The question “how do you follow your dreams?” and “how did you become a full time writer?” and “how did you manage to work on Broadway?” have come up regularly, both at in-person events (pre-plague) and in virtual chats and events.
I answer honestly, and no one ever likes the answer. It makes them squirm. Then they come up with all the reasons why they “can’t” but still want the result without making the hard choices and putting in the work.
Prep yourself for the tough love answer you might claim is “impossible.”
The answer is both simple and difficult: Always put your own work first.
If you are an artist, be it a writer, a painter, an actor, a dancer, whatever, your own work must ALWAYS come first. ALWAYS.
Putting the work first doesn’t mean being a selfish bastard and expecting everyone else to martyr themselves to you because you are Such a Great Artist, although that’s how it’s often portrayed (and white men, in particular, have thrived on that model). It doesn’t mean ignoring your friends and family, not having a life, never having a vacation, and living in poverty. Which again, is a popular trope, meant to prevent people from following their dreams and keep them chained to soul-sucking jobs.
It means setting boundaries, and having honest discussions with the people with whom you share your life about physical and emotional space to create, no interruptions when you’re working, sharing household and emotional labor, etc. It means making choices looking at the big picture, which sometimes means giving up something for the moment in the smaller picture. Instead of sitting on the couch watching your boyfriend play video games because he “wants the company” you work on your novel. Maybe you can find a way to work companionably together in the same room. Or maybe you hang out with him tonight, but tomorrow you have uninterrupted work time. But you don’t let anyone make you an appendage for their convenience when you need to be the central focus on your own work. It means the creative passion is the overwhelming drive in your soul.
Any “day job” I’ve ever had only existed to serve the work. Any day job that got in the way of the work, or expected to be prioritized over the work, was replaced as quickly as possible by a different job that didn’t make those demands. Whenever I got a paying job in my field, I quit the day job. Because when the show or film ended, there’s always another day job. But there isn’t always another chance to create your art. Because if you consistently say no because of “the day job” and “responsibilities” people stop asking. They know you can’t/don’t want to, and don’t want to make you or themselves feel bad or frustrated by asking over and over again, and with a negative response. They also don’t have any reason to believe you will follow through on your commitment if you say yes. You have to earn that trust.
Theatre, film, dance, music, and the performing arts are especially demanding. The hours and the schedule are hard. You work so others can play. You work nights, weekends, and holidays. Unless you’re on a stable, long-running production, you don’t get to take time off to go to your kid’s recital or have a Friday night dinner out with your partner. You are WORKING. It is your JOB. It’s not a cute lil hobby you can pick up and put down when it’s convenient.
You show up and do the work.
You build the other parts of your life around the work.
Plenty of corporate jobs demand the same thing, and that’s seen as being dedicated, ambitious, and hardworking. Yet if an artist does the same thing, it’s demeaned. Because it’s inconvenient to the corporate machine and “not real work.”
Babe, try being on your feet for eighteen hours on location in the pouring rain and keeping continuity on soaking wet actor clothes. It’s WORK.
If you’re not willing to put your own work first, then you will have a different type of career. There’s nothing wrong with loving your day job and creating your art “on the side” if that’s what serves your life better. But you will have a different career trajectory.
If you want to move from it being “on the side” and into your art being your full-time career, you have to treat it as a second job and devote as much or more time and energy to it as you do to any day job. It’s another job until it’s your only job, and you will have to straddle two careers until you made a leap in one direction or another. You will need to use vacation time and weekends and other off-day-job times to do the work, to go to conferences, retreats, workshops, etc., rather than having a real vacation, until you’ve switched careers.
If you want to create as a hobby, that’s great, too. You get to do it whenever you make the time for it. You will have a different trajectory for your work than those who’ve made the choices above. There will be plenty of opportunities you have to refuse, because you are unwilling to rearrange your life in order to accept them. That’s okay, as long as you get out of the way of those who are committed to doing it as their profession as well as their passion, and don’t undermine them every chance you get.
Whatever choices you make about where your art fits into your life is your decision. But if you want it to be a full-time career, then you have to make the choices that support that decision. Those include:
–Putting the work first.
–Showing up every designated workday and doing the work.
–Supporting other artists by spreading the word on their work, showing up at events for them (when it’s safe and appropriate), and buying whatever you can afford when you can afford it.
–Always learning more about your art and your craft, and stretching, so you evolve as an artist.
–Learning the business side of your chosen discipline. Again, the “flaky artist” is a trope promoted to demean artists and make sure money is funneled elsewhere. Every successful artist I’ve ever met has been business-savvy. When they were in a position to hire someone else to deal with it, they CHOSE to do so. But they damn well were capable of doing the work themselves.
–Learn the tech. As an actor or dancer or musician, if you’re part of a production, understand what the crew does. As any kind of artist, learn how to work on a computer, build a website, handle social media. It’s become part of the job. “I’m not a tech person” is a bullshit excuse. I’m certainly not a tech person, plenty of my friends aren’t tech people, but we sat down and learned. You don’t have to be an IT genius to learn the basics. You DO have to be able to maintain an internet presence. People can’t support your work if they don’t know about it or can’t find it.
–Document your work. Keep notes, photos, and other documentation on your projects in various stages. Keep a clip file of articles, interviews, reviews. It will help you with grant proposals, pitches, speaking engagements, teaching, conferences, networking, and all kinds of other opportunities. This is something too many people drop the ball on, and it bites them in the butt.
–Advise, mentor, and share, but don’t allow wanna-bes and energy vampires to guilt you into prioritizing their work over yours. It’s one thing to advise and mentor; it’s another to do someone else’s work for them, instead of teaching them how to do it. The whole “you owe me” that aspiring artists often use to get a foot in the door (and then can’t maintain anything beyond that foot) hurts your own work. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
–Build in time to do nothing. Rest and down time matter. Sometimes sitting and staring at the wall or a mountain is a vital part of creation. A change of scenery, time off, doing something completely different, are all vital to refilling the creative well. This is the most difficult when you’re trying to move from the day job into the fulltime artistic profession, but try to build that time in, and then, once you’ve made the transition, build that time in regularly.
Remember that anyone who tells you “can’t make a living” being an artist has their own agenda to prevent you from doing it. It may come out of their own choices, fears, and hurts, but they are saboteurs, and you need to distance yourself (especially if they claim they’re saying so “for your own good”).
Even in this treacherous climate, it’s possible to make a living as an artist. But you have to want it enough, and be willing to make the choices and take the chances to make it happen.
It’s not easy.
It is worth it, but it has to be your driving passion.