Hi everyone. Thanks for following along with the Money Talks column. Today’s conversation is the third in our new series. I was really struck by much of what poet Alison Luterman shares with us. (You can read it all below!) But there were three things she said that especially jumped out at me:
- I don’t think any of us really know the true worth of what we do, and it’s a mistake to try to measure that worth in dollars.
- I have had time—which is its own kind of wealth—and that has given me the luxury of pursuing interesting creative projects.
- I know that if I died tomorrow I did do what I came to earth for, which was to write those particular poems. You can’t really put a price tag on that.
These statements really gave me pause to think about my own life and how I value what I do. What is it worth to be able to bring our visions to life in the world? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to have time to do our creative work? Do we feel like we’ve been able to fully give our gifts to the world?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the ideas Alison has presented. Please leave a comment below!
Alison Luterman is the author of three books of poetry (The Largest Possible Life, See How We Almost Fly, and Desire Zoo) and an e-book of personal essays (Feral City). Her plays include Saying Kaddish With My Sister, Oasis, Glitter & Spew, and The Chain, a musical about kidney transplantation. Alison performs with Wing It!, an improvisational dance-theater ensemble. alisonluterman.net
1. Are you earning what you’re worth? That question is really confusing for me because I don’t make a regular salary, and what I get paid varies so incredibly widely. Sometimes I earn $100.00 an hour for editing or teaching or coaching. Other times my poems get used for free. I’ve been paid $2,000 for a poem I wrote in 15 minutes which won a prize, and then again I’ve labored over other poems for years and not gotten a penny for them.
Ideally, poetry should exist in a “gift” economy—if we lived in a tribal village and you made baskets and I made poems, and we both grew vegetables in our back yards, we would find a way to trade the essentials around and all our gifts would be honored. But we live in a capitalist society, and I can’t pay my dentist with poems, nor can I barter them at the gas pump, or bring them down to the bank where I pay my mortgage.
I’ve also noticed that in life sometimes the people who do the most essential work—like taking care of children or being a nurse’s aide—get paid the worst, while other people who don’t produce anything real may get paid very highly. So I don’t equate “worth” with pay, because in the system we currently have it seems to me that most people don’t get paid what they are “worth,” and that the idea of equating one’s “worth” by one’s salary sets people up to feel badly about themselves.
Emily Dickinson did not make one dime for her writing, yet her poems have provided comfort and inspiration to generations of readers. I don’t think any of us really know the true worth of what we do, and it’s a mistake to try to measure that worth in dollars.
2. What does the expression starving artist bring up for you? Well, I’ve never starved but I have squeaked—I am squeaking by. I’ve lived on or around $25,000 a year for most of my adult working life. I was brought up to be very frugal and I never worked a corporate job, so pinching pennies has become a way of life. Sometimes that has resulted in a feeling of separation from good friends who spend money more freely; I can’t participate on an equal footing, I am making different choices, and we haven’t always understood each others’ financial situations.
There is so much shame and secrecy about money; that’s why I think it’s great that you’re writing this column and conducting these interviews. It helps enormously just to have conversations about it.
I think we all make choices—and sometimes those choices feel like sacrifices. Anyone who has had a child knows there are big financial costs and sacrifices involved. My baby has been my creative life: every choice I have made, including choices of living situation, work, friends, mate, and recreation is made thinking of how this will affect my writing.
I have had time—which is its own kind of wealth—and that has given me the luxury of pursuing interesting creative projects. The biggest “starvation” for me was not having had my own children because I didn’t think I could support them properly. (I also didn’t have a partner during the second half of my child-bearing years. And I had doubts about whether I would be a good enough mother, given how much of my energy went into economic survival and writing. But those are different stories!) I guess it’s hard for me to envision a life where one gets to have everything— children and partnership, and art and enough money—which is doubtless a limitation of my own belief system!
3. Do you have any childhood money stories that have to do with making a living from work you love? My father actually loves his job—he has been a college professor for over 50 years—and he made a decent living at it. In fact he can’t seem to retire. He has “officially” retired five or six times—complete with dinners, speeches, and cakes—and yet he keeps going back to teach “one more course”! We tease him about it. Each time he swears it’s his last, but the truth is, he loves teaching and helping people, and he loves to still feel like he’s got the goods—which he does!
So I grew up with a model of someone who did good work that they enjoyed and were respected for, and supported a family on it. He didn’t earn a lot when I was young, and my mother was a nursery school teacher. She was very thrifty. We weren’t wealthy compared to some of the kids I went to school with, who boarded their own horses and things like that, but we never went hungry, we had dental work when we needed it, new shoes when we needed them, we went to summer camp, we had vacations, and my parents paid for our college educations.
Yet I was always conscious of how much things cost and never wanted to stress the family budget by wasting any money. For my first two years of college, I attended the college where my father taught and my tuition was free, and after that I transferred to the state school, which cost $350 a semester at the time.
All my adult life I have lived cheaply by having roommates, buying things on sale or used, and not wasting money. I am not perfectly thrifty, but compared to the general zeitgeist, I sometimes feel like my attitudes are out of step.
4. What’s your biggest money story currently? I worry about old age, about not having a pension because I have been free-lance for so long. I know I’m very fortunate to own my own home, (by virtue of a divorce settlement and some lucky breaks), and I have managed to save a little, but not enough to last more than a few years. I’m really hoping that I don’t live longer than my capacity to work, because I can’t afford it. I like what I do, and I don’t mind being like my father and continuing to teach and write and give readings indefinitely, but all of that depends on having the health and energy to continue. I think the lack of a safety net is stressful for everyone in this society.
5. Do you think the expression, “Do what you love and the money will follow” is accurate? (Would you add anything to it?) Perhaps a better expression, in my experience, is “Do what you love and some money will follow.” It also very much matters what it is you love. If you love high-tech, then you can expect that a lot of money will follow; if poetry, not so much.
Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose what we love. I have made money from teaching and even publishing poetry, but not the amount that would translate into a middle-class income.
It’s also important to me to say that money is not the only form of wealth. I’ve been “paid” for my work not only in dollars, but in hearing from people that my poetry has touched their lives. Hearing from all those people (including you, dear relentlessly affirming Sherry) has penetrated my many hardened layers of self-doubt and made me realize that all along there’s been a bigger power at work in what I’m doing—an energy greater than my rational mind.
This energy is not so concerned with how much I have in my bank account (even though I can get quite worried about that number at times!) I’ve made mistakes in my life and I have some painful regrets, yet I know that if I died tomorrow I did do what I came to earth for, which was to write those particular poems. You can’t really put a price tag on that.