You are a writer and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing. So it happens that you, a writer, invest your money in projects others will feature in their magazines, exhibitions, festivals, reading lists on the internet. You are an investor. You are building a diverse portfolio.
You are living a double life, a friend says to you, a friend who is trying to live a double life of her own and has called you for tips on double-life living. You are living a double life, one where at two p.m. you are in the office of a colleague who is getting paid upwards of two hundred thousand dollars a year and by half-past five you are polishing cutlery before the dinner rush. The dress you are wearing is shapeless and black, a look intended for wealthy women twice your age, a look intended for women who did not just pump the shit up out of a clogged toilet in the student lodgings they are temporarily living in. You are a writer and you know what that means: you are investing your money in your work, which in turn provides employment for other people. You say you are living a double life when you should say you are investing in a diverse portfolio. You are an investor.
Before you assume the title of investor you are a student, providing temporary employment for writer-teachers by enrolling in their creative writing units. You demonstrate almost no talent, which is not the same as no potential, or no future, but is often thought of in the same breath. Yet there you are, in a class of your peers, some with even less talent than you, and many with much more of it. You go to all the book events you can find out about. You go to these events hoping to catch a glimpse of the writers whose work you read before you knew they also had bodies, writers covered with a fine sheen. You blush when you meet them. You would like to be a literary citizen. You write them emails, sometimes, and sometimes they respond. You read The Red and the Black. You are disturbed by Julien Sorel’s megalomania but can see where he’s coming from. Within a handful of years, you will become the writer-teacher, because you are cheaper per hour than your older writer-teachers are; you will—tacitly, grate- fully, occasionally—accept employment indirectly provided by the writer-students enrolled in your class, who yearn to be writer-investors themselves, or else to simply get okay grades in units widely deemed ‘a bludge’.
You write some book reviews and columns for the student newspaper. You write an average op-ed for a magazine and get interviewed about it on the radio. Your parents seem impressed. You write more book reviews for magazines your friends are making, which surely no one reads, then you take it upon yourself to lead a workshop for other writers who have not yet written book reviews that will not be read, a workshop on writing book reviews. You are editing the student newspaper. You are an elected student politician. You attend student council meetings and roll your eyes when the various factions clash in highly emotive and largely perverse ways. You organise a conference for student writers. You write short speeches introducing the panellists and speakers emphasising their significance and the importance of collaboration. The speakers do not remember you the next time they see you.
You make dinner to introduce people to one another. You open bottles of wine. You serve variations on the theme of vegetable curry. You talk about what needs to happen. You finish bottles of wine. You are invited to dinner and you are introduced. You are younger than everyone you dine with. And then you are the same age as them. One day you will be older. You pretend you are for real.
You say you are a freelancer. You apply for a receptionist job that pays better than your retail job, which has recently cut your shifts. The receptionist job comes through but the starting date is the same date you’re supposed to talk at a writers’ conference interstate and you’ve already paid for the train trip and the hostel, so you go to the conference instead of taking the receptionist job and at the closing party you get high and hand out your business card to everyone you talk to. Your card says that you are a writer. You have no idea why you have such a business card. That night you kiss the friend of the person you actually want to kiss. The person you kiss tells you he is a Deleuzian. He is a philosopher-DJ-conference organiser.
You write some copy for a museum for more money than you’ve ever earned before and the boss invites you to apply for the job full-time. You ignore her email and with the money you buy a ticket overseas so you can stop diversifying your portfolio for just one second and also be away from people who identify as Deleuzians. You are an international artist. You are writing a play. You have no one overseas to hang out with. You are about to run out of money. You get a job at an English-language nightlife magazine, where you write wrap-ups of exhibition launches and brand launches and musical shows. Your editor, who employed you, she says, because she was drawn to your writing voice, is now highly critical of your writing voice. She says maybe you don’t find all this as cool as you should. You write her PR fluff in a downbeat ironic voice. You don’t know what her problem is. The people you are writing fluff pieces about are artists- photographers-DJs. Some of them, they tell you, are models. They have diverse portfolios. You are not a model. Sometimes you ride round with them on motorbikes and drink fifty-cent beers on their concrete roofs. They invite you to their launch. They tell you they are DJing at their launch. You tell them you’ll write about their launch.
You return home with a finished play, which nobody asked you to write, which nobody will ever read let alone produce. You return home with less than a hundred dollars in your bank. Not enough money to go to a friend’s wedding. No dress, no present. You stay home and, like that, that friendship is over. You borrow five hundred dollars. You apply for a PhD. You hear the money is amazing. You ask an academic you admire to supervise you. She says yes, even though she knows it is pecuniary factors that have led you to her office.
You are living a double life, you remind your ex-boyfriend after buying three identical black smock dresses that can be worn from a sleepover to a teaching gig to an artist talk to the bar. You forget to eat dinner, so you buy three potato cakes on the way home for two dollars fifty. You are dressed like a middle-aged curator, your ex-boyfriend tells you. You are dressed like a middle-aged curator riding a speedy road bike round the city with your backpack filled with everything you will need for a meeting with a DJ-editor-journalist about an essay you plan to co-author but never do, a trip to the library to check some references, a talk by an arts worker-poet, and then for pho afterwards with a curator-archivist who is not a DJ. You carry a stick of deodorant in your bag. You carry a small bottle of perfume. You have a hundred and twenty-two dollars in the bank.
