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I always appreciate your pragmatic and straightforward opinion on working and creating. I'm a creative nonfiction writer by night and an uninspired nonprofit marketer by day. What's your advice for someone like me who needs to pay the bills but just wants to be immersed in creating and building community around that? I'm in near-constant purgatory at work, and I hate it. Should I just shut my mouth and keep at it? Is this forever?

Dec 04, 2013
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I always appreciate your pragmatic and straightforward opinion on working and creating. I'm a creative nonfiction writer by night and an uninspired nonprofit marketer by day. What's your advice for someone like me who needs to pay the bills but just wants to be immersed in creating and building community around that? I'm in near-constant purgatory at work, and I hate it. Should I just shut my mouth and keep at it? Is this forever?

I get asked this question more than almost any other. And it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Here’s what I wrote about it in Steal Like An Artist:

I kept a day job until I made more money off art than I did at my day job. And even then, it was scary for me to leave it. Everybody always tosses out that tired “do what you love, and the rest will follow” shit, and I don’t buy it. (I usually say, “Do what you love and the debt will follow.”)

You have to pay the bills and feed the mouths, and you do it however you can. I got married when I was 23—I’ve had a family to support for a while now. I guess in my attitude, I’m a lot like Philip Larkin:

I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time, like Trollope. Then, when you started earning enough money by writing, you phase the job out. But in fact I was over fifty before I could have “lived by my writing”—and then only because I had edited a big anthology—and by that time you think, Well, I might as well get my pension, since I’ve gone so far….All I can say is, having a job hasn’t been a hard price to pay for economic security.

And my experience has been that economic security has always helped my art along more than any kind of “spiritual” freedom or whatever. 

“The trick is,” film executive Tom Rothman says, “from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”

One thing I would recommend to you is to see the day job as a positive, not a negative:

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art. As photographer Bill Cunningham says, “If you don’t take money, they cant tell you what to do.”

Because the real truth is, once you start making money doing what you love, it BECOMES A JOB. And with it comes all the hassle of a job. Here’s Larkin again: 

You can live by “being a writer,” or “being a poet,” if you’re prepared to join the cultural entertainment industry, and take handouts from the Arts Council (not that there are as many of them as there used to be) and be a “poet in residence” and all that. I suppose I could have said—it’s a bit late now—I could have had an agent, and said, Look, I will do anything for six months of the year as long as I can be free to write for the other six months. Some people do this, and I suppose it works for them.

In other words: you always have a day job. (My friend Hugh calls this “The Sex & Cash Theory.”) Right now my day job is going around giving talks and writing and selling books. It’s a good day job, but “doing what I love” would actually mean sitting around all day reading and drawing and making these goofy poems. Guess how much that pays? Not much. And guess how much time I actually get to do that stuff? Not much.

Anyways, this is supposed to encourage you. Every artist without a sugar mama or a trust fund or extreme luck has had to deal with this.

Just hang in there.

This is what I recommend: get up early. Get up early and work for two hours on the thing you really care about. Then, when you’re done, go to your job. When you get there, your boss can’t take the thing you really care about away from you, because you already did it. And you know you’ll get to do it tomorrow morning, as long as you make it through today.

The “meaning” in your job is: it pays the bills. Get as good at it as you can, because it’ll make the job more interesting to you, and it will provide you exits to another one. Then find the rest of your meaning elsewhere.

For more inspiration from people better and smarter than me, click this tag: “Keep your day job.”

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    Good stuff from Austin, especially the “get up early” part. I’ve been doing that for a few years now and it has made a...
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