Why You Should Listen to Your Inner Starving Artist

Whenever someone, usually an adult, asks me about my prospective career path, and I respond with “Well, I’ve always wanted to be a writer…”, the response almost always follows this exact sequence: first comes the startled “Oh,” which morphs into a pitying cringe, followed lastly by a condescending “That’s so nice!” and an immediate change of topic.

It’s an unspoken (and let’s admit it, spoken) rule that writing is not an acceptable career. It’s a fun hobby, sometimes an enviable skill. But it’s null and void once someone enters higher education. The same can be said for any humanities pursuit, including dance, drama, music, art, photography, film, etc.

All my life I’ve heard digs about the “starving artist,” or the destitute poet who drinks himself into oblivion. Artists are seen as unpredictable, deviant and dangerous. As delusional dreamers who can’t get a grasp on reality because they’re too busy inhaling paint fumes and purchasing expensive coffee they can’t afford in order to fuel their burning-the-midnight-oil sessions of sewing metaphors into their arms.

Worlds apart is the way society views science and math: as pragmatic, innovative careers, as being the wombs in which virtuosos like Mark Zuckerberg or Stephen Hawking will be conceived in, swaddled in nourishing, algorithmic uterine tissue until their heaven-stopping births, in which Zeus himself shall deliver them with tears in his eyes and bless them with a lightning bolt.

A scientist can study something that doesn’t technically exist yet, or a mathematician can spend her entire life fiddling with pure mathematics (essentially, puzzles), and people will pat them on the back for choosing such practical professions.

Yet I’ll say I want to make something out of paper, out of ink. Something that will be a weight in someone’s hand, a pressure in someone’s backpack. Something that may be checked out to hundreds of high school students annually. Something that will inspire revolutions, change hearts and wind up minds. And people will laugh and wish me luck with paying the bills.

But my future does not seem as dismal as stereotypes make it out to be. An article by the Washington Post reveals that the top 25 percent of humanities majors earn more than the average science or math major. Even a moderate humanities salary of $50,000 is enough for a cozy position in America’s middle class.

Despite these reassuring facts, the number of degrees in core humanities disciplines—English, history and philosophy—is diminishing quickly. In the mid-1960s, these subjects represented around 17 percent of degrees; now, they are a mere 6 percent. What happened?

A significant reason is that many parents today aren’t allowing their children to pursue degrees in the liberal arts out of concern for their financial futures. It’s true that a direct path from a degree to a first job is slightly less clear for the liberal arts, but needing several years to find a well-paying job is normal across all majors. Unemployment rates are remarkably similar for other majors as well.

So how do we humanities-hopefuls convince our worried parents to not steer us in unwanted directions? Start with this: Numerous studies have shown that success is dependent less on the type of major and more on the completion of that major. Of course, it’s much harder to complete a major one is not interested in! Here’s another doozy, according to the Washington Post: “Among chief executives of the largest corporations, there are roughly as many engineers and liberal arts majors, in total, as there are undergraduate majors in business, accounting and economics combined.”

While that quote may be surprising, it actually makes a lot of sense. Many of the traits found in artists are commonly associated with success. Creativity, for one, is the basis of every billion-dollar company. Every Google or Snapchat began as an idea, a culmination of stepping outside the box and looking at things differently than everyone else. The Washington Post adds, “In today’s fast-changing global economy, the most successful enterprises aren’t looking for workers who know a lot about only one thing. They are seeking employees who are nimble, curious and innovative. The work done by lower-level accountants, computer programmers, engineers, lawyers and financial analysts is already being outsourced to India and the Philippines; soon it will be done by computers. The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely, think broadly and challenge conventional wisdom — precisely the capacities that a liberal arts education is meant to develop.”

Writing, especially, is one of the most valuable skills to have. Every single line of work requires some form of writing, some form of communication and eloquence. To be a proficient writer is to have an innate advantage in public speaking, persuasion and rhetoric.

It’s apparent that those skilled in the arts are more than prepared for prosperous futures, so why the misconception that they’re not? Perhaps a profitable life in the arts is considered to be impossible not due to the arts themselves, but because we do not allow them to be successful.

When I look at the bulletin boards at the front of the school, I see a plethora of scholarships and internships at labs or engineering firms. I hear about national math competitions and science expos. Never have I witnessed writing or music or any other creative endeavor receive the same amount of recognition or opportunity. Khan Academy is even hosting a competition in which students can win a $250,000 scholarship for making an instructive video about math, life sciences or physics. Where is the scholarship money for a video explaining the complex functions of Photoshop? For a video instructing budding violin players how to shift? For a video teaching choreography in contemporary dance?

So as a writer, sometimes I feel discouraged. I feel alone and small, like I am in a shouting match in which everyone else has megaphones. But other times, I remember that my writing can be a voice for thousands. That it is worthy and influential, that it is a form of beauty people will always appreciate, even if they don’t realize it at first.

Because before we knew the Fibonacci sequence or the intricacies of gravity, we knew writing. We knew art. Music. Stories. Rhythm. These did not have to be taught or studied; we felt them in our innermost parts, wedged in the kinks of our spines and caught in the thrum of our throats.

If it were not for them, would we even feel alive enough to seek anything else?

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Listen to Your Inner Starving Artist”

  1. We sat together at one summer’s end,
    That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
    And you and I, and talked of poetry.
    I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
    Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
    Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
    Better go down upon your marrow-bones
    And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
    Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
    For to articulate sweet sounds together
    Is to work harder than all these, and yet
    Be thought an idler by the noisy set
    Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
    The martyrs call the world.’

    (Yeats, “Adam’s Curse”)

    Stick to your guns, Serena. You write beautifully.

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