The Unsafe Life

I was struck, recently, by a contrast.

I have a friend named Joe. Except that Joe is not his real name. In fact, he doesn’t exist: Joe is a composite of various people I’ve know. But he’s a convenient example.

Joe’s a big guy, about twice my size. If you put him in a movie, he would be either the martial-arts expert hero or the martial-arts expert villain. He lives in a small town in the South, and he owns his own business. Let’s say he’s in construction. He builds things, makes things, some work that gives him a relatively steady and reliable source of income. He has a home, a family, a community. If he wanted, he could live exactly as he is living for the rest of his life.

How do I know Joe? I’m pretty sure we went to high school together. Or not, it doesn’t much matter. He’s just an example, remember.

What struck me recently, rather hard, is that of the two of us, I’m the one who lives an unsafe life. I don’t mean physically, although I live in a large city and regularly receive reports of local robberies from the university police. No, I mean in another way.

I’m the one who ended up going to law school, working as a corporate lawyer. There were days when I got on a plane in the morning, and got on another plane at night. I made telephone calls that moved millions of dollars around the world. It was a world in which the stakes were high, the responsibilities great. And I left that world for the even less safe one of being a writer and scholar. Less safe because after all, corporate law had been a path. If you followed the path, you would do well. But a writer and scholar has to create her own path. She is rewarded for her originality, her insight — her ability to say what has never been said before. To shed light.

I don’t think I ever expected to be where I am today: teaching at one of the largest research universities in the world, whose freshman class is larger than the entire population of Joe’s town, and in a well-known MFA program. Publishing steadily, being respected as a writer. But it’s difficult too: I am responsible for performing, for producing. Standing up in front of sixty students a day, showing them what they did not know before. Flying to conferences, speaking on panels, reading my stories. Delivering new stories, hopefully (but not always) by deadline. There is a point at which people ask you to do things not because you have the right training or skills (like a corporate lawyer), but because you’re you. Because they want a Theodora Goss story. Which is wonderful — but which also means being an artist, doing the work to become an artist, always questioning yourself. Always pushing yourself. Getting better, going deeper. And, of course, accepting criticism, because you’re out there. Presenting yourself to the world.

If I make it sound hard, that’s because it can be very hard. At least for someone like me, who is an introvert and would love to dream her life away, maybe reading books or planting a garden.

I have no idea what the future will bring. Sometimes I sit in my apartment in this great city at night, and feel afraid. And sometimes I envy Joe’s life. It seems so peaceful, one day essentially the same as another. He can grow a garden. He can read for fun. But I realize, looking at my own life, that I’ve always chosen the more difficult path, as though by instinct. The path of greater challenge, and greater freedom. I’ve always gotten on the plane and taken off, to wherever I’m going.

I’m not quite sure why. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m an artist. I think perhaps living an unsafe life is the only way to create art.

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17 Responses to The Unsafe Life

  1. This is an excellent post. I identify as both a therapist and as a writer. Part of me spends hours every day encouraging people to ‘step outside their comfort zones’ and take chances, and the other half of me would absolutely kill to stay home, read, write, garden and knit all day. The balance act is incredibly difficult.

    Thank you.

  2. Dora, your post made me think of this excerpt from an interview with Barry Lopez, discussing his experience of the “unsafe life.” The specific sacrifices he speaks of aren’t necessary for every writer of course — even artists makes different sacrifices to do what they do — but I was moved by his willingness to speak of his own struggle so frankly.

    Here’s the except (with apologies for the length, but I’ll think you’ll find it of interest):


    ms: Have you made sacrifices to pursue this work?

    bl: Choosing the life I did, I’ve lost some things that from time to time cause me the deepest kind of anguish. Foremost among those are my social relations with other people. No one is comfortable exploring this topic with a stranger, but the truth is, if you’re devoted to your work your family is going to pay a price. How you cope with that—opting for the work or opting to maintain the long-term stability of a marriage, a family—is a singular measure of character.

    I’ve lived in this house for almost thirty-four years, but I know relatively few people here. I’m not involved in the fabric of day-to-day life on the McKenzie, in part because my work is not local. My life is not working in the woods. If it were, I’d be logging every day with people whose lives I shared and whom I went to church with. I don’t have that. I’ve chosen to do work that takes me a long way away. And when I come home, what I really crave is privacy.

