Stop Romanticizing the “Starving Artist”

Note: The following is an archived email newsletter, originally distributed on August 27, 2019. Minor updates were made as-necessary. To receive content like this before it appears in archives, subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter and blog updates.

If you've been on Twitter over the last few days, you've probably seen authors and other writers talking about the old "starving artist" myth.

This was sparked by an astonishingly ignorant (and destructive) comment that's since been deleted. But it basically amounted to:

"Having a bigger safety net would make you even less of a writer."

What a load of BS.

It got worse. There was a whole thread going on about how to be a real writer you have to suffer for your art. You can't be too comfortable or secure.

Why the "Starving Artist" is Dangerous Framing

No matter how brilliant someone's work might be, you are never at your best when you're suffering. That just isn't how any of this works.

And this idea that other writers should be encouraged to suffer more, have less, be in a less stable position, etc. is disgusting, especially coming from someone in a relatively privileged position.

This idea encourages writers not only to be OK with negative circumstances, but to embrace them and stop aiming higher.

This can be destructive both to a writer's mental and physical health. It can be destructive to relationships in their lives, to families. It leans into anxieties, becoming a sort of excuse for not seeking better. Worse, it becomes a tool of ego, justifying jealousy and looking down on those more successful in that moment.

None of that is healthy. None of that is good for you as a person. None of that is good for you as a writer.

Being Broke & Suffering are Not Virtues

I've known my share of writers who believe this nonsense to some degree -- some authors, some freelancers.

I've watched truly talented writers become complacent and comfortable in bad circumstances. They stop trying, or they try in fits and starts, always resorting to a victim mentality as if their position is the fault of others, so it must just mean their brilliance isn't realized. (Yeah, by them.)

I've seen writers romanticize the starving artist label as a way to cope with severe anxiety without ever actually dealing with it or seeking help.

I've known writers who isolate themselves, sometimes to extreme degrees, because they genuinely believe things like healthy relationships will harm their writing, or having enough money to not worry about it constantly would somehow take away what they think makes them special.

And, again, it's all bullshit.

Aim for Happy, Healthy, and Secure

Having a full-time steady job while you write on the side doesn't make you less worthy as a writer.

Neither does having a decent amount in savings, or being married to someone with a good job, or having stability through other family, or having nice surroundings where you're comfortable and happy.

Those things allow many writers to create when they otherwise couldn't.

Similar when it comes to health. Writing when you're healthy, and stable, and you feel good is infinitely easier -- and it produces better work -- than writing when you're fighting your own body all the time or struggling with mental health issues.

Look. I've been there.

When I started freelancing, I started with nothing. I was in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, my ex had just walked out on the rent leaving me to cover things solo, I'd just left my full-time job to start the business, and every day was a struggle.

There were a few times I was on the verge of eviction. Sometimes I still don't know how I got through that time. I understand being broke and what it does to your work. And forcing my way through it was necessary, but it didn't make me more of a writer than anyone else.

I also struggle with anxiety and depression. And I've had significant health issues that come and go.

I know what it's like to barely be able to get out of bed in the morning because you just don't care anymore. I know what it's like to have a panic attack, lose all confidence, and feel like you're never good enough. I know what it's like to have your own body betray you and leave you barely able to function on a moment's notice.

Here's what else I know:

  • Your past struggles may give you something to write about, but current ones do absolutely nothing to make your writing better.
  • You'll be a better writer when you can actually focus on your writing over your bills, rent, and health.
  • You'll be a more productive writer when you're not constantly under stress.

Your suffering doesn't build character. How you overcome it does.

And when you embrace the starving artist stereotype as some sick sort of aspiration, you aren't overcoming anything at all.

That doesn't mean you're any less of a writer if you're struggling right now either. But it does mean you need to give yourself permission to seek something better.

  • Take a mental health break when you need it.
  • Take time to exercise and spend time in nature.
  • Spend time journaling to help you process things around you or keep yourself "together" when you otherwise struggle to.
  • Spend time with those who love you.
  • Allow yourself to admit that certain things aren't working.

Maybe that means taking on a steady full-time or part-time job until your writing takes off, or maybe it just means rethinking your approach to your writing career.

None of these are frivilous things.

The best thing you can do for your writing career is take care of yourself -- your body, your mind, your emotions, your relationships.

This is something I've put into practice. And it's why I'm still in business long after many freelance professionals quit. Otherwise, I assure you, I wouldn't be.

When my ex left, I went back to my old job on a part-time basis for a few months to help with the bills while I launched the business. When I need a "mental health day," I take it. When things get really bad, I can disappear for a while because I've put myself in a position to be able to do that.

That's all part of taking care of yourself -- the second jobs, the saving, the planning. Your business is nothing without you. Your writing is nothing without you. As long as you're not hurting anyone else in the process, never feel "less than" for looking after your own needs first.

So ignore the glorified "starving artist" advice from utter buffoons. Build that safety net. Demand to be paid what your work and time are worth. Prioritize your health. And never feel guilty about it.

You don't have to love what you do every day (goodness knows I don't always). But being able to build a career around things you enjoy or care about deeply isn't a justification for others to devalue you. And it certainly isn't a reason to devalue yourself.

For everything else, write. Get paid. Build a career that makes you happy. And don't let anyone tell you that happiness or comfort makes you less of anything. What it makes you is incredibly fortunate, as far too many will never know what that feels like.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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