The Job Continuum

For the last week and a half, the Inkpunks have been in a pretty serious discussion of our work-life-art relationships. As artists, it’s almost impossible not to struggle to find some kind of balance between the need for money and the need to create. Sometimes it feels like the two needs are completely inimical and impossible to balance, while at the best of times, the two needs can support each other. None of us has the right answer, but all of us have been living with the question for a long time.

One of the most difficult aspects of working in writing and the visual arts (all of the Inkpunks are involved in one, the other, or both), is that they are arts people seem to only value when they are earning money. No one asks a knitter if they’ve ever sold a sweater, but people tend to smirk at authors who haven’t sold any books. There’s a lot of pressure to measure your success as a writer by the amount of money you’ve made. As Erika Holt pointed out:

People want proof. How many stories have you sold? How much did they pay? Oh, you’ve written a novel—where can I buy it? If you’re not earning a respectable income from this silly writing business, you’re wasting your time…. Be prepared for this. There is a loss of status in the eyes of others, and maybe even in your own eyes. Ironically, my lowest point coincided with when I started achieving demonstrable “success.” I got a few stories published, and a couple of anthologies. Problem? Though I’d spent countless hours working on these projects, I’d earned mere hundreds of dollars. People would literally laugh in my face when I told them this.

It is all too easy to call yourself a failure if your art isn’t earning your living. And that’s an amazing pressure on all of us. We’ve all daydreamed about staying home and being full-time writers, but how much of that urge comes from our own hearts, and how much from our egos? There’s nothing wrong with having another income source if that makes you a more productive writer.

Erika and Christie Yant know from experience that staying at home to focus on writing isn’t always completely fulfilling. They both tried it, leaving their outside employment to live on savings and the support of a partner while they tried to break into the writing business. Erika says of the experience: “It requires serious discipline. You have no real deadlines; no pressure. At first I was very diligent; sticking to a firm word count each day and churning out a finished novel in less than a year. But I knew it wasn’t good enough and became discouraged.”

Christie found that as things changed in her own living situation, writing became more difficult: “I got some freelance work, but it was never enough. The stress of both the divorce and my financial situation was too much, and I couldn’t write.” It’s hard enough to balance life and work when things are going well, but if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t cope well with a lot of uncertainty, life without a regular paying gig can cripple your artistic muscles.

But life with a regular paying gig can be awfully stifling. It’s hard to cram writing into the corners of your life, especially if you have a lot of living to do! There are families to raise, books to read, art to see, adventures to be had. We all have to give up a lot of time for these things when we choose to work on our paintings or our books. And of course, creative projects feed off of life, so by giving up living time to work, we lose opportunities to stimulate future ideas. It’s hard not to want to more time for life and art, even if it comes at a price.

Galen Dara is taking the leap. After years with a part-time job, she’s turned in her notice.

It has just become time for something to give.

I was struggling to keep up with illustration deadlines, spending a good amount of time at my day job doing freelance work (it’s a slow job, I am usually able to get away with that), and constantly worried about how I was neglecting my partner and son to keep on top of it all. I’d hoped to wait till my freelance income matched my day job income. I’m not quite there yet. But still, it is time.

Galen points out that she’s lucky: she’s not the primary breadwinner in her family, and her job wasn’t providing their health insurance. She’s at a point in her life where the best way to support her family is to turn her back on that part-time job and leap more deeply into the waters of creative activity.

John Remy knows he has years to wait:

A few years ago, I gave up hope of earning a living off of writing any time soon after reading this post by John Scalzi. In Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer, Jeff Vandermeer details the all writing he did while working full-time. He said something to the effect that, “the will to write is what matters.”

Individual circumstances factor in as well. I’ve been the primary wage earner for most of my life. I have kids to support through college. I don’t have the luxury of throwing my career away any time soon … For these reasons, I’ve chosen the chicken before the egg: I won’t quit the day job until I’m making enough off of my creative efforts to support myself and my loved ones.

I don’t think it’s an easy choice, but it’s the one that’s right for John and his family.

For some of us, we’re looking for ways to balance creativity and money by first cutting back our expenses–sometimes, drastically. A wonderful blog exploring ways to live life more cheaply is Pocketmint. Karawynn Long and her partner Jak Koke are taking extreme steps to make their lives affordable on a writer’s salary, and I recommend studying their practices to see if any will fit in your life.

Others are exploring a wider variety of money-making strategies. Sandra Wickham has a lot of experience working outside the day job comfort zone:

Back in 1997 I competed in my first fitness competition and I was hooked. The more I competed, the less I wanted to work a normal day job because it interfered with my training. I backed off my hours as much as I could, and after a couple of years I reached the National level and decided to quit my job and work for myself….On average, I train 25 competitors a year and have promoted my own show for nine years now. The key is, we’re doing what we love, but finding a related way to finance it.

Now that I’ve retired from competing (oh, how I hate how that sounds) and am focusing on my writing, I do have the ability to make my own schedule, including carving out time to write.

Working 9-5 isn’t the only way to make a living–it just takes creativity to think outside the box and find those opportunities. If you’re like Sandra, you might tap into your entrepreneurial genius to make ends meet.

Me, I’m still working part-time (18 hours a week) at a job that sometimes drives me crazy. I rely primarily on my partner, who is a painter who would love to quit his day job, to make ends meet. Having a 9 year old daughter only complicates things. We’re still exploring our options and sorting out our needs. I know that writing can fill the role of part-time job for me, so I’m excited to build my career up enough to take the place of my current job. But I’m also looking to the future to develop a plan that will allow my husband to “retire” as well. What I do know is that I’m not afraid to explore working more at either end of the job continuum–toward more self-employment as an artist or toward more hours in the working world.

Maybe, like Ramsey Campbell, I’ll find myself inspired to write a successful novel about my dayjob!

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  • http://www.bengodby.com/ Ben Godby

    I think not-writing is just as important as writing to the action of writing. Working is the pressure cooker of my ideational process.

  • http://www.sarahpinsker.com/ Sarah Pinsker

    I attended a music business conference a few years ago where Patti Smith was the keynote speaker. She gave a wonderful talk that went something like this:
    “I can’t tell you how many artists come to me and say ‘Patti, I’ve looked for grants and I’ve begged for money and I’ve sold my blood and I’ve tried to make it as an artist, and I just don’t know what to do.’ And I say to them, ‘OK, so get a job.’ There is no shame or stigma in having a day job, and there’s no reason you should starve yourself just to be able to say that you’re an artist. If you make art, you’re an artist. It’s okay to have a day job, too.”
    She pretty much saved my sanity with that one speech.  It does suck to have to cram writing into the corners of the day, and getting up early after a late gig is no fun, but I’m a much better writer and a much more efficient human when I am not stressed over whether or not I can afford or doctor or a car repair or a conference.

  • Tracie Welser

    Thank you for this post, Wendy. This issue of creative survival has been on my mind lately. Some days, I feel my creative self suffocating or shrinking away in the face of work and life pressures; I have to revive it periodically with artist holidays and convention-going, but reliance on that pattern seems unsustainable and ultimately unsatisfying.

    Input from creative people I respect, who are working through the same issue, has given me a lot to think about. I think what I’m seeking is a balance between worklife that is truly satisfying (if noncreative, then service-oriented) and a rich and disciplined creative life.

  • http://twitter.com/LeanneTremblay Leanne Tremblay

    Thanks Wendy! Your post arrived on a day when I needed it.

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  • http://thewwaitingroom.wordpress.com/ Hannah

    Awesome post, thanks for sharing all this!