    I’ve chosen a life that has made it impossible or very difficult for me to remain fully engaged in the life of a family. As a consequence, there have been times in my life when I’ve been very lonely. I can’t look at paying this price, though, as having made a sacrifice. Because you choose one thing, you don’t get another. I miss the pleasures of daily human contact and company. I’m in close touch with a community of people spread all over the country, all over the world, but I don’t see them every day. I love my work. It’s the good I have to offer. I don’t regret what I’ve done, but I have gone through times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had chosen community over being the kind of outrider that I am. If I had chosen a monastery or a community of people to stay with, if I had chosen a conventional family life where I married somebody and had children. But those were choices I did not make.

    My sense of self-worth comes from meeting my own expectations and from an acknowledgment from strangers that the work I have done has been useful to them. I am as ordinary as the next fellow, so an award or formal recognition gives me a sense of accomplishment, but you can’t really get a sense of self-worth out of an award, an honorary doctorate, or something like that. Self-worth comes from the acknowledgment of other people, a letter from a stranger, unsolicited, that says your work has meant something.

    I see my life in a very traditional way. I live in a modern era, but my sense of obligation and responsibility is traditional. You use your gift to help people achieve what they’re trying to do, to go where their imaginations are leading them.

    The full interview (which is fascinating) is here:;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0044.405;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg

  3. Er, the was supposed to be “every artist” not “even artists”…

  4. …and the link to the full article should have been at the end. Sorry! (Dora, are you able to edit comments to fix?)

    • Hi Terri! Yes, I fixed it! Thank you, what Lopez says is very much what I feel, sometimes. I connect every day with people scattered all over the world, and yet it can be difficult to find time for coffee with someone here in Boston. My best friends and I meet when we all fly to the same city . . . I love that life, but it can be lonely. And you can feel as though there’s no ground under your feet, as though the world could slip away from you. I’ll have to read the whole article. Thanks for posting it! 🙂

  5. You know, while I think you are probably right on some emotional level — certainly when I went back to writing in my late 20s my wife (girlfriend at the time) was stunned to find that her ordinarily easygoing programmer husband was suddenly an emotionally mercurial and stormy artist plunging through the hills and troughs of creative ecstasy and despair — and while I don’t (unlike you) know Joe, I’m kind of struck that teaching at a large university seems like a much more unstable and dangerous gig to you than running a construction company in a Southern town. Construction is notoriously tied to the business cycle, and owning your own business is always a tricky gamble of growth vs collapse. Joe no doubt has employees — whose livelihoods he probably feels a great responsibility for — and customers he’s courting but isn’t sure whether they’ll come through, and capital debts he’s undertaken because they offer a possible upside. Certainly he’s responsible for performing and producing — and I suspect the immediate economic consequences may be more severe for Joe if he fails to do that.

    Of course, there isn’t the particular terror of facing the blank page in construction itself — there are established rules and practices and Joe may spend more of his day pretty much knowing what to do or say. But note that it’s your personality — your artist’s soul — that makes you dig down deep to do your utmost for those students. Consider the thought experiment of what would happen if you just blew things off for a week, phoned it in, dropped the ball — what the consequences would be for you vs. Joe? I expect that you might have a bit of trouble — disappointed students or superiors, late deadlines, wrinkled brows of tenure committees or publishers — but wouldn’t it be pretty recoverable if, the next week, you were particularly brilliant? For Joe I expect that week wouldn’t be recoverable. A big building gig –there’s one across the street from my house right now — is a delicate dance, and if the load of cement doesn’t show up one week, causing the whole project to hit an escalating series of delays, it doesn’t really matter how brilliant Joe is the following week: his ass is grass, as he might say. And if Joe is a typical small construction business owner he most likely is reliant on a few big clients; screwing things up with one of them may mean a big hit. And if he’s taken on debt to invest in equipment, being dropped by such a client might put him in a squeeze. He may end up laying off his people. I am pretty sure, if Joe is the kind of person you would be friends with, that having to lay off his people is going to suck for him more than it would suck for you to miss a deadline or fail (in either sense) a student.

