjoy trying.

@Michelle Not boring condescending advice at all. I don’t think making a living off writing is possible for the majority of people writing. Nobody makes a living off of poetry, some poeple make a living off of fiction, and most people making writing their primary bread-winning job write non-fiction, and a lot of it about things they do not care about at all. I’d rather enjoy most of my writing time and whatever success I can manage doing it part time than write for a living and lose all my creative energy to my job.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Emily O’Neill@twitter Yeah, I was just listening to David Sedaris talk about how he never wanted a desk job, because then he wouldn’t want to sit at a desk after work to write.

EM (#1,012)

@Lily Rowan @Emily O’Neill@twitter I agree but I’d add it depends on your creative pursuits/desk job. I spend most of my day at a desk but I like my job and it’s rarely stressful, so when I go home I usually have a few hours of energy left to put into my own projects. But I realise that’s very fortunate.

chic noir (#713)

I considered an MFA, hoping that a stable teaching position could sustain a concurrent creative career, but only a handful of MFA programs provide full-funding for their graduate students,

Smart lady, some people would’ve gone for the MFA anyway therby compunding the debt problem.

I never had a financial safety net. I did not study something practical, yet I was convinced I’d be able to make it work, just as an artist.

More proof that money= freedom. It’s become so that certain professions in America are for the wealthy and privaledged and well connected. Anything to do with Fashion (beyond retail), Art, Publishing, Journalism,etc… require some family money or the willingness to go deep into the deep with the hope that things turn out all right.

I just hope that me and my spouses health hold out so that if we have a child, we can afford to give him or her some sort of inherritence. So that he or she isn’t forced to become an enginner or plummber since “that’s where the jobs are”.

Confused (#2,501)

@chic noir yes, because engineers and plumbers are the same thing…

selenana (#673)

@Confused ??

Megoon (#328)

@chic noir I don’t disagree that careers in the arts, fashion, publishing, etc. are more or less only for the privileged, but I also don’t think that’s new. They’ve always been low-pay, high-prestige careers.

chic noir (#713)

@Confused – I take it you don’t read the comment section of blogs and newspapers when this sort of article is written?

chic noir (#713)

@Megoon – Yes but it seems that it is becoming more difficult to survive going into one of these fields if one isn’t from a from a background.

chic noir (#713)

I’m afraid this article may bring out the trolls. Too few Americans respect the arts and esp poetry.

eagerber (#1,958)

As someone who also just cashed a check ($50) from publishing a poem in a literary magazine, I know exactly how you feel. Being a poet is not going to pay my rent.
As an MFA student myself, and one who’s not at all interested in teaching, I wonder if the flaw in the MFA is the fact that’s it’s both a master’s degree and “terminal,” meaning that you, too, can teach at the college level, alongside those who hold PhDs. I wonder what would happen if that weren’t the case – if the MFA suddenly did NOT qualify you for an adjunct position. In fact, as the number of MFA holders continues to explode, I wonder if supply and demand will make that a reality – that it will continue to get harder and harder for MFAs to land even adjunct teaching jobs. If it were required, ten years from now, for all comp teachers to have PhDs, would as many people be entering MFA programs, knowing that in order to teach Writing 101 they’ll have to put in 5-8 years of study post-undergrad?
As someone who doesn’t want to teach, I often wonder what the MFA means to me – and whether it’s practical for me to finish it or not. On the one hand, it’s a master’s degree, so it should offer me more earning potential. On the other hand, it’s costing me just as much to fund this degree as it would be to fund a different degree (obviously not as much as an MBA or JD, but you get the point).
That said, the arts are – and always will be— important. Some of us should be doctors. Some of us should be lawyers. Others should be artists. An artist’s life is never going to be easy. It’s full of daily self-doubt, isolation, and rejection. (I started the submission game 3 years ago and have well over 200 rejection letters.) But the MFA community assuages those feelings. So, while the MFA may not have been the right fit for me, I support those who seek the degree for that community. If nothing else, it’s a humbling experience.

tussock (#1,296)

It feels important to point out that this is the product of a particular time & place. You can’t earn a living writing poetry in the United States in 2013. You can make a living in the United States, sometimes, doing other kinds of art (eg commercially successful musicians, a very few novelists, etc.). And creative writers have had more financial support (commercial & through government subsidies) in other countries & at other times. “The arts don’t pay” isn’t some kind of natural universal law; it’s an outgrowth of how we’ve structured our society.

