On Making Art and Making Money

What does it mean to stand behind your morals?

How To Cure A Ghost is a free (almost) weekly newsletter. If you find value in what I write and read this regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber or Venmo or PayPal me. If you find value in what I write but can’t financially support its creation, please share.


I was about half a book into Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel Whereabouts when I realized that it wasn’t an off-beat, slightly morose, fragmented memoir—but, instead, a novel—an overly simplified novel about a character akin to an Ottessa Moshfegh anti-hero; an overly irritable loner. I was disappointed by the book, I think, because of how simple it was and also what kind of work occupies spaces of success, gilded by authors who are deemed prestigious by publications that discern taste, delivering us with masterpieces so ordinary and so lackluster that it’s hard not to feel like all of this is just one big joke.

That’s no shade to Lahiri (or Moshfegh, huge fan of both) The Namesake has fed me more times than I can name; last year after the shock of Irrfan Khan’s death, I rewatched Mira Nair’s glorious interpretation and remembered again and again what it felt like to be seen by Lahiri’s words the first time, all those years ago. My sister was reading Interpreter of Maladies when I was twelve, and that was my first introduction to Lahiri’s pristine ability to clarify specific details about living in-the-between spaces of identity and the frontiering that exists when you’re an immigrant. I found her writing so compelling, even then, even if I didn’t know how to describe it, because she elucidated me, she freed me of my own white gaze, allowing me to believe that my complexities were worth describing, that my cultural isolation was real and relevant. I owe a lot to the footsteps of storytelling that she paved.

I have, however, been thinking a lot about the way success is carved, and who gains entry point into these spaces. But, mainly, this is a challenge of the nature and commodification of success and contemplation of my own passage toward these realms. I know my path is unique. Maybe once I cared about fame and wanted it too, but these days I just want the truth, and I want a chance to tell mine. Maybe my unwillingness to compromise my integrity meant that I was being forced to look at things from the other perspective, of being an underdog. That better suits me anyway. I can’t play the game, and I guess I’ve decided not to. I’ve stopped pursuing what the security of power supposedly gains you and decided to just fuck off and do it on my own.

But… the road less traveled is a really fucking lonely one. The struggles are deeper, more complex because at a certain point you look at the mire of capitalism and question, “Is it all so bad?” So many of my personal problems (on the day-to-day) are monetary. This is the second month this year I’m wondering if my checks are going to come in on time for me to pay my rent. Nobody talks about this, how difficult it is when you’re on the peripheries of success. People see the 50,000+ Instagram followers (a big LMFAO) and think that means something but my friends, the sad reality is that it means nothing. Not really, or rather — not enough.

This time last year it felt like the revolution was upon us. After an early screening of Judas and the Black Messiah with my ex (the first time I watched the whole cut) I remember telling him that there was a real revolution ahead of us. People were en masse talking about abolition and racial capitalism… and it felt like what Chairmen Fred had been fighting for—the Rainbow coalition—a real united fight against the oppressor. I believe that this movie could (and should) contribute to the revolution, that’s what I wanted for it and I’m sure it sounds naive (as it was a studio movie) but it’s true. I’m a trojan horse and I believe all art should be.

To me, Chairmen Fred was one of the most compelling and honest people in American history, and that’s exactly why they (the American government) assassinated him at 21. As the daughter of someone with the same political alignment, from a family of hardcore Socialists, I don’t think kids that gain their Socialist/Marxist/Leninist beliefs in their 20s (Jacobin magazine and CO) know what it means to grow up fearing or hating or being ashamed of money because that’s how hardcore Socialist my family is. Most of these kids who live in NY and adopted these values after reading Marx at Columbia (or whatever, no shade) come from money; that’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. I think the insidiousness of hiding family money creates cycles of confusion and the lack of transparency causes more unjust situations to occur. None of this should be about shame, it should be about being honest. Owning one’s privilege is an important facet for us to clarify all of this societal weirdness where we pretend we’re all equal and that all of us have the same opportunities when it’s simply not true. I guess that’s what I’m contending with, the fact that I am not afforded the luxury of just creating work I love because I have the security to not have to make money. Instead, while I write a book, I also have to teach, write this newsletter, take most jobs I’m offered, because I don’t have the privilege to say no.