    Even if Joe does nothing wrong, doesn’t phone it in a week, an economic downturn will hit him harder than you, construction being highly cyclic, and Joe not being a big enough fish to have much insulation. Consider also how transferrable the career investments you’ve each made are. Your assets are essentially literary and scholarly reputation; unless you start sleeping with your students, or something, those are essentially durable no matter what happens to the particular institution your with. Your current publishers could go under and your current program could be cut, but that wouldn’t really touch your resume; you could go somewhere else in the English-speaking world and your credentials would be equally relevant. Joe’s comparable investments are much more fragile. His contacts and connections are local –if he pisses off the general contractor, there aren’t too many other options in that small Southern town. If he moves to Dubuque he’ll be starting more utterly from scratch. He probably hasn’t been going to cement cons and cultivating relationships over the years with contractors in Dubuque. Much of what he’s built is simply in physical possessions — the bank account, the cement trucks, the hard hats. Those are, in a way, the most fragile assets of all. That economic downturn, or that one week of phoning it in (never mind six months of depression) could easily wipe out all those physical accumulations; when the creditors come calling, that stuff is gone. Writing a bad book doesn’t erase having written a good book; not the way a disastrous overrun for Joe will literally wipe out all his gains.

    I don’t know what Joe’s wife does for a living; maybe even if he screws things up, they’ll have her income. If she’s home with the kids, though — which sort of fits your portrait of him as a conventional old-fashioned regular guy, though maybe less so here in 2013 — then that’s an additional risk. When Joe loses his accumulations, he’s going to be back where he started — driving the cement truck instead of owning it — at best. That means they’re not going to be making their mortgage payments, and health care for the kids is going to be in the balance.

    I know Joe seems unflappable to you — that big-guy easygoingness and Southern charm and the kid pictures on facebook from the church picnic. I suspect, though, that you’re being taken in by a pose. I expect Joe’s life is a lot more fragile, a lot less safe, than you think it is. It doesn’t require the same sort of daring as the artistic life. But there is a different kind of risk there, however modestly concealed.

    I mean, some of this has to do with the specific example you picked. You might have been better off picking me than Joe — an experienced computer programmer, working as an employee in a richer country than the US, with a rock solid social safety net and wife who’s a psychologist. I don’t have employees to take care of, and my wife and I each work half time and could easily go to 100% if the other one were laid off; we rent (no mortgage equity to lose) and no matter what happens, here in Switzerland, we’ll have good health care. I’m far safer than either you or Joe; except, of course, in facing the blank page. There there are no safeguards. But creative risk is only one kind of risk.

    • Well, Joe is made up. 🙂 I was trying to create a context for him that gave a general idea of the sort of life he might live, without making him look like any of my actual friends. Yes, if Joe were a real person, he would certainly face different sorts of risks. But the people I know who are like Joe, who have strong family and community ties, have a sense of safety that the artists I know don’t have. I think it’s in part a sort of existential safety, a sense that the world is solid under their feet. But I’m also not sure that academia is such a safe track. I remember the story of a famous feminist who had been out of academia for a while. She asked her local university if she could teach, and was told that since her publications were a decade old, the university did not want to hire her full time, although she could be an adjunct. My point is that there are professions in which there’s a path — I was in one! And professions in which there’s no path. And the arts are professions in which there’s no path. I’m very lucky to have the teaching positions I have, but most of the artists I know don’t have anything nearly that stable in their lives. And if I wanted a REALLY stable life, I would just focus on the university position. I wouldn’t also be teaching creative writing, or trying to do my own writing . . . all those things that are constantly pushing me along a path that I’ve set out for myself. The artists I know are constantly pushing themselves, putting their work out there, dealing with criticism. I guess fundamentally, the risk you take as an artist is that you put yourself out there — you’re on the line. You can be ignored, applauded, jailed . . . (a very real possibility in some places that we don’t think about much in Western democracies).

      • Well that’s why I’m trying to tease apart emotional and practical risks. An artist will feel a great sense of emotional risk — because of course you may indeed be applauded, ignored, or reviled for your work, which is more emotionally connected to you, more entangled with your being, than computer programs or cement deliveries are — even if that artist is in fact living in a prosperous country, where artists are not jailed, and has a relatively secure niche, a highly paid spouse, and an amount of social, educational, or even financial capital that puts them in a very privileged position vis-a-vis most of the inhabitants of their country, or even their (fictional) old high school friends who run construction companies in small towns in the South. I think that gap between emotional and practical risk is interesting.

  6. Shveta says:

    This. So much this.

  7. But Ben, I can count artist friends who are financially secure in the way you describe on one hand. And to be honest, they’re not the ones who are producing the most, partly because they need to maintain the jobs that give them financial security. The vast majority of my artist friends are poor, struggling both financially and emotionally. And even in my very privileged position, as a university professor with multiple degrees, it’s a constant struggle to find the time to produce and the money to go to conferences and conventions.

