I Am a Writer Activist, and this is My Story
by Nathan G. Thompson
I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. My grade school assignments frequently included little titles, poems, or stories, regardless of the original content. Some of the teachers thought these additions were cute, while others were annoyed by them. Later, in high school, I began taking creative writing classes. The near consistent praise for my writing skills started rolling in almost immediately. Given this boost, I soon learned to peddle my words for grade cookies. Instead of doing the assigned work, I’d offer up a pithy critique on some novel I had read, or hand in a stack of newly drafted poems. It almost always worked. I got straight A’s in every class where writing was a major component, and even a few where it wasn’t. When you don’t need to earn money to survive, living off your writing is pretty easy.
As a young adult, I became a political animal. Driven by a concern for the environment and a decidedly fierce anti-war stance that made me wonder about my past lives, I started writing elected officials and joining protests. In addition, the college tuition and student rights battles that continue today were just getting warmed up back in the mid-1990s, when I was an undergraduate student, and I enthusiastically joined our campus student senate to fight the good fight. In my English classes, I argued with gray haired, white male professors over the value of literary canon, and the lack of diversity in the writing they presented us. In one class, when it came time to write a term paper, I chose Jack London’s The Iron Heel because it was the most radical novel on the list, and I wanted to stick it to the conservative professor who barely gave the time of day to the brilliant Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and other African American writers of the early 20th century. When all you need is a good grade, the strength of your writing skills and research often is enough. I wish the same were true when you’re looking to get paid.
My parents divorced when I was young, and for several years, my mother did everything in her power to better herself and, in the process, make things better for me and my sister. She went into debt to give us a nice house to live in. She went into more debt to go to grad school, so that the skills she had didn’t go to waste in a low wage, dead end job. A few of those years, we regularly ate welfare staples like powdered milk, cheap pasta, and those big blocks of yellow cheese that don’t really taste like cheese. Even after she began to climb out of poverty, we were always the last kids to get the “newest, hippest” thing, if we ever did at all. I remember finally receiving a Nintendo game system for one of my birthdays, a good five years after it had been hyper popular. I was happy and depressed all at the same time. As I played Tecmo Football with a friend of mine one day, a little voice inside my head said, “This is how it is when you’re poor. You’re always way behind.”
The Buddha’s teachings provide some solace. Instead of considering money the root of all evil, or the sign that you’re one of the “chosen ones,” Buddhist teachings point to money as being empty of inherent nature. The monastic teachings around renunciation are helpful in letting go of desires around having lots of stuff I don’t need. In addition, the Pali Canon is filled with advice to kings, wealthy folks, and others to share what they have, warning that extreme material imbalances lead to societies of deep suffering. And meditation practice itself provides an always ready training ground, for facing fears around money, and lack of money, and for letting everything just be as it is.
However calm and stable I may be, though, there’s still a need for money. I haven’t yet figured out a decent fix in this capitalist society for going without money. Bartering is great when you can find a partner to do it. Growing your own food is great when you have a bit of land and decent weather. Dumpster diving sometimes brings good results, but certainly isn’t a long term solution for anything. Co-operative living has its pluses and minuses, but for the most part, you still need some money to that. Point being, like most of us radical types out there, I’m still working the dream of a healthy, liberated way of being beyond capitalism. It isn’t easy, and there seems to be a lot of impediments to it in place, including some from the very people who say they want a new world to spring forth.
Social activist circles are notorious for their idealism, and also their clinging fiercely to that idealism. Like the non-profit sector, there’s a strong ethos that says you should give, give, give to the cause. But that it’s usually wrong to receive much of anything in return, besides some of those praise cookies I so loved back in the day. Writers and artists in particular are put through the wringer because our skills are needed to advance the cause, and yet any expectation of pay or gifts of material goods for our work is frequently met with scorn and/or calls of being a “sell out.” Academics and professional pundit writers like Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky are either given a pass because they have “day jobs,” or are used when convenient and tossed aside when not. Either way, the impact of this behavior on them is marginal at most, whereas the same behavior towards the average poor activist can be the difference between having a place to call home, and being homeless.
Convert American Buddhists, on the whole, don’t seem to be much better when it comes to dealing with this kind of thing. First off, there’s the rather collective aversion towards social and political issues in the first place. It’s ok to “do that” on your own time but don’t expect any of us to support what you’re doing publically, especially in terms of financial support. Along these lines, the heavy middle/upper class bias prevalent in the vast majority of convert American Buddhist sanghas renders such issues mostly invisible. “Vowing to do good” – one of the Buddhist pure precepts – is something we are supposed to do our best with, but if you place it at the radical center of your life, you’re basically on your own in trying to keep the bills paid. Even living in a monastic community, where you may be able to reduce your material needs enough to focus on serving the broader world, is a privilege in this country. You usually need money to get there, money to stay there, and money to leave there.
A lot of folks in both of these sanghas, the Buddhist ones and the social activist ones, decry the increasing privatization and material wealth imbalances that plague the United States. And yet, many of the same folks fail to see how they very notions they have about what constitutes a “good activist” or a “good Buddhist” are privatized themselves. Activists routinely speak of solidarity, and yet gobble up the work of their writers and artists, often without so much as thought to how the person that created that work is keeping their bills paid, if they are at all. American convert Buddhists are fond of waxing poetic about interdependence, but when push comes to shove, are decidedly individualistic in how they approach both the dharma, and the world around them.
Something has to give. Someone has to give.
I write this article without expectation of payment. It’s like so many other things I do. Offering to the world a little liberation plea. Putting my words in service of anything and everything that might help wake someone, anyone up from the slumbers wrought by modern capitalism, and the colonial past from which it sprung. The dharma name my Zen teacher gave me several years ago translates to “Devotion to Enlightenment,” and that I am, however far I might be from it moment after moment. I love my fellow writer and artist activists, feel so immensely moved by their work sometimes that I’m stunned silent, with tears down my face. Have you heard of Ricardo Levins Morales? Amazing. How about Troy Amlee? Probably not, but I bet you will someday.
Sure, most of us could get “day jobs,” and do the rest on the side. Many do just that. I did just that for years, and might be doing just that again someday soon. Of course, the ever precarious nature of the job market these days means procuring work is that much more difficult. And once you do so, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the time and energy left to do things like writing about injustice or painting murals to document the disappearing stories of indigenous folks. In some cases, the workplace you land in might be at total odds with both your true work, and the dreams you have for a better, more just world. They may even try to stop you from doing that work, from speaking of those dreams. People not in the know usually underestimate the power of corporate interests to threaten anyone that threatens their bottom line.
Where we put out money and material support is where the world tends to go. The story of the starving artist and starving writer is neither romantic, nor sustainable. We don’t, as a society, value the vast majority of our writers and artists precisely because they don’t feed the corporate bottom line. Our work has been deemed superfluous and extra precisely because it isn’t – except in rare cases – money making. Do you see how the loop reinforces itself? And actually, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that we do produce wealth. We are a money-making venture. Everyone from corporate giants to the little non-profit down the street make money off our sweat, blood, and tears every single day. They just don’t own up to it. We – the people of the United States of America – just don’t own up to it.
It’s time for that to change. It’s time for folks to put their money where their hearts are. I am a writer activist. And this is my story.
Nathan G. Thompson is a writer, social activist, and Zen practitioner from St. Paul, MN. He is the author of the blog Dangerous Harvests, and has numerous other print and online publications.
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