My father, an ascetic, called me a capitalist hippie when I was 16 which was basically his way of calling me fake. I think I downplay how much I’m trying to emulate him, a Leo, a man of deep morals but also… someone who, in his own ways, sadly, screwed me up. Ancestral trauma happens on so many levels and its interplay is so intricate.

This is all to say, money trauma is real.

As I write this, I’m listening to Family Affair by Iggy Pop. How appropriate!

*

A couple of weeks ago when a student, during a private, asked me if I felt like I deserved money I laughed but I haven’t been able to stop asking myself… Do I?

In many ways, I think I don’t because I think it’s more admirable not to. Greed is deeply gross to me. Maybe, like my dad, I also don’t want to be bought. I think so many of the issues with where we are at, as a civilization, is because of the accumulation of wealth without concern, and yet… I can’t keep ending up here, in this place, with a lack of security, wondering if I can pay my rent.

I want these newsletters to be a part of my own archival process, as a person who has deep values, and who is trying to be anti-capitalist, because I’m trying to figure out what that means for myself. How to be an artist who questions power but doesn’t fall into the machinations that most “successful artists” fall into? I want a good life without compromising my idealism. Surely, surely, that’s not impossible?

I want this to be an imprint of me, a writer, trying to really figure these things—to aid others out there (maybe you) who are also questioning how to actually exist intentionally, while making space for ourselves and others, because that’s important, too. I strongly believe that if we want things to change, it really does have to start on an individual level. We can’t keep expecting others to do the work for us, or for them to do the work, and not us. So this means we (you, me, and everyone we know) gotta face our own bullshit. 2021 is the year of not being back on my bullshit, it’s being free of it!

During a recent Akashic reading, I was told that I can’t take on the burden of collapsing capitalism. Thank you records for clarifying that. Glad it’s not all on me. And I’m partially joking… but I really have felt like if not me, then who? What’s the middle process of all of this while we still remain in this boring, cruel capitalist system?

Recently, I had two separate conversations with two different execs/producers who work for/with Amazon. Both of them expressed their deep concern about it… but also added that at least they get to make what they want to make and that in itself is important. After knowing and seeing the politics of Hollywood via my last relationship, I know how brutal this system is… and yet, as much as there are important criticisms of how a film like Judas (for example) plays into capitalism while presenting the story of an anti-capitalist revolutionary… I mean, yes, and yet… this is literally how you school people. The fact that people now even know about Fred around the world (and can do their own research about him) is a HUGE accomplishment for Hollywood. I know because I also worked as a film critic for many years. When I first started, back in the early 2010s, white editors weren’t allowing me to write the pieces I wanted because everything that wasn’t a non-white film or perspective was niche. That’s literally why Zeba and I started Two Brown Girls, we were tired of white people in the industry. Nine years later, my ex (who I met because I was a film critic and wrote about his first film) was able to make a movie about Chairmen Fred Hampton.

This is all to say that this shit is complicated. Being an artist who isn’t trying to play by the rules, who wants to make radical shit, but also wants an audience, I’m also questioning the journey of art-making and also challenging my own fear… if I want to write movies (which I am) and star in them (that’s the plan) if I want to do this… how can I ethically? Because I want to know. I want to know how to have and maintain stability on my own terms.

Also, I don’t have a fallback plan… soooooooooooooo

*

Zeba and I have been talking about how the measure of achievement and “dream-making” is constantly upon negotiation—and sometimes what you want at 25 is no longer what you need at 31. A lot of this is realizing the vapidity of the mortal coil and how ephemeral our time here is. I’ve changed so much in six months, let alone a year, because I stopped trying to attain what I felt was a very square concept of succeeding in life. Instead, I re-routed my focus. I began to value my spiritual life more. I found real mercy, real joy, real wholeness there. But, I think a lot of my spiritual life came out of desperation. I’ve always been so close to the knife, so close to the vortex of pain, of death, that faith in God, if nurtured with precision, would have to make me indestructible. What else did I have? I didn’t have any other foundation but my faith. A belief in something bigger than me; a drive.

