I realized this week that I’m coming up on a year of doing the writing thing full-time, which is super awesome and also means I better make it work because my resume now has a giant gap in it. I’ll do a post about the experience as a whole on the actual anniversary, but today I wanted to talk to those of you who are hoping to pull off the same as I and so many others before me have: making a living in the arts. Make no mistake, if it’s something you love then it’s the best job you’ll ever have; however, there are a few things you should mentally brace for, things that don’t necessarily come with other jobs. For example:
There’s a curious disconnect in our society when it comes to the arts. We depend on them for entertainment, consume them without pause, and are distressed when they vanish; yet we don’t consider the effort to create them “work.” Writers and painters receive a fair portion of this, but no one gets that sentiment hurled at them more than actors. It’s looked at the same way we regard winning the lottery, like you’re getting paid to do nothing. (Which, by the way, is bullshit. I did theatre all the way through college and even at that amateur level it was still a shitload of work.) Despite understanding that the things we enjoy required effort and action to come into existence, we just don’t regard the creators as working like we do a person who delivers mail.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I have a great job and am in no way saying it’s as difficult as something like being a postman, because I’ve done that job and it blows. What I’m saying is that if you make a living off the arts, you should be ready to deal with that sentiment of “cheating” constantly. I tell people I’m a writer, and their first follow-up question is to ask what my day job is. When I tell people I can’t go do things because I have to write, I get eye-rolls that no one would think to do if I was saying I had a bartending shift. At every family gathering someone will inevitably asked me if I’ve started interviewing for a real job, which when you think about it is a polite way of asking “So, dreams crash and burn yet?” Honestly, even you’ll ultimately start thinking of it as cheating from time to time. Our conditioning tells us that work is a thing you put up with. Getting to make a living off a thing you love to do always feels just a bit like sneaking into first class and hoping none of the flight attendants notice. You’re just waiting for someone to clap a hand on your shoulder and tell you the ride’s over. Which, by the way, can totally happen, because:
One-hit wonders. Has-beens. That guy who used to be in that thing. We all know the terms and mentality behind these slang phrases. They’re talking about artists who captured our attention, then lost it. In the literary world thing are a little more stable than in the music or movie businesses, but before an author reaches a certain level of saturation it is still very easy to fade out of the public mind. And when paying your rent depends on that exact situation not happening, it’s a worry that always lives in the back of your head.
NPCs sold more and faster than I ever dared hope, you guys just keep growing the audience for Super Powereds larger every day, and I couldn’t be more excited about my upcoming Fred novel. I have been incredibly lucky in my career so far, and I am keenly aware that it could always go away. I don’t mean that to sound self-disparaging or like I’m fishing for support. Every writer, every artist, at least at my lowly level, should always be aware of that possibility. It drives me to keep working and creating and doing everything I can to improve myself. Once you think you can do no wrong, that’s usually right around when you start doing everything wrong. And as a person working in the arts, you’re going to need that drive, because:
It’s All On You.
Fifteen years ago, you wrote a book, gave it to a publisher, and you were pretty much done. Maybe there would be a book tour or some interviews if you were really successful, but for the most part your job was to write and theirs was to market. Everyone fulfilled their roles and the system rolled along nicely.
Those days are looooong gone.
I don’t mean to say your publisher, or agent, or any other corollary to different art professions, won’t still be marketing and hustling for you. They damn well should be, if they’re good ones. What I mean is that as a society we’ve changed; the introduction of social media and connectedness has created the expectation of being able to interact with the people behind our art. For a lot of people, that’s great. They can use their personalities and passions as a selling point, making themselves the best spokesman for their work. For the introverts, on the other hand, it adds a whole new layer of unwanted difficulty. But it’s something an artist has to get used to.
I said it before in the blog about what constitutes a writer, but it’s worth repeating: You are always going to be the person with the biggest interest in seeing your art succeed. The publisher/agent/whatever of course wants you to do well, however they’ve got other clients. You’re the only one betting everything on your work, you’re the only one whose job is depending on success. That’s a heavy weight to bear, so much so that I’ve known a few people who shrugged it off. The one thing to keep in mind when things seem tough is this:
It’s Worth It
Remember when I said working in the arts seems like cheating? That’s because, from a certain perspective, it is. You get to do what you love for a living. How nuts is that?
Not everyone knows this, but before going full-writer I was doing well at playing the corporate game. With a little luck, I easily could have parlayed it into a safe, stable job that would have left me set for the rest of my life. Set… and unhappy for 8 hours every weekday, every year, while I plugged away at things I didn’t give two shits about. I’m not ragging on office jobs; I know plenty of people who are super happy doing that work. I just wasn’t, and if you’re serious enough about your art to try and live solely off of it, then I’m guessing you aren’t either.
Working in the arts definitely comes with its fair share of baggage, but if you’re one of the people who can’t be happy doing anything else, then it’s worth all that and a hundred times more.