Making Art In The Time of Capitalism

When your art is all that matters

Image: billysbirds

In April, I decided to stop looking for traditional work and focus on freelancing regularly. Up to that point, I’d tried freelancing as either a one-time gig or as a kind of side hobby, back when I was still learning the ropes of it all.

I’ve been traditionally unemployed for the last three years. I had a brief stint at a non-profit at the beginning of this year, but other than that I’ve been directionless, wading through a haze of hopes and dreams and struggle, all while applying to jobs with the hope of finding something that could sustain my dream of screenwriting and myself long-term.

I grew up poor, so this life — pinching pennies, freaking out about bills, occasionally using government assistance — isn’t what I imagined for myself as I approach 30, especially not for someone with a degree. I still remember the drab, gray containers of government peanut butter. My mom used to go to food pantries to feed us — I still use those. My clothes weren’t cool. We had to live with other family members on occasion. We were even homeless once while I was in high school, living in a shelter a few towns over from my school. Thankfully we had a car then; we could (sort of) afford one.

This year I’d decided that I could build up my reputation (and portfolio) as a writer while also bringing in a bit of income to help around the house, instead of having to rely on so many government benefits. If I did apply for more traditional jobs, they would be directly related to media, journalism, or writing and editing. I’d had it with everything else. Alas, it’s seven months later and, while I’m clearly still at it, it hasn’t garnered me much of anything — money or prestige of any kind. I’m still struggling to climb my way up the ladder of well-known publications.

Right now as a freelance writer, if I’m lucky, I bring in about a couple hundred dollars a month. The most I’ve made with one gig was about $650. That happened once. Most places I work for pay only $40–100 for an essay like the one you’re reading now (including some of the more well-known places).

While I know a few people who make several thousand per month doing this, for the kind of places I usually contract with, you’d have to write ferociously every day for hours on end for everything to add up to that kind of money. As a multiply-disabled person, I just don’t have the spoons for that. And that’s assuming that you have an endless supply of pitch ideas and that editors will think they’re good enough to accept.

Screenwriting is not without its frustrations, however. After three years of writing and applying to contests with no success, I found myself fed up a couple of months ago. I’d just finished working on a few applications to screenwriting competitions and, as usual, I got the short end of the stick. People on Twitter reassured me that it happens to the best of us — you can place as a finalist or win in one contest and submit the exact same script somewhere else and get nowhere. My comfort lasted but a fleeting moment, then I was back to square one. I knew I had to do something different. So I opted for a slow, but radical, change. I knew it was the only way that I could have a chance of increasing my brand visibility and getting my work out there.

When you’ve been writing and submitting to contests for three years with no luck, it can start to feel hopeless. What am I doing wrong? Maybe I’m on the wrong path. Maybe I should go back to graduate school.

I decided to move beyond my comfort zone as a writer to become a whole filmmaker, taking on the additional roles of director, producer, editor, and camera person. Believe me when I say, I literally have no idea what I’m doing. But for the first time in my life I have a dream — one that burns, one that is driven by passion, one that keeps me going even when things seem hard, impossible even.

I know the struggle of poverty — as a child and as an adult — all too well, unfortunately. I know what it entails. I know its limitations. I know the toll it takes on us, on me, physically and mentally. It exacerbates my disabilities, it has often led to feelings of despair, failure, and hopelessness. Diving further into my art won’t make any of those things better. There’s a reason why the notion of the “struggling artist” is so ingrained into our society’s psyche. Most of us won’t make it out of this rat race alive.

We find ways to survive as artists in capitalism. We do side hustles, we take on menial part-time work, we live together and help each other out. The supremely privileged rely on family money. But we must make our art; it is the only way of living we know.

And so, I find myself finally committing fully to that journey. Right now, I’m working on my notes for the three shorts I plan to film next spring or summer. As ideas, they’re still in their infancies, but they all draw from the theme of separation of some kind.

I will soon begin the tedious task of learning the technical aspects of filmmaking (basic editing skills and software, lighting, cameras to use, etc.). Although my estranged father’s recent death has been a difficult time emotionally, I plan to use part of the money I will receive from my small inheritance to fund these baby projects.

And there is a lot to fund.

I may need to access classes, videos, and books that cost money to learn the technical ropes. I’ll need to rent lighting, sound, camera, and other equipment — first to practice with once I’ve learned the basics through reading and tutorials, then to actually film. In addition, while I’m located in New York, I live outside of the city, which means I’ll have to arrange delivery of the equipment to where I live. At the least, I’ll have to pay a friend or family member for the gas money and tolls for travel.

As an artist myself, I am a firm believer in paying artists. I can’t, in good conscience, ask actors to appear in my films for free, so I have to set aside as much money as I can to pay them. While I plan to keep costs down as best as possible when it comes to location, I may find that I’ll need to rent out a place or two to film certain things. And, because I’m a technical amateur, I’ll probably end up paying someone with more knowledge and experience to do final edits so that my films are the best quality they can possibly be.

And that’s just what I’m certain of; I’m sure there are plenty of costs I’m not even thinking of simply because I’m so new at this.

The only solace I have in this is that, right now, I’m so poor that I still live with my mom. I don’t have any serious financial obligations like rent, though I do use the bit of income I have to help with food costs and to pay the wi-fi/cable bill that allows me to continue to freelance (which would be impossible without internet access).

I’m taking small steps, but I have begun. Perhaps I’ll be poor forever. Perhaps I’ve started on the path to success I was meant to take. Maybe God (or the universe or whatever) was just waiting for me to finally get fed up enough to take a leap of faith.

In any case, what else have I got to lose? I’m tired of waiting.

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