Like any writer I dream of being awarded a life-altering grant or winning the state lottery, or at the very least, the heart of some word-loving benefactor, a silver-haired sugar mama or daddy who’ll rescue me from hard labor, no strings attached, simply for the satisfaction of seeing my words released into the universe. Centuries ago artists and writers had patrons. Some still do. The British had the dole.
In his essays “Sacked” and “On the Roof,” Geoff Dyer remembers living on the dole as a golden age when the safety net of Britain’s welfare state allowed Housing Benefit to pay his rent and Social Security to provide him money to live on. The first twenty-five years of his life were cushioned by “free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant and then – the icing on the cake—the dole!” The relative economic freedom Dyer and his “doley” friends experienced nurtured a whole generation of aspiring actors, dancers, writers, and musicians. Dyer calls the dole “the equivalent of waiting tables in New York.”
For the time being I’ve chosen the employment Dyer mentions to support my writing, that is, the life of waiting tables. My decision five years ago to leave a steady office job worried family and friends, but the gifts of a service industry job continue to do me good. In the right place with the right establishment, a writer can make good money on a flexible schedule, her mind left free to ruminate without too much responsibility.
Waiting tables, however, is not like living on the dole. Besides sleeping with a pillow under jammed knees and forever scrutinizing the tableside manners and tipping habits of friends, working dinner services leaves a writer in NYC unable to attend readings and events that help establish friendships and beneficial connections. Most significantly, restaurant serving, like all other work that pays the bills, diminishes time at my desk. But we all must grind, and this is the ages-old challenge of being an artist: how to survive and create in a society that values its art and culture, to a great extent, in terms of economic viability and success?