Welcome to the working week

by Steve

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.”