One Question Quiz
‘You used to have interesting ideas and now you just watch TV.’ (Image: Archi Banal)
‘You used to have interesting ideas and now you just watch TV.’ (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJanuary 10, 2024

Help Me Hera: How do I make art and also pay the bills?

‘You used to have interesting ideas and now you just watch TV.’ (Image: Archi Banal)
‘You used to have interesting ideas and now you just watch TV.’ (Image: Archi Banal)

Summer reissue: In an ideal world, art would have nothing to do with money. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

First published on August 3, 2023. Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to

Hi Hera,

I have an almost unbearably navel gaze-y question, one that would make my ancestors weep and/or spontaneously combust with shame.

Basically, this year I got a job. My first full-time, adult, sick leave, pay-my-rent-and-afford-regular-haircuts job.

After years pursuing writing, including an MFA and a lot of freelance work, I was desperate for some stability. And for a while, that stability was great for my mental health and even for my writing. I was able to spend weekends working on what I loved and managed to make some progress.

But lately, things have started to stagnate. My life before was very dynamic (though also stressful) – working in hospitality, going to gigs, talking to people or spending entire days walking through an unfamiliar city. Even boring things felt artistically generative. Now, not so much. I work, watch TV, sleep, go on runs. There’s that Girls quote from Jessa when she tells Hannah: “You used to have interesting ideas and now you just watch TV.” That’s how I feel. 

On the other hand, I am not 22. I like nice candles. I think I should be contributing to my retirement fund instead of banking on a six-figure book deal materialising.

So, do I quit my job and move to Berlin in the hopes of getting my spark back (ie “bet on myself”)? Or is it possible to find a way to live as an artist with a 9-5 and good credit?

Thank you,

Normie Jean

Dear Normie,

Not only do I wish I knew the answer to this question, I wish I’d known it years ago, before I spent years of my life memorising Shakespeare, when I could have been doing something infinitely more lucrative, like inheriting a vast emerald mining fortune, or drawing dollar signs on hessian sacks to rob banks with.

First of all, I think you’re conflating two things, which is living a bohemian lifestyle in Berlin, and being an artist, but that depends on what kind of writing you’re doing. For some writers it’s artistically advantageous to wear shabby grey overcoats in mid-size industrial cities, and have a great number of ultimately doomed affairs. Whereas if you’re a fantasy writer, you’d be better served by moving to the country, investing in a leather waistcoat with suns and moons embroidered on it, and raising chickens.

But that’s all a distraction from the bigger question which is: how do you make art and also pay the rent?

I don’t think your question is embarrassing. Anyone who considers the relationship between economics and art distasteful should be forced to watch Spy Kids 3 until they change their mind. Although maybe that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. Anyway, it’s hard to talk about “the value of art” without sounding like an awards committee member, giving a fundraising speech at a sponsor’s vineyard. But the alternative is having to live in a world where art is only made by the rich, or the computer algorithms they’re trying to replace us with. 

I too have idle daydreams of the six-figure book deal that would finally give me the capital to buy a castle and hole up in it, like Enya. But there’s no such thing as winning the artistic lottery. And one success doesn’t necessarily guarantee you another. Phoebe Waller-Bridge probably didn’t think Fleabag would one day pave the way for her to be writing quippy dialogue for the ninth Indiana Jones movie. 

The truth is, you can’t even really sell out, because nobody wants to buy you. They want to license your work for the smallest possible fee, make it into a six-part miniseries starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and then use your script to train a computer to write the sequel. 

In an ideal world, art would have nothing to do with money. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and it’s risky to gamble on life as an artist when the best you can hope for is getting compensated in plane tickets and tote bags. It’s like Ginsberg might have said: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by writing marketing copy for Barfoot and Thompson. But what’s the alternative? Give up and leave it to the algorithm? 

I asked Chat GPT what it thought of your situation, and it said “instead of risking financial peril, why not bring the excitement of Berlin to your own life. Let your imagination run wild while crunching those numbers at your 9-5 job. You never know, your spreadsheets might just turn into colourful works of art!”

The advice isn’t necessarily wrong, just profoundly depressing. But there is no easy solution, and we have to be honest about it. I don’t want to tell anyone to give up financial security for art, when the reality is so grim. If any sort of transparency helps, I have three part-time jobs, two of which involve writing, and none of which have anything to do with my own increasingly unfinished books. Twice a year I get a royalty cheque from my publishers, usually enough to buy a coat or go to the dentist. I still worry about my teeth and retirement savings, and the books I’m running out of time to write. 

To young writers, the best advice I never followed is to train in a field that will earn you a high hourly wage, work as few hours as possible, and spend the rest of your time writing. 

I think you’re doing yourself and your ancestors a disservice in believing they’d be ashamed of your question. If there’s anything we know about the past, it’s that they knew the importance of both art and bread. They might not necessarily understand the nuances of your immersive sound-art installation, but I like to think they’d be rooting for you regardless. We all want better lives for the people who come after us. But what about the people living today?

The solution isn’t as simple as “valuing the arts.” That’s part of it, but what use is a society that prioritises art at the expense of education or housing or healthcare? I don’t want a six-figure book deal, if the teacher reading it to their class can’t afford name-brand cheese. What’s the point of paying artists more, if it all goes to their landlords anyway? 

The best way to increase the amount of good things being made is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make them. Not just those individuals who can afford to crash in their parent’s lake house if it doesn’t work out. We’ve already done that, and we called it Romanticism. 

In order to meaningfully support the arts, you have to take on structural inequality as a whole. I hate to be a defeatist, but it seems increasingly likely we’ll end this year with a prime minister whose best idea, in the middle of the greatest existential threat to life this planet has ever seen, is to spend more on roads. Which is about as maliciously stupid as being elected chief of the fire department, and blowing your entire annual budget on straw houses and scented candles. 

I don’t know whether going to Berlin would help you write. I’m sorry to admit I’ve barely even answered your question. But I’m loath to tell you to “bet on yourself” if betting on yourself means working minimum wage in a bar, and hoping for a publishing break. 

You should always bet on yourself. It’s just that you have to change your idea of what winning looks like. If you go into the arts hoping to make money, you’ll inevitably be disappointed. If you go into the arts determined to make something beautiful or interesting or true, at least you’ll have something fun to write on your gravestone. 

Art won’t set you free. Art barely pays the rent. But it’s still one of the best reasons to live, and I hope you find a way to make it anyway. 

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to the previous Help Me Heras here.

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