Welcome to the working week
Elvis Costello wrote and recorded his first album while also working as a computer operator for the Elizabeth Arden factory, only resigning when his record company agreed to match his salary. Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner continued his day job of laying floors even once they became successful. The story went that the group sat down on stage as they would generally all be worn out from their day jobs.
In his recent piece published on the Paris Review website, the author George Saunders discussed writing his first book whilst holding down an office job as a tech writer:
“This book was written in the Rochester, New York, offices of Radian Corporation between 1989 and 1996, at a computer strategically located to maximize the number of steps a curious person (a boss, for example) would have to take to see that what was on the screen was not a technical report about groundwater contamination but a short story.”
Does a ‘normal’ working life influence the production of art? Almost certainly. The artist has less time to work with, potentially more outside pressures and distractions to deal with. But the artist also gains a wealth of experience to draw upon. Perhaps living a life close to that of their audience helps them connect in some way?
I feel a little distanced when I hear a song about touring or read a book about a writer. While they can offer an interesting insight (reading Mao II I enjoyed trying to pick apart what was the opinions of the main character and what were the thoughts of the author, Don DeLillo), they are hard to relate to. Do we have so many love songs because that is what people like to listen to, or because love is the one universal emotion a songwriter can experience and write about and an audience can feel a connection to?
Does non-writing work ground an artist or stifle them? I’d love to be in a position to just do what I want to do rather than what I have to do to pay the bills. But I do wonder if I’d actually be any more productive, or whether I’d find myself slumped on the sofa watching Homes Under The Hammer rather than sat at a desk writing the great 21st century masterpiece. And would I run out of subject matter, or empathy, if I was paid a fortune to sit in an office and write all day? Perhaps the main purpose of creativity is that it is an outlet and an escape from the mundane and the toil and stress of everyday life. Perhaps work inspires not only subject matter but also a motivation to create something more, to be something more, than a wage slave, or someone without work who lacks the financial independence to lead the full-time creative life. Suffering for art, or something, etc.
Anyway, a quotation from John Ruskin to finish:
“Life without work is guilt; work without art is brutality.”
Fight Club was written while Chuck Palahniuk was still working in office. Legend has it some of it was actually written ‘under the desk’ but maybe that just sounds good to a publisher? Creatives have to eat and pay rent but if they are dedicated enough they can and must find a way to get their ‘real’ work done whilst simultaneously holding down a more conventional job. Until such time as the creative salary matches or outstrips the job, as in Costello’s case.
Interesting – I guess any story about creating something whilst working a ‘normal’ job helps add to the mystique of the artist themselves – probably makes us think whatever they have created is a little more authentic, or they are a little more like us.
I think it’s true that limiting the amount of time available for artistic endeavour can give great focus on what you actually want to achieve, in much the same way that a massive blank canvas, or unlimited time and budget in a recording studio, can lead to ‘I can do anything, now I don’t know what to do’ inertia.
I think there is something deceptively helpful about limitations – be it a lack of time or anything else. I suppose that is why some successful bands go back to recording on simple gear or ‘as live’ even when they have the budget to work for weeks in a plush studio, or why authors set themselves limits around subject matter or style.
I’m writing a blog post at work now! Don’t tell my boss.
Somewhat relatedly, I bought a used George Saunders book online a few years ago, and when it arrived I found out it was an autographed copy. It was one of the most pleasant buying experiences I ever had.
Wow, nice surprise! I haven’t read much of him, just a couple of New Yorker stories, so will be seeking out some more over the next few months.
Some of his stuff gets a little repetitive, but his best work is the most entertaining stuff you’ll read all year. I’m excited about his new book.
You would never catch me doing that.
(Sent via my crappy phone, hence premature posting)