You somehow get into the PhD. The money is amazing. Until it is just normal. Until it is certainly not enough. A man you have been working for on and off for years offers to pay you to write part-time for his online magazine. The magazine is not entirely what you had in mind when you decided to become a writer, but he says he has the money. You go to work two days a week in an office that is part of a design studio. You publish essays on every topic you can muster, four or five a month, essays which have not been copyedited nor proofread, and every fortnight you fight the man to get your pay. The money eventually comes, in dribs and drabs, all of it. Every fortnight you commission and edit two or three stories written by other writers. You are a paid editor. You have a budget to pay other writers money for their writing. This work takes up more than the two days you are paid to work. But now you have your scholarship, too. You have diversified your portfolio. You are an investor.
You write text for an artist friend’s video work. You’re a collaborator. You write lectures and booklets to hand out at workshops. You’re a teacher. You give a lecture in someone’s garage about male writing versus female writing. You’re a feminist. You pitch book reviews to publications you quietly believe are morally comprised. You’re a literary citizen. You present yourself a certain way, and all of a sudden that’s what you are. You attend the launch of an art magazine, where you ask an artist to look over your new essay. In return, she asks you to help make work for her upcoming installation. You’re a member of an artistic community. You write grants you don’t get, and some you do. You write references for younger writers applying for courses and jobs and grants of their own. You buy young poets’ chapbooks. Sometimes you even read them. You host literary journal parties. Everyone you know goes to the parties and other parties too. You have a strong feeling that no one at the parties reads the insides of the journal you edit. At these parties you invite people to contribute to the journal whose party you are hosting. Nobody has asked you to do this. Nobody is paying you for it. Your colleague is DJing at the party. Your future ex is at the party with his future ex. Your DJing colleague is diversifying her portfolio. Your future ex is diversifying his.
People you went to university with have their own little magazines now. You give them your writing and agree to read at their launches. You invite them to contribute to your magazine. They read at your launches. You give money to their crowdfunded edition and they give money to yours. You have six dollars left in the bank. You are tired from the deadlines for the jobs done overnight to fit it all in. Your right shoulder is sore. Your median nerve is fried. Your boyfriend doesn’t give you massages. You break up with your boyfriend. The man who is now your ex-boyfriend starts giving you massages.
You are a writer and you know what that means. You’re not doing it for the money. You are not doing it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you.
You wear shiny shorts and a Margiela top to a fundraiser for an activist collective. Your bra is visible. Everyone’s bra is visible. It’s that kind of an activist collective. All of the activists are DJs.
Some of them, they say, are also writers. You introduce yourself and invite the activist-DJs to submit to your magazine. On the way home, you listen to a lecture series about early Christianity. You go home to finish reading Andrea Dworkin’s first book, which is different from what you expected. You are diversifying your practice.
You apply for international residencies. In your applications you recycle the garbled grantspeak phrases you are starting to know better than you know your own work. You attach a folio of your work, which has no real aesthetic unity because you have been diversifying your portfolio for years now. Your portfolio is read by RZA, who is on the board of an international residency you applied for. You do not get into the international residency that RZA is on the board of.
You are late for the launch party of the magazine you edit. You are exhausted and slightly ill and it is midwinter, yet it is crucial that you are there. You spend thirty-five dollars on a cab fare and you get one free drink at the bar. You introduce yourself to someone who says you’ve been introduced before and so quickly you introduce them to someone else. You are a writer and you know what that means: you are a maître d’. You work hard, but do you work smart? No one is paying you for this. Your colleague is DJing the party. Someone you haven’t been introduced to is taking photos at the party. You introduce yourself. You and she are in this together. Perhaps you are even collaborators.
You collaborate with an artist on a performance work. You perform it together at a prestigious art space. A dancer approaches you, says we should collaborate. You never hear from the dancer again. An artist uses your work to accompany her video work. She does not attribute the text or audio recording to you. She does, however, take your author portrait for you and never invoices for it. There’s an artist you long to collaborate with but you can’t imagine dragging her into this. She is another kind of investor. You go to the launch of a young poet’s chapbook. You don’t recognise any of the faces, the faces all covered with a fine layer of subcutaneous fat and optimism. One of the poets starts DJing.
You work hard but do you work smart? You resign from publications. Nobody notices. You are a researcher now. Maybe you are a poet too. You are an editor, paid to proofread masters theses in all areas of the humanities. You are a collaborator. You are not a DJ. You are presenting your work within a research context. You go to an academic conference and swap emails with early-career researchers.
Your parents no longer know what you do for a living. Do you have a job? they ask. They know you are busy. You are on Twitter. Too busy to come over for lunch on Sunday. People you met at uni now have real jobs. They are no longer writer-investors. They tell you how expensive life gets after you get a real job, how the price of a nice mattress is really quite steep. You wouldn’t know. You quit Twitter. Some of your peers now work in comms or advertising or arts administration. Maybe they are working on some unified future writing. Not you. You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.
This is an extract from Ellena Savage’s first collection, Blueberries, out today via Text Publishing.
Ellena Savage is an author and academic. Her work has been published widely in anthologies and literary journals including, recently, the Paris Review Daily, Sydney Review of Books, Choice Words and Lifted Brow, of which she is a former editor. Ellena is the recipient of several grants and prizes, including the 2019–21 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. Ellena lives in Athens, Greece.