@tussock Totally agree with the way you frame it. I wrote this to offer a snapshot of that moment in time. Thanks for reading!

tussock (#1,296)

@Emily O’Neill@twitter yes, exactly–to be clear, I wanted to reply to the theme in the comments that seems to suggest that you should have known you’d never make a living in poetry because it’s just totally impossible, like defying gravity. Whereas actually you describe really well why and how it’s impossible here & now, while retaining a sense that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Confused (#2,501)

Can we please have less articles about the obvious, boring fact that its hard to be a writer?

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@Confused unfortunately the first rule of writing is to write what you know. And all of the people who submit articles are likely to be people who are aspiring/pro writers. It’s not hard to deduce from this that most submissions here would be about how hard it is to be a writer – it’s writers writing about what they know!
Maybe you, a (presumably) non-aspiring writer, might like to submit something of quality that is about something less obvious/boring? But then, that might require the motivation to write; something you might not be as passionate about as some of the contributors here?

Niko Bellic (#311)

@TARDIStime Well that explains it then: if you have to write about things you know and you are young and don’t know things, you can’t really be a writer no matter how talented you are and how well you can write. Maybe you should stop writing for a while and go live a life and get to know things.

JitterBug (#1,972)

Anyone else seeing the irony of publishing this piece on a website that doesn’t pay its writers?

kate@twitter (#2,935)

So many responses to articles like these hinge on some variation of “do what you love on the side.” I’d like to see more articles on the ramifications of doing creative work “on the side” without falling back on the old “well William Carlos Williams was a doctor”-style arguments. What does doing serious creative work without expecting to be paid for it look like today?

NewDealer (#3,845)


As someone who used to work in the arts (theatre) but left for the sake of earning a living. There are a few people who can do art and expect to get paid for it:

1. People who can afford to be independently employed in the arts. I am not saying that these people are bad or wrong. Almost every artist knows at least one person who comes from independent means and does not need to worry about paying the rent and bills like a normal person.

2. The true misfits. Again no guarantee of success but there are some people who simply can’t do anything but art. They understand that they will probably be destitute for the rest of their lives and can are willing to take odd jobs for the rent and such.

3. The extremely lucky.

Now I don’t think this is good. I think people should be able to make a living from art with more ease. I wish we cared about art more but art is always going to be a field where the demand for jobs outpaces the supply.

If what you want is to support yourself through your writing, you should really check out Joe Konrath’s blog. While there are obviously no guarantees, following his advice massively increases your chances of being able to make a living from writing, especially for a writer of short fiction.

(No affiliation, yadda.)

Niko Bellic (#311)

I’d hate to share a household with one of you people who only want to do things you like to do. I feel like I’d be doing your dishes and cleaning up behind you all the time. Doing something you like is supposed to be an award in itself. Do something that others need to be done but nobody likes, and you’ll get compensated in money. Exception to this rule is possible for very talented artists (and scientists), but that is by definition a very exclusive club.

Georgex (#3,512)

@Niko Bellic Excellent, excellent comment. No shade, just tea. This is how the world works.

eliza (#3,161)

@Niko Bellic Probably the greatest comment ever posted here or elsewhere.

davidwatts (#3,830)

You know, 25 isn’t such a ripe old age. Work! Live! Write! The idea that you were going to explode out of you undergraduate degree to fame and a self-sustaining life as a poet is laudable in its way, but as you’re finding, it’s got little basis in reality. Who knows what the future holds?

I don’t think having a day job makes you a failure. I was just listening to David Sedaris on Fresh Air: he worked cleaning houses, long after he was reading stories frequently on NPR and being interviewed in the national press. This was not just because he was/is eccentric, it is because it was financially necessary.

paulina@twitter (#1,077)

I dunno. Doesn’t a lighting tech on the Iron Man 3 set technically work in the arts and make a living? Or is it only the arts when it’s a micro level?