We are all on singular paths. Unearthing the trauma I am unearthing, and the gravity of its pulse means day-to-day that journey is also so lonely. That’s just the plain and simple reality of this kind of work. No one is going to hold your hand, or even hold you accountable. If you want to change your life — you have to pull yourself out of the mud. I think relying on faith, or what Taylia reminds herself in Like A Bird, “I believe in myself like a religion,” is about understanding the larger perspective. Not everything is to be seen within the myopia of how we see most things. When you bring it outside of you and see your work as service, it unburdens the sadness of feeling unseen, of not having enough money. I think of someone as iconic as Hilma af (always read this “as fuck”) Klint who knew her work would not be understood, nor appreciated, in her lifetime. Same as Octavia Butler. I’m not saying this is my path, I’m saying the path of my idols helps.

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After teaching (and finishing) my first 6-week class on writing with vulnerability, I realized so much of what sucks about commercial writing is that there is no real space for nurturance. Cultivating this space with my students has allowed me to envision and mourn what I had never received myself — tenderness, but also an investment that is true and holistic, a sort of meeting of equals without the power dynamics that can often reside between artists. I wanted to give my students a chance to form a connection with me and others, and for us to all be invested in each other. I wanted them to feel seen, for their emotions to have a place to land, for their traumas to not have to be silenced or hidden. How little do we have that? A place to mourn through work. So much of my own healing has been in this art-making that I found through my own resilience and it’s a true gift to see others transform with their words as well and to see (and sit with) how much it changes people when they feel heard and held.

I long for that kind of investment of patrons. In a way, this newsletter is attempting to make that distinction on my own terms, to allow space to ask for help. To ask for your care, or any others, puts me in a place of vulnerability, but in a way, it also keeps me honest. If you support this newsletter financially you are helping me cultivate something deep, you’re affording me the freedom to speak my mind and remain in my non-conformist, anti-capitalist state. You’re literally feeding me and helping me survive. Thank you, I need you to know that. Starting this newsletter changed my life because up until I made it I had nothing reliable. I was always (as I still am) waiting for checks, but then I decided I wanted to have agency over my sadness. I have so much to say, so much to write, and to be able to share this with you, dear reader, is one of the things that sustains me the most. ((My paid subscriber list is still embarrassing — most of you read this for free which I’m not mad about but it is something to consider if you read me regularly!!!)

A couple of years ago my friend Roland, a Haitian artist in his 60s, would keep telling me to seek patronage, and even offered to pay me himself. I refused because I was embarrassed that I wanted it so badly, that freedom of not worrying, but feared what it would say about me as someone who might take that kind of offer from a friend. There’s a lot here about how I fear being even perceived as greedy (which is so rooted in childhood trauma) but it did make me think about how artists back in the day relied on their patrons because it gave them the liberty to create freely. In that sense, I guess that’s the real kind of success I want. To write and create work simply for pleasure. I recently wrote an essay I didn’t want to write for the check. I’m tired of doing this and yet as a person raised on a toxic positive spectrum, I always have to find a way to focus on what I do have. People love telling you that! Glass half full they say, like just merely mentioning exhaustion is an affront to their happiness.

So, each day I try to think of all the things I do have. To sit with my body in a new way, in a space that honors its quirks and illness has forced me to contend with what I wanted from my life, and what I presumed was a good life. In a way—was I not, three books in, with a fourth along the way already successful on some level? I have a loyal readership who want to read me, sure I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m still somewhere. Sometimes I remind myself that this should be enough.

…………………………………But then I watch Robert Pattinson’s short film about his fame that is so extremely obnoxiously bad that I want to scream expletives at his face and combust in a spacesuit on his head and then I cry myself to sleep out of frustration because I want nice things too……………………………. But instead, these uninspired artists with an exorbitant amount of money, power, and access make nine-year-old takes (no offense to nine-year-olds, all the offense to Robert Pattinson) about privilege.

