Starving Artist

The trouble with passions connected to well-paying professions is that in your early days, there are no comrades in arms with whom you can drink liters of wine and fantasize about finally finding success. Young people who decide to be actors–or writers, or painters–dream desperately about their Big Break, the point after which jobs will fall into their laps and they can buy new shoes at full price and enjoy modest name recognition in their chosen field. In their day-to-day lives, though, their peers are pretty much in the same places they are: working ill-fitting jobs to pay the bills, shopping the store-brand oatmeal, wondering if it’s all worth the effort. They may or may not go on irresponsible benders. The necessity of emotional support is well understood.

Kids who go in for computer science, though, are pretty much snapped up as soon as they can demonstrate the basic skills. Sure, they secretly dream about being the next Dijkstra (who doesn’t?), but I imagine they suffer the indignities of non-rock-stardom from posh digs, with more health insurance than they know what to do with, and enjoy satisfying conversations with their brainy coworkers. Their day jobs may not be glamorous, but they avoid the identity crisis of constantly explaining their nonaligned “calling” and “job”: “I’m a writer, but I work as an accountant.” Plus, when programmers want a break from their interesting projects, they can take a month off to go study a new language in a different country. There are no emotional support groups for coders who crave their own eponymous algorithm.

For now, for lack of a more structured support group, I will redirect comfort from Anne Lamott’s guide for beginning writers, Bird by Bird (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994). Replace “writing” with “coding,” and it becomes eerily accurate:

So I tell [my students] what it will be like… when I sit down to work, with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard. I tell them they’ll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing. And they may even go from wanting to have written something to wanting to be writing, wanting to be working on something, like they’d want to be playing the piano or tennis, because writing brings with it so much joy, so much challenge. It is work and play together… [T]heir heads will spin with ideas and invention. They’ll see the world through new eyes… At cocktail parties or in line at the post office, they will … sneak away to scribble these things down. They will have days of frantic boredom, of angry hopelessness, of wanting to quit forever, and there will be days when it feels like they have caught and are riding a wave.

And then I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway. But I try to make sure they understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived…

But I also tell them that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something.

Back to it.


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