The Trap of Poverty Mentality

A few weeks ago, after writing for this newsletter about an author who had squandered her initial financial success, I wound up sharing some additional thoughts with premium subscribers, ultimately grappling toward a recognition of “that persistent strain in our cultural imagination that emphasizes the creative aspects of being a published author and often refuses to acknowledge the commercial aspects of that vocation.”

I’m still grappling with that, to be honest, but in the meantime I came across a new book from the musician and meditation teacher David Nichtern called Creativity, Spirituality, and Making a Buck that I hoped would steer me down some interesting paths. It certainly talked the right talk, with a declaration for all creative types that was relevant to our own writing practices: “We’re really trying to balance aspiration, ambition, effort, and accomplishment with a sense of reasonableness, ease, and satisfaction.”

Nichtern’s background is Buddhist, so there’s a lot of emphasis here on mindfulness—in particular, on developing one’s clarity, intention, and focus in order to better understand what it is you’re meant to be doing and, from there, to get it done. If you’re completely new to Buddhism, you’re not going to get lost, and if you do know what Nichtern’s talking about, it’s all pretty straightforward.

There were two things in my reading that jumped out at me, that I wanted to spend some time talking about with you. First, Nichtern borrows the concept of “poverty mentality” from his mentor, Chigyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “Instead of coming from a place of inherent richness and courage,” he writes, “we lead with a feeling that failure is inevitable. And then, of course, our projection becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I imagine you can pick out a moment in your past when your writing has fallen prey to some form of this poverty mentality. Maybe it’s something you stopped writing, because you didn’t think you could figure out how to finish it. Maybe it’s something you never even started to write, because you were afraid you couldn’t do the topic justice, or you were afraid of what other people might say about it.

A story you never submitted because you “knew” it would be rejected. An application to a workshop or an MFA program you never completed because you “knew” you’d just be wasting your time.

As Nichtern explains:

“What’s missing in poverty mentality is kindness and compassion toward ourselves. If we have deeply embedded habits of being too harsh and unfriendly toward ourselves, it can be very challenging to practice mindfulness.”

It’s the same with writing. You need to believe, deep down, that you can do it, then you need to give yourself permission to do it—and that involves clearing some space and time in your life to devote to your writing practice, because it is a thing that matters. You have to be willing to forgive yourself your initial missteps, to push past them and keep moving forward, because it matters that you keep moving forward.

(I say “initial missteps,” but the truth is you’re going to keep making them no matter how long you stick with the program, so you might as well get used to forgiving yourself early.)

The second thing I noticed is connected to the first, in a way. Nichtern comes back, over and over, to the concept of your creative output as an “offering,” and that made immediate sense to me. When you’ve broken out of poverty mentality, when you realize that you can act from a position of abundance, that you can make a valuable contribution, it’s easier to say, “This is what I have to give.”

Of course, thinking about our writing as an offering, or a gift, just brings us back to the problem I described at the beginning. The point of a gift is that you don’t expect to receive anything in return, but, the capitalist system being what it is, if you want to dedicate more than a fraction of your life to your writing practice, you’re eventually going to need something in return, and how are you supposed to go about getting it?

On that front, I wish Creativity, Spirituality, and Making a Buck had been a bit stronger, but the advice never seemed to get very far past cultivating a basic awareness of the realities of the commercial world. I felt that it was talking around the subject well enough, but I wanted something I could clasp more firmly than, say, “know your market” or “master the elevator pitch.”

(It didn’t help that Nichtern’s examples of elevator pitches were pretty banal, like describing Star Wars as “a sci-fi, samurai-ish, good-versus-evil galactic space epic.” Which is true, up to a point, but it isn’t compelling. Lobbing “a sci-fi, samurai-ish, good-versus-evil galactic space epic” at someone might get you a “huh” in response, but nobody’s going to buy into it the way they might buy into, say, “an evil empire is poised to dominate the galaxy, but there’s this kid on a backwater planet, and he’s about to embark on a journey that will bring the whole thing tumbling down” might. That’s a story, a pitch that’s going to make someone ask who? and how? and why? and not be content until they learn some answers. Or, at least, it’s closer to that kind of story than “a galactic space epic.”)

On a practical level, then, I didn’t find Creativity etc. helpful in terms of navigating the “business” side of a creative vocation. At the same time, I think the emphasis on mindfulness did lead to some useful insights into dealing with the “creative” side of that vocation, like enabling us to become aware of the poverty mentality and how it can get in our way. There’s another moment, when Nichtern talks about meditation, and how, if we take it up seriously, “most of us will experience frustration, boredom, irritation, doubt, anxiety, and any and every other feeling we’ve had, were never comfortable with, and have been running away from for most of our lives.”

That pretty much sums up every bad day you’ve had in the writing chair, right? I know it sums up plenty of mine. And the “solution” is the same as it is in the meditation world: Acknowledge the difficulties, and keep going.


National Novel Writing Month is just thirty days away, and while I’m not going to be writing a novel in November, I’m going to return to an experiment I first conducted last year—every weekday, except Thanksgiving, I’m going to write something for this newsletter. One mini-essay might flow into the next, or I might bounce around from topic to topic. I don’t know yet. I have some ideas, but something could happen in the book world that sets me off in an entirely new direction. We’ll see!

I’m looking at the calendar now, and I see I’m putting myself on the hook for twenty posts from November 1 to November 29. Right now I’m leaning toward Monday, Wednesday, and Friday being all-access and Tuesday and Thursday for premium subscribers, but I’m still sorting that out. Feel free to chime in with any thoughts or suggestions.

In the meantime, I’m always available for editorial consultations. If you’d like to discuss a manuscript, or the early stages of a manuscript in progress, get in touch, and I’ll be happy to work you into my schedule!