At some point, being a starving artist became a romantic notion, associated with expat Americans sipping sanserre in their Parisian garrets. Though there’s presently not a famine striking the art world, the fact is most aspiring artists, writers, actors, etc., are broke.
The storied financial foibles of would-be creatives account for the popular search query “creative jobs.”
Besides being effective keyword bait, those two words are very likely what’s keeping you from achieving success in your chosen creative pursuit. Albeit, “success” is often broadly defined. For our purposes, we’ll keep it simple and say that success is “living indoors” off the proceeds of one’s creative work.
To get there, yes, you need the succor and support of civilization and its myriad amenities — all of which cost real money. Hence the job search — I get it — a job helps with little things like eating and not wearing a paper bag.
In my experience, pursuing an art job, however, is counter-productive when one is trying to be an artist or, for that matter, seeking a job. Instead, you should address your financial needs with an old-school day job and focus your after-hours wholeheartedly on your creative work.
Artists Should Get Day Jobs
Getting a day job is a time-honored tradition amongst creative people. The list of successful creatives whose working lives began inauspiciously behind coffee counters and the steering wheels of taxicabs reads like a Who’s Who of What’s What. Though it might seem counterintuitive, I recommend working any job other than those with a direct corollary to your passion.
A job is how you pay your rent while you’re building your career as an artist. They’re complementary but separate systems and should be kept that way. Or to borrow a line from Ghostbusters, DON’T CROSS THE STREAMS.
The last thing you want to do is work at a sexy-sounding gig that saps your creative energies only to find that you’re too exhausted to apply yourself to your own work. That is, unless you’ve discovered being a web designer sufficiently satisfies your aesthetic eye or technical writing is preferable to the unfinished novel moldering on your hard drive.
These are perfectly fine ways to make a living but they can be creative vampires.
For example, I’ve worked in a few newsrooms hacking by the column inch. The work had its own creative challenges (like writing the weekly police blotter) and was often a soul-enriching experience. After writing on-the-clock all day, however, writing off-the-clock seemed punitive. I’d rather drink a bottle of wine with a friend and brag about the book I might someday write. It felt productive but it wasn’t necessarily a calling.
Career Advice for Creatives
Work in the service industry waiting tables, working retail, or even punching the clock at a civil service job. Regular exposure to the public in all its facets will provide more raw material than you could ever capture in your creative work. Adjust your lifestyle accordingly. Or you can be evil like I was and be a telemarketer. My ear for dialogue, let alone my preternatural interview technique and ability to peddle my creative wares over a cold call come as a direct result of the thousands of telemarketing calls I perpetrated before going pro.
Should I Freelance?
Should you accept freelance work and commissions while working your daily grind? Yes, so long as the clients actually pay and you honestly believe it’s a move forward. Freelancing often clears a path to a full-time creative career but just as often, as I’ve unfortunately found, accepting freelance gigs that aren’t truly aligned with one’s creative pursuits results in an unhappy experience for all parties (I once wrote a newsletter for an accordion club ? it was like spending a week in Dante’s Inferno but with Weird Al as Virgil).
Fear of Definition
Remember, you are not always merely “what you do.” Nor are you whatever it says in the “occupation” portion of your passport (mercifully, passports issued post-2004 no longer require you to define your career for the next 10 years). You are a complex braid of experiences and aspirations that will only be enhanced by a steady, low-impact income from the florists or dry cleaners.
Choose your day job wisely. An artist who confines herself to the Gilded Cage of a gallery, say, is likely seeking to substantiate a self-image as someone “in the arts” rather than doing the homework necessary to become a working artist. It may seem like she’s close to her own gallery show seeing as she sits in a gallery all day but, alas, it doesn’t?t work like that. The artist who pulls espressos all day paints all night and schleps her ever-maturing portfolio all over town creating a network of opportunity will eventually make her own break.
Ditto the aspiring rock star. Take my brother for example. He’s enjoyed a modicum of rock stardom and a sustainable music career and you know what he did before signing his first record contract. He sold apples. And not iPads and the like. He peddled fruit at a farmers market during the day and rehearsed and gigged all night, energized by the places and faces he met throughout the day. Okay, that’s a lie, he was tired as all hell but he was able to subsidize his music career until he was picked up by a major label. How d’ya like them apples?
Naturally, there are always exceptions but I think you should concentrate on making your work exceptional rather than playing the career lottery with Craigslist. You and everyone around you will be happier for it. Consider late sci-fi scribe Octavia Butler who had published three successful novels yet still worked as a temp at a hotel laundry to make the rent. When it became clear that her career would soon afford her the opportunity to write full-time, Butler enjoyed a rite of passage many before her also experienced. She quit her day job. Someday, you can too. But first, you have to have one.