I remember reading an interview with Octavia Butler in Poets and Writers in 1996 or 1997. She said that the MacArthur Fellowship bought her time to write. She'd had all these stories in her head, but she had to work a variety of energy crushing jobs which left her too drained to write much. After winning the prize, she could focus on her writing.
This New York Times article asks the same question and concludes that unlike lottery winners, who often end up in worse circumstances, MacArthur Fellows are able to manage their money. In part, it's because they've had lots of practice in managing money in service to their vision.
I was struck by this vignette: "Steve Coleman, a saxophonist who won last year at age 57, said he had created a life over decades that required little money to maintain and could be supported with even less when times were tough. That way, he said, he wouldn’t have to worry when recording deals or performances dried up. He could still make music and pay his bills."
I have not arranged my life as expertly, a point which becomes clear when the discussion turns to what we would do if my main job vanished. I have a variety of income streams, but without my main job, it would be much harder. And I am nowhere close to having my artistic passions pay my bills. Over the past ten years, my artistic passions would not even pay the electric bill. There have been a few times when money comes in, and I think, "What if . . . "--and then the editor leaves or the magazine folds or the website changes its approach.
Clearly, I am not a model member of the freelance economy.
I am also struck by the scientist who funded others with her MacArthur winnings:
"For Dr. Otto, the money was incidental to her work. Even though she grew up quite poor, she said, she never thought of spending the money on herself and said that her research would not benefit from extra funding. (She uses mathematical models to advance research on genetics and evolution.)
'The nature of what I do means that time is more precious than money for my research,' she said. 'When I received the MacArthur it wasn’t, ‘Now I can do that study I wanted to do.’ I felt I was very supported by my university and by grants. But what I did feel was that as a scientist and a person I could have more influence' by giving it away.
So that’s what she is doing. So far, she has made three gifts of the entire annual amount to the Nature Trust of British Columbia, an environmental conservation program in Indonesia, and a fund at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches, to pay student researchers working on conservation issues."
I love this idea of helping others, of giving back to one's community, however one defines that community. I love the idea of taking one's winnings and making it multiply across the field. The article shows that even when MacArthur fellows don't give away all of their winnings, the benefits still ripple out to others. The saxophonist, for example, "put it [the money] toward an idea he had started to develop — a program that brought musicians together to live in a city for three to four weeks to perform and be part of the community."
My favorite fantasy has always been winning one of these prizes--or the lottery, for that matter. I don't want the fame that the award might bring--although I might. I dream of the time that might come with the money. And I love the idea of the other worthy projects I could fund.