The Beautiful Lie Of The Bohemian Writer

I read an interesting article about the popular image of writers’ lifestyles (hat tip to my friend Nicole Lindroos for posting it). This fantasy depicts the writer as a tragically romantic figure, the starving artist that doesn’t do anything but write, “keep odd hours, travel cheaply by rail, drink more than they should, and become overly involved in doomed relationships.” This mythical figure lives in an apartment that is “bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor.”

This bohemian writer figure is as mythical in American pop culture as the cowboy, or the high school jock, somewhat based in reality, but with a heavy layer of nostalgia for something that wasn’t. (Trump’s entire campaign was based on the same idea, a hearkening back to a mythical time when America was “great” that never truly was and only exists in popular culture, but let’s stick to our topic for now.) This fantasy, the article writer argues, emerges as the result of the work of the post-war era writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

“[These writers] went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.”

I particularly like the writer’s assertion that this image of romantic dilapidation is basically that of an Anthropologie catalog, where beautiful people stroll through derelict chic settings, living a grand life in the ruins of glamour without having to lift a finger. It is a powerful image that has lived in the mass consciousness of Americans (and anywhere American pop culture has lodged itself) for decades, one that has both inspired and hindered later writers, creating unrealistic expectations of what it takes to make a living writing.

“…the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever. Nobody teaches; nobody is a nurse or a bank clerk, a receptionist, a soldier. Writers write, and that’s it.


This fantasy image does us a disservice. It leaves us with no model to follow when we try to integrate art-making with functional lives. That period when a person could make a living writing fiction for periodicals was a blip, and it’s over; we’ve long since returned to the baseline, which is that the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is.”

I know a number of writers and none of them fit the dilapidated chic mold, especially the ones who make their living solely from writing. Most writers juggle day jobs with their writing careers, usually by being extremely disciplined, keeping to meticulous schedules, and sacrificing some comforts for their craft. These are the word warriors that get up at 4am to squeak in a thousand words before the kids get up for school, or who go to bed late after an hour or two at the keyboard after spending time with their loved ones and everyone has gone to bed. And the ones that do make a living as writers? They work as hard, if not harder, because they don’t have the safety net of a day job to fall back on: if they don’t write and sell, they don’t get to pay the rent or eat.

I wish I had known this when I was young and started writing. I fell for the fantasy of the bohemian writer hook, line, and sinker. Writers were as mythical as wizards, except I actually could become a writer. Instead of becoming an actual writer, however, I modeled my trajectory on the fantasy. I acted the part of the starving artist, except I wasn’t producing art, just wasting my time dabbling with sentences. I thought that being a writer was something that happened to you, not something you fought tooth and nail for. I learned that there was little difference between the wizard and the bohemian writer; they were both equally unreal.

I think that much like with cowboys, there is a place in pop culture for the bohemian writer, but it isn’t as the role model for new writers. Leave dilapidated chic to the Anthropologie catalogs and their pretty photographs. Find inspiration in real writers who hold day jobs and still manage to create, in writers who have successfully gone full-time and now hustle harder than ever before. These are the real inspiration. They are the ones living the true writer’s lifestyle.