4 Books that Changed My Life

I was walking to join my husband in the Orange Room at Powell’s and suddenly, out of the sea of books lining the hallway, a book cover caught my eye. I stopped. Red and mallard green and ink swirls and strokes surrounded the title: Fierce on the Page . The word Fierce was sinuously hand lettered while the words “on the page” were sans serif and thin.  “Become the writer you were meant to be” read the tagline.  I read one paragraph and bought the book. And I haven’t looked back.

Fierce is filled with fun exercises. One of them is to recognize what moves you by creating a shelf of books that changed the way you are in a profound way. My husband and I have been paring down our belongings, the accumulation of decades, dieting in a way to fit into the size of home we have and to achieve the clarity of purpose that fewer possessions brings. Over the course of 2 days the back of my mind gave me 17 books that have profoundly altered my thinking. I’ll list all of them later. For now, 4 of them, over the course of 15 years, have informed how I feel and what I do about being an artist in the midst of other things too.

It’s Not a Fair Game

When I was trying to understand why making a living as an artist was so difficult, I found Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts (published 2002). Hans is a writer with a sense of humor. In the preface, you can tell he doesn’t think there will be much demand for copies of his book. And it is a fairly dry read. However, the insights are worth it. He outlines 21 factors that contribute to what he calls the “exceptional economy” or aka structural poverty in the arts.

He helps you understand why artists, for the most part, will always be poor, while engineers may not face that same challenge. It’s like going to Vegas. The odds are stacked.

The supply of artists will always exceed the demand for their work for a long list of reasons. For example, he argues that artists are drawn to the arts by the flame of high status, therefore increasing supply. He also argues that the winners are not keen to dissuade this attraction because the more losers there are, the more special the winners.

He argues that our societal imbalance toward the rational is part of what makes the arts magical and special. Conversely, if we over-rotated toward the arts, then science would be special.

How this can be useful

You say, this is super dry. Fair point. For an artist though, understanding the underlying structure of the arts economy helps depersonalize some of the challenges to making a living. If you’re wondering what the problem is, it probably isn’t you.

Change the Game

If the odds are stacked, what else can you try? When I was looking for an alternative way to think about this the next book proved critical.

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde was first published in 1979 and has been updated 4 times, most recently in 2007.  It’s equally dense but has seen more demand than Abbing’s book. Through ethnography, fairy tales, literature and history, Hyde traces the evolution of societies from gift economies through barter to commodity exchange (whether present day paper or yesteryear sea shell currency).

In a gift exchange economy the balanced reciprocity requires supported relationships and social cohesion. If I give you a gift, you feel obligated to give one back. So we see each other again. And there is an obligation to keep the gift circulating. If I receive a gift, I feel the need to gift others. When you introduce cash aka commodity exchange, there’s no need for relationship or giving the gift on. I can go to my drug store, buy toothpaste and never see the clerk again.

If you sell art, there is no need for relationship. If you gift art, however, it supports relationship. Much of content marketing is giving a gift of free content, instilling that small obligation and building that into something bigger, a longer relationship and potentially sales. And if you think of the art you create as a gift to you in the first place, you’ll want to share the blessing. In content marketing, if you’ve received a gift of content, you’re likely to share it (on social media, through e-mail) with others.

Hyde quotes a number of authors and artists who felt that the inspiration for their poem or book or song was a gift from somewhere, someone. They felt the need to keep the gift circulating. The implication for the arts is that you can participate in a commodity exchange economy (charge money for your art) and/or you can chose to participate (in whole or in part) in a gift exchange economy where you give away your art. Whatever you chose, the point is, there’s another way and you get to chose.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her TED talk Your Elusive Creative Genius, argues, like Hyde, that the work is certainly the artists to do but the inspiration is a gift and lives outside of us.

How this can be useful

Three things combine to create an alternative narrative around “success and failure” for an artist:

  • The odds in the arts commodity exchange economy are stacked against the artist
  • There is an alternative which is the gift exchange economy
  • While work is required to hone skills, your creative genius is a gift

Pain and Suffering is not a Requirement

There are a number of un-useful thought clusters in the arts. One is about making money. You’re no good (according to some) if you can’t make a living as an artist and if you go “commercial” and do work for hire you’re considered a sell out by some. Another example is that you need to be tortured and pain filled somehow to be a legit artist. Elizabeth Gilbert Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear  envisions an entirely different and productive relationship with one’s muse.  Gilbert “disarms the modern language of creativity steeped in ‘pain, desolation and dysfunction.'” She has a way out for every mental corner that artists back themselves into. Blue, pink and yellow watercolor cosmology-like splatters adorn the cover of this book.

How this can be useful

If you have artist friends who have an unproductive narrative about what success looks like as an artist, please send them this book. Gilbert also has a podcast called Magic Lessons where she works with individual artists on their stuckness. If you’re running a narrative loop that’s not serving you whatever your profession, I recommend reading this book to get some air in that story so you can write a new one.

The Fullness of Our Gifts

I had stubbed my toe on the duality of thinking that either I could be an artist or I could work in high tech or pursue careers in both.  Ella Luna’s  book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion, articulates job, career, passion as distinct  things that can all exist at the same time and in the same life.

  • Job – something you do 9 to 5 for pay
  • Career – “A system of advancements and promotions over time where rewards are used to optimize behavior.” (Think LinkedIn)
  • Calling – “Something we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune, the work is the reward”

Luna’s premise is, “All too often we feel that we are not living the fullness of our lives because we are not expressing the fullness of our gifts.” (Remember the gift economy?) The rest of her book is devoted to helping us do just that.

How this can be useful

You probably have a number of callings. Mine are trail running, writing and the visual arts. You probably have a job or a career. I’m currently Dean and General Manager of The U, from which I derive both satisfaction and paycheck. Viewing your calling and career as different things that can co-exist is wonderfully freeing. And when we “express the fullness” of all the gifts we have been given, we do feel more whole.


There’s something about serendipitous finds at a bookstore that shopping online doesn’t replicate. Despite the sensory overload of all those books on the shelves, and the frequent lack of alphabetical order, something reaches out and grabs you. For the opportunity to have that experience, I am grateful to book stores in general and Powell’s in particular.

I hope you’ve found this helpful in some way. If you have similar experiences, other helpful resources to consider or stories from your own journey, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for reading, Jennifer