Memo to Artists: Keep Your Day Job

Creative types should stick with passion and their day jobs.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

August 2, 2010 — -- I've always objected to the notion that you need to take a year off to write a novel, paint a mural or record an album.

Likewise, I'm equally bothered by the assertion that an artist with a day job is a sellout. Eating is a noble pursuit. So is learning valuable business skills you can apply to hawking your own creative wares.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for creative endeavors, be they full time or on the side. But I'm also for living like a grown-up, as opposed to, say, couch surfing or subsisting on Ramen-ketchup casserole indefinitely.

Of course, the rub is finding the time and energy to practice your craft while doubling as someone else's employee. The same goes for keeping your resentment of that pesky day job at bay.

Summer Pierre, author of "The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week", knows this dance all too well.

Before becoming a mother this year, the illustrator and writer supported herself with an administrative gig in the academic sector. But rather than view her day job as an obstacle to making art, Pierre came to appreciate it as a vital part of her creative life -- and not just because of the paycheck that kept a roof over her head.

"Not everyone does well being isolated," said the Brooklyn-based Pierre, who plans to return to part-time bread-and-butter work this fall. "I need structure. I need people. So the job for me was really providing that."

But cash, colleagues and water coolers aren't the only reasons published authors, gigging musicians and exhibiting artists cite for straddling the employee world. The next time you're tempted to ditch your day job (or pooh-pooh another paycheck-earning artist), consider the following:

1. Peace of Mind

We've already established that there's no glory in going hungry. Nor is there much peace of mind, something you desperately need if you're going to use your gray matter to put pen to paper, fingers to guitar chords and so on.

"You start to worry about money and that becomes so consuming. A day job relieves some of that stress," said Alia Yunis, author of the critically acclaimed novel "The Night Counter". Yunis doubles as a film professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

2. Scheduled Human Contact

There's a fine line between being a creative sort who, in isolation, chips away at her self-directed projects day after day, and being an antisocial hermit who has little reason to change out of her pajamas and peel herself off the couch each morning. (I speak from experience here.) For many who create, being forced to bathe, dress and converse with others on a daily basis is the only insurance we have against the former scenario devolving into the latter.

Yunis agrees: "I used to think that my ideal situation would be to not have a day job," she said. "But I discovered that having a day job gets you out of your head. It's really hard to stay disciplined without scheduled human contact."

3. Creative Discipline

Let's talk about this discipline a moment. Ask any creative type who's taken a summer or year off to work on their screenplay, graphic novel or CD and there's a decent chance you'll hear that they weren't much more productive than they were when they had a day job.

Take Yunis, who lucked into a bit of time between day jobs almost a decade ago: "When I was unemployed, there was a lot of dead space in that time. I think my energy level actually went down when I wasn't working," she said. In fact, Yunis added, it wasn't until she started writing from 6 to 8 a.m. every weekday before work several years ago that she "started writing seriously."

As Pierre points out, aspiring artists often make the mistake of thinking they need to win the lottery or move to Paris or take a year off in order to create.

"A lot of people get caught up in this idea of what being an artist or a writer is, when it's so mundane," Pierre explained. "Like everything else, it's work."

Rather than wait for that mythical financial windfall, start pursuing your craft now in small, bite-sized chunks. As Pierre notes in her book, 15 minutes a day of creative time before or after work (or during your lunch hour) can be incredibly habit forming. That way, if the free-time fairy does happen to leave 12 unfettered months under your pillow, you'll know exactly how to avoid squandering them.

4. Material

Author Joshua Ferris wrote his award-winning novel "Then We Came to the End," a send-up of office life at a Chicago ad agency, after doing time at -- surprise! -- a Chicago ad agency.

I'm sure you see where this is going. Whether you're a filmmaker, photographer or folk artist, the best ideas and inspiration are often found outside your studio or home, sometimes even within the confines of your day job. Yet another reason to incorporate scheduled human contact into your workweek.

5. Instant Patrons

Finding the time to make art is only half the battle, of course. Getting people to read, view, hear, buy or otherwise support it is another job altogether.

For those whose workplace is supportive of moonlighters, having a built-in audience or customer base for your creative work is yet another day job perk.

"I love the support that I've received from my colleagues," said Layla Colegrove, a Woodinville, Wash., IT professional who spends her evenings and weekends running Flowering Tree Botanicals, an Etsy shop that sells nearly 900 bath products, all hand-crafted by Colegrove and her mom.

"Many of them are some of my best customers and have given me lots of great ideas for new products. I can't tell you the number of times that co-workers will introduce me to a new person and share that I have a 900-product Etsy shop."

6. The Artist's Way

Even when the economy isn't in the toilet -- and patronage of the arts isn't down -- it's the rare author, filmmaker, musician, illustrator, photographer or craftster who can afford to forego a day job.

"I've met really famous writers -- writers who've been on Oprah -- who can't afford to not work," Yunis said. "The amount of writers who can make a full-time living at writing is small."

The same can be said for artists of every other medium.

"That's the thing that is this giant myth," Pierre said. "I've talked to belly dancers who work in libraries. I've talked to construction workers who are musicians. Almost every artist lives this way -- even quote-unquote successful artists."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.

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