    • The sample at cons may be skewed for precisely the reasons you describe — you have to go to them — and science fiction may be skewed somewhat because it appeals to people with technical degrees — but what I actually find notable is the relative absence of actually working-class people — people without professional spouses, who didn’t leave previous careers as lawyers and engineers, who don’t have extended families with middle-class financial resources to fall back on (or to fund their MFAs) — in my immediate circle of acquaintance of writers. There are some, of course, but it’s not like a representative picture of America, and a typical path seems to be to carry a day job until you have some success — which of course imposes a selection effect on “the ones who are producing the most”. Obviously a day job hampers your ability to produce, but if the typical path is to have one until you have produced enough to justify leaving it (which is what pretty much every agent I’ve read or talked to recommends nowadays) then the majority of writers are not plunging into a path of great risk. Or rather, they have a great deal of psychological risk but some moderate control, at least, over financial risk.

      I think, also, you’re muddying the distinction between risk and state. I also have to economize to go to cons, but that’s because I choose to make as little day-job money as I can get away with and spend as much of my time as I can on art and parenting. Joe obviously has way more money than I do — he has a couple of cars, a big house, and in a good year his business is making money hand of over fist. I have no car, no house, and I more or less intentionally make pretty much only enough money (from non-art sources, and I make very little from writing) to get by. But I still have less financial RISK than Joe. Joe will make a lot more money than I if things go well. But he’s at greater risk if things go worse than he expected. In a downturn Joe may be ruined; I will sigh and make less art.

      Of course there are a lot of pure artists who don’t have a day-job-career (current or recently abandoned) to fall back on. They’re a not insignificant proportion of the artistic population. They may be a majority in real terms (how many people are making art). But I don’t think they’re a majority of the artists we hang out with at cons.

      • Ben, Joe doesn’t exist. He’s based on people I know, but he’s not a real person. So I’m not sure it’s useful to talk about him in such detail. I will say that I know a lot of real artists who don’t have college degrees or have only college degrees, who have struggled for years as waiters or working in retail. Or have strung together writing gigs to pay rent and put food on the table, not knowing if they would have an income the next month.They struggle to afford a con once in a while. Honestly, I think we do in fact know a different population, partly because I know a lot of people who are not on the con circuit or go only to small local ones they can afford. And I know artists, musicians, dancers — not just writers. I can’t even afford most of the cons! So yeah, if you’re at World Fantasy this year hanging out with people, those are people who have a lot more money than I do.

  8. When I was thirteen in a small town in Central Oregon, I began to research the lives of women, visual artists, writers, theatre. I knew nobody who was an artist. Everybody was Joe and Josephine, but often with emotional and money trouble anyway. With the innocent and funny need to write and perform I had to get a plan, on my own. The first thing I learned was that it wasn’t easy. How to be an artist and not starve in a garret. It turns out it is one day at a time. I have now landed in a good place, a renaissance. But I look back at all of it and it’s all stories and images. I took the right path. And I’m still on it.

  9. athansor says:

    Poor, poor artiste! Have you never heard of nor examined your privilege? It seems that I will not have anything, a hook, a balance to grab for in your fiction if you truly believe the life you are living is in any way difficult when compared to what most folks are born to. I do not hang out with many Joe’s as you describe, as they are probably far rarer than you assume, since so many people seem beneath your notice.

    • helen says:

      Athanasor, I hope that Theodora won’t mind if I reply to your extraordinary comment.

      Is it not ironic that you choose to write such hurtful remarks in response to a piece which discusses the emotional, among other, risks an artist takes in first creating something and then putting it on view to the wider world? One of those risks, after all, is receiving a reaction like yours.

      Do you really only read or view or listen to works of art by artists whose opinions precisely match your own? That must be rather limiting!

      I really would urge you to read the piece again, and the discussions above. Where does Theodora even suggest that someone is beneath her notice? Where does she write that nobody else struggles? Perhaps the example of Joe was not the best example of a ‘safe’ life, but the point that artists face particular risks that the rest of us do not surely still stands?

      I would also urge you to read more of Theodora’s blog, which I am sure will dispel all your anger. I have never met her, but it seems clear to me that far from having privilege, she has worked enormously hard for everything in her life, and far from looking down on people, she seems very kind and generous with her time and work.

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