@paulina@twitter I think that’s art for sure. Commercially successful art, but still art.

eliza (#3,161)

I actually cheered when you got to the part where you considered an MFA and decided against it. I have seen so many people struggle to realize their artistic dreams and decide that what they really need is more school, more “proof” that they’re a serious artist. Everyone I know with an MFA in the arts now works an unrelated day job that they would have been qualified for within a year of college graduation, had they deigned to go that route years earlier.

eagerber (#1,958)

@eliza Truth. I’m that person.

@eliza The lure of a getting into a funded program was great, but the almost guaranteed uselessness of the degree was plenty to convince me to stick to my midnight oil approach.

shannanigans (#3,833)

“Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can’t support that many ballerinas.”

@shannanigans I quit ballet when I was sixteen to take drawing lcasses. Go figure.

To a certain extent, I feel like I’ve internalized a stoicism in regards to poetry. It’s neither pretty nor comforting. To a certain extent, I suspect that poetry, itself, is more of a “relic” than a growing form of artistic expression. “Written language” is no longer a discourse of predominant communication, but has become entangled in the multi-media soup. That is to say that poetry, in the bare sense, ends up feeling incomplete without a larger scope and more interconnected presentation. Slam was/is a transitional movement aimed at invigorating poetry through a shift in medium. It was successful, but in the last few years we’re seeing that performance alone cannot sustain against the lack of interest. Back when I was producing limited-run chapbooks for Devaney, I had no illusion that it was anything other than a self-funded, inconsequential labor of love. In the end, the idea of even selling such was quickly thrown out the window in place of just getting them out there into the hands of individuals who may or may not find enjoyment. That said, Devaney seems to have found some success in focusing on poetry as a “bare-minimum to pay the rent”, but I suspect (not being able to do more then observe and listen) that his approach relies on spectacle and commodification of poetry-as-experience (in a similar way to having an artist draw caricature).

However, even after five years of my unrelated-to-art-in-any-way professional job I still dream little fantasies of actually being able to pursue something that I once loved.

thematt (#1,017)

I’d be curious to hear how much the author, and other poets in the comments, *spend* on the work (books, chapbooks, readings, etc.) of other living poets.

@thematt So much. I go to a weekly poetry reading ($3 cover, whatever on drinks–bartender is a poet, $5-$20 on a book if the featured performer is good). I buy 3 or four books a month, typically from indie presses or directly from writers on book tours. Not to mention multiple lit mag subscriptions. I take a class at Grub Street in Boston, an organization run by writers for writers. A great deal of my money goes into the system I’m hoping to eventually benefit from. I can’t speak for others, but investing in the arts is just as important to me as feeling like financial success in the arts (however modest) is possible.

Have you put in your ten thousand hours or your million words? Why would you expect artistic success to come so soon in your life? Did you not realize what meager amounts most writing makes you? Why does your situation surprise you?

I realize I sound like a bitch, but I just got off of my stressful night job working at as an ICU nurse and I still have to write my two thousand words today, after I wake up, after errands, and before going back in to work tonight, for a book that’s due in three months.

The dream of the financially secure writer is just that — a dream. Every author I know right now has to hustle, and those that aren’t do so at their peril.

S. Lesbeau (#3,848)

Go do it or stop complaining. If you care that much about your work you’ll do it regardless and suck it up. Good for you for dedicating your life to your work, go get to it. Also, I don’t believe that you worked two full-time service jobs and only paid a quarter of your rent. Where the hell were you living that you couldn’t afford rent at 80 hours a week?

To be fair, rent in Somerville is astronomical. As a whole, the Boston metro is an extremely expensive place to rent in, and demand continues to outpace supply driving rents ever-higher. You should maybe consider moving to Western Mass, or NH/VT. (I know that might be a sacrifice you don’t want to make, but you can’t often pick both where you want to live AND the work you want to do without outside financial support.) Art isn’t going to pay the rent around here. I know from experience, living near-ish Davis Square. Good luck.

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