Those Who Can’t Do, Teach: How Capitalism Reshapes Our Passions

By Taylor Steele

My entire life, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write. From plays, to essays, to screenplays, to stage and page poems — I’ll write anything. Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to find gigs as a content writer, blogger, dramaturge, and columnist at some highly-esteemed and progressive publications. However, being a writer doesn’t have a big pay-out — if it ever even has one at all. I’ve written many pieces for free and/or next-to-nothing; sometimes for the exposure or expanding my CV, other times because the work existing in a public and easily accessible space meant more to me than money. Still, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

So, I became a teaching artist. With my experience as a poet and spoken word artist, I was able to get hired as a youth mentor, leading writing and performance workshops. I became the embodiment of the age-old adage, “those who can’t do, teach.” The only difference being, this saying refers to those who lack the aptitude to actualize their passions. Humility aside, I know that I am talented. My problem isn’t that I lack the aptitude to become a financially successful writer — I lack the safety net required to invest in becoming one.

Often, artists are told that in order to make money, we have to spend money. That and we need to know the right people. My dream is to write for television — both as one of many in a writers’ room and as a show’s creator. I didn’t go to theater or film school, so I don’t have a network of professional playwrights and screenwriters to sift through, ask a handful of them out for coffee to pick their brains and send them my pilot. And there’s no job search engine where I input “screenwriter available” and “HBO’s in need of writers for their new hit show ___” shows up. The only way I know of to get my work in spaces where professionals have access to it, is to submit to contests. When prizes include one-on-one meetings with network executives, possible production deals, and festival passes, submitting seems like a no-brainer. These contests, though, have registration and application fees of anywhere between $75-150. I have never been in a position where I could spend that money on such non-essentials, so I miss every deadline.

The same is true of poetry contests. Those with big payouts require that you pay anywhere between $15-40. So, you put down $20 in the hopes of getting anywhere between $200 - $15,000 back. I’ve submitted to a handful of poetry and chapbook contests, and haven’t won a single thing. I can’t help but think, that’s money that could’ve put groceries in my fridge or paid my gas bill. And this is bigger than not winning one specific contest. There are writing retreats and fellowships that require applicants to have a published book. So, I’m not eligible to participate in these networking and learning spaces.

All of which brings me back to teaching. The thought being, if I can make money doing something close to what I love, then I can both afford to pay submission fees and my rent. Except, being a teaching artist still does not pay enough for me to live beyond my means — it pays enough to keep the lights on in the home I share with 3 roommates. And, even so, it doesn’t have the potential to pay my bills all the time. The nature of being a teaching artist is that you go where you are needed, in schools that still have art budgets. This mean, I am typically only needed during the school year. Come June, it’s incredibly difficult to find work teaching anywhere. Being a teaching artist is different than being a teacher. This may not be true of other TAs’ experiences, but I don’t work full-time or even in the same school everyday, I don’t get benefits or paid Summers. Whatever I make throughout the school year needs to last through the Summer, which is next to impossible and sometimes makes teaching feel impractical.

None of this is to say that teaching isn’t rewarding. There is nothing quite like watching young people find their voice and knowing you aided in that discovery. But teaching was never the end-goal. Teaching was a way to put my writing skills to use in spaces that feel safer than my alternative. I’ve worked the 9-5 office jobs, I’ve worked retail — and those experiences left me traumatized in ways that make returning to work like that feel unsafe. Besides, since being a teaching artist is a part-time gig, it made sense that it would grant me the time I needed to pursue my actual dreams.

But teaching can be emotionally taxing. It often leaves me feeling tired or tapped out. I have to write, submit and implement my own curricula, which sometimes takes the place of finishing a play or poem. Hearing young people’s poems about trauma and identity can be difficult to shake off once I’ve clocked out, which makes writing about my own trauma and identity exhausting or inconsequential. Then, when I do find the time and energy to focus on me and my passion, I feel like I’m wasting said time and energy that I could be using to find more lucrative work.

This is how capitalism works, how insidious it is. I only feel productive when I’m doing something that will guarantee a paycheck, as opposed to honoring that I need to create art because it’s who I am and what I do. So, here I am in this vicious cycle: I need money to invest in my art, I work a job in my respective field that promises time but little money, that job makes it difficult for me to invest in my art both emotionally and financially, so I have no art to even invest in. And I don’t have an answer for that, no resolutions. I don’t plan to quit teaching any time soon. I still don’t have money to pay my rent, let alone submission fees. All I feel I can do is stay on the grind and hope that my hard work pays off.


Taylor Steele is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work can be found at such esteemed publications as Apogee Journal, HEArt Journal, Rogue Agent, Blackberry Magazine, and many others. Her chapbook Dirty.Mouth.Kiss will be available Fall 2016 on Pizza Pi Press. Taylor is a content writer for The Body is Not an Apology, Drunken Boat Journal, and Philadelphia Printworks. She is an internationally ranked spoken word artist, but, more importantly, she is a triple-Taurus. If you'd like to support Taylor's writing please consider making a donation via$Steelewriter.

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