I’m a classic starving artist. When I first joined the Highlander in November 2013, I was living in a shitty loft suite in Bannockburn. Without a paycheck or a kitchen, my primary sustenance consisted of plain oatmeal, boxed mac ‘n cheese and Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles. I drank tap water straight from the sink. When I was elevated to staff writer a few months later, my little $10 or $20 checks went toward my gas-guzzling ‘93 Ford Ranger and, if I could afford it, maybe a trip or two to McDonalds. Last year, my first full year as an editor, most of my paychecks were spent without a second thought. What didn’t go to rent went to groceries and food, various apartment supplies and always, always books — especially comic books; I wasted so much money last year purchasing every single volume of “Fables,” but god dammit it’s a fantastic series. As I write this, my subconscious ponders over how the $45 in my bank account will hold out for gas money until I get paid in a few weeks (which meant I skipped out on a fulfilling lunch today, aside from the money I wasted on M&M’s).
My family and friends supported me, of course, but insisted that I get a “real job.” In the words of my mother, I need money before I go doing all the “artsy” things I want to do. But, I’m too proud for any of that. I write very well, and I want to make money, and eventually a career out of what I do very well. If you’re good at something, never do it for free: the egotistical motto of starving artists everywhere.
That was my mentality when I thought writing a play this summer would be fun.
It seemed innocent at first. I was answering an email from someone in Riverside who was looking for students willing to dip their toes into showbiz: writers, actors, makeup artists, photographers. They’d be brought together to produce a play. About six students were willing to participate, and showed up to the first meeting early in the summer. Only two stayed on: myself and a good friend, whom I’ll call Bob here. The person who was looking for help, I’ll name Lucy. She and her son (his fake name shall be Jimmy) co-wrote the first half of the script, and for $10 an hour, wanted the two of us to write the second half. As both resume fodder and an easygoing summer job, this looked like a great opportunity.
But my faith was quickly shattered. Something rotten was in the state of Riverside.
For one, the play sucked. Hard. Lucy had (in her own words) a bold vision for something new: a story about elderly characters that isn’t reduced to stereotypical tropes of butting heads against each other. But this immediately fell flat on its face. The characters were one-dimensional and were essentially reduced to weird one-liners that reveal their personality. You have the cranky old man who doesn’t understand those darn kids. You have the weird old guy who’s lost his marbles. There’s a typecast Donald Trump. The primary plot was a love story that’s easily comparable to the love story in “The Room.” In short, the play was form without substance. Life could, and would go on without this play’s existence (which is what I’d prefer).
The most annoying thing about this grand adventure of mine (and which was never alluded to in Lucy’s original email to me) was that she claimed she “knows people in Hollywood” who could help finance this play into a hit TV show, with the play itself being the pilot. And Bob and I would only get paid after everything was set in stone. So in other words, I spent my summer creating the pilot to a family sitcom, and at the time it was all for free.
As summer break was winding down, my pride split into two halves: one half wanted to continue onwards with this project, to make money off of what I do best; the other half felt this was too lowbrow and kitsch for my abilities to even imagine working with. And in the end, I chose to discontinue the project. I figured that Lucy and Jimmy can make their millions creating sentimental stories. There was too much of myself at stake. I couldn’t compromise the part of me that begs for inspiration, for a piece of art that influences American culture, the world and the future. That side of me — the proud, starving artist refusing an easy paycheck — said no.
But that doesn’t make me special. The publishing industry is a brutal, brutal place, and writing is a cutthroat business. Plenty of young writers, especially college students, would dream of being given even just the slightest chance of making it as a contributor for a popular sitcom. And from an economic standpoint, not taking that chance makes me the biggest fucking idiot.
I’d like to believe that I write very well. I’d like to believe that with my craft, I’ll make a difference someday. I know I’m not special, but I’d like to think that I am. And with the right amount of wrongful pride, maybe I will be.