The web of capitalism. That little shit.

*

I finished Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthurian this morning. “None of this will save me,” they write, “the money, the recognition, the brilliant work, the fame. It makes me both hypervisible and unseen.” Sounds familiar, right?

I’m grateful for Emezi’s breakdown of what they made for their book advances ($10,000 for Freshwater; $40,000 for Pet; $500,000 for The Death of Vivek Oji and Dear Senthurian (they also broke down $$ for translation rights 20,000 pounds for the UK, 10,000 euros for France; as well potential film + TV $$, there’s more but these were the main figures…)) When so much of the industry is shrouded in a cloak of confusion, it’s important for folks to disclose what they make. For similar reasons, I’ve always been honest about this, too, I tell everyone what I make for anything all the time because I believe we should all know for comparison and to determine our own worth.

A couple of years ago this changed my life when Healthyish asked me to be on a panel and when I asked for the rate—knowing two of my friends who were being offered money from the jump, potentially because they were seen as “important”—I was told, point-blank, there was no budget. Can you imagine? No budget. Just a straight fucking lie to my face. This was the first time a professional rage split me in half. I called them out, and, true story, I was apologized to and then offered a short-lived column. Since then, I’ve made it my duty to always tell people what I make because clearly, because it always helps to know. ((Unrelated/related Mary H K Choi Tweeted about this years ago, asking white men, if they really care about women or POC, to be honest about what they make!!! and honestly true…)

So here goes: I made $2,000 for Like A Bird; $40,000 for How To Cure A Ghost; $10,000 for Being In Your Body; $90,000 for Who Is Wellness For? (with a $15K bonus if I sell a certain amount in the first few weeks…) When we started the process of putting this book out into the world, my agent said she wanted to ask for $350,000. I felt seen and grateful that at least someone knew my worth—what are agents for anyway? But when my highest offer was my publishers at Harper Wave (who I went with) it made me feel so worthless and so small that even after the supposed success of HTCAG nobody wanted my book that much, not enough to want to fight for it. I personally know several people who have made the price of a small home on their books.

So, when people applaud me and reach out about my “success” I want to scream and tell them I sometimes wonder if I can even afford rent. Even though I’m young, I’ve been writing professionally for so long. Long enough that I’ve watched people that start after me make way more money and gain a lot more success than I have. This is what I mean when I say 50,000+ IG followers really doesn’t give you much when you can’t even leverage this to a publisher.

But, as I said, I know my path is different and that’s why I’m talking about it. I want to show you the story of somehow trying to do it on their own terms, the story of someone still struggling every day. During prayer this morning, I pulled the Death tarot card. Psychic Revelation explains about the Death card: “The more accepting you can be of change of any description during this time the better. Simply put the less you try to control what is underway the more comfortable this time will be for you. The energy of this time is not just change or destruction; it is change or destruction followed by renewal. Even though one door may have closed for you another is opening. The change is coming whether you want it or not so pluck up your courage and step through the door. This change is needed.”

Today my friend Fariba FaceTimed me. When I mentioned how I was feeling she told me she could see how hard I was working for survival. It felt comforting. So often all I need is someone to just listen to me. Sometimes I just want to say how I’m feeling and not have it explained back to me. Fuck glass half full. I mean, sure Jan, but can you just let me fucking have this one for a sec real quick? For those of you in big cities, like New York, trying so hard to just stay afloat without the support that so many have. I feel you. We’re doing it. May we accept the tide. Even if we can’t change what determines success we can still work towards what that looks like for us. You are not alone, I’m right beside you. If you’re to make work ethically, trying to survive without compromising your ideals, I’m right there with you.

In solidarity forever.


How To Cure A Ghost is a free (almost) weekly newsletter. If you find value in what I write and read this regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber or Venmo or PayPal me. If you find value in what I write but can’t financially support its creation, please share.