The Day Gig

June 4, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

Most of us have them.  They may not be full time; we might be able to do them from home. But relatively few of us are able to support ourselves purely on our creative projects.  Some of us teach the art we practice, but although it’s wonderful to share what we’ve learned with others, we all know that this is not the same thing as doing your own work.

I am truly inspired by fellow writers and other artists who accept the lower income and lack of health insurance that often comes with pursuing your art full time.  I wish we lived in a country where health insurance and housing was affordable for everyone, and more of us could work at what we love 40 or 60 hours a week without penalty.

But given that we don’t quite live in that world, how do we handle our day gigs?People striving to make time for creativity take widely different approaches.  I work for a nonprofit whose work I believe in that offers me an opportunity to do some writing and research. Some people prefer to work jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with their art.  I know a writer who is a locksmith and another who is an iron worker. The actor or filmmaker who is currently a waiter or barista has become an American cultural icon. We are postal workers and lawyers and bankers and taxi drivers.  We teach grade school and work in giant box stores.

But whatever our day gig, balancing it with our creative life is a perpetual challenge.  People often ask me the following question: “How do have the energy to work on so many different projects?  I’m exhausted when I come home at night!”

Well, me too. Honestly, 50% of the time I come home from work, eat dinner, and flop in front of the TV.  I know far more about criminal investigative techniques (as least as presented by CBS) than any honest person ought to.

Most of my creative work I do, not at night after work, but in what I think of as little pockets of time I extract from the rest of my life.  I have developed the habit of keeping a notebook or netbook by the bed so I write for a little while last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Lunch time is sometimes social, but at least a few times a week I find a place and moment to myself to do some work.  Weekends offer many little pockets of time, although perhaps not the luxurious stretches you might hope for—after all, there’s the rest of your life: laundry and grocery shopping and going to the drug store and hanging out with your family and friends and picking up the dry cleaning.

The biggest trick (and one that often eludes me) is keeping yourself open to creative ideas and opportunities while you are functioning in the rest of your life.  Keeping the notebook or sketchbook or camera (or handy double duty i-Phone) at hand for random inspiration.  And never letting go of the idea that your creative life is at least as real and important as the one that supplies health insurance and groceries and maybe even helps save the world.  There’s more than one way to save the world, and, at least in my eyes, staying on course with your creative goals and projects is one of them.


Real Artists

February 24, 2011
by Deborah Atherton
If I were a real artist. . .
  • I wouldn’t have to sit behind this desk and stare at spreadsheets all day.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand behind the information counter at the bookstore and direct mothers with screaming toddlers to the ladies room.
  • I wouldn’t have to go over the wine list with this idiot ordering roast beef who doesn’t know a burgundy from a bordeaux, anyway.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of this blackboard and forget what I was going to write next, because Joe in the second row just jammed his Transformer into Jill’s ear.
I wouldn’t have to. . .
Well, that’s the fantasy anyway.
But most of us do have to add up numbers, or hand out information, or serve customers who don’t know one red from another but pretend they do, or teach students who would much rather be playing Mario Conquers the Universe.  A few of us manage to be full-time artists all the time; some of us manage it for years at a time, then have to go back and pick up a day gig.  Most of us are full-time artists in our heart, but by day (or night) spend 6 or 7 or 8 or more hours doing something else for somebody else.  And even if we’ve managed to find jobs that engage (or semi-engage) us, in our hearts we are somewhere else.  In our hearts, we are sitting in our studios painting or performing, or with our laptop in Starbucks, or on the streets shooting a film.
So are we still real artists, even though we can’t do our art all the time?
Who decides? Who determines? Who rules on who is “real” or not?
Well, you’ve got two options here.  You can ask everyone you know – or who knows your work – what they think.  You could include former teachers and mentors, relatives, critics, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and random people at parties. This could be quite a substantial survey group, although probably not statistically viable.
Or you could just decide yourself.
Personally, I have to revisit this decision on a regular basis, because I am always trying to talk myself out of it.  And it’s not only because I have a day job. “If you were a real artist,” I tell myself, “you wouldn’t have to do the laundry.”
I am not sure who does the laundry of real artists, in my mind.  Apparently, in my idealized version, real artists do nothing at all but their art.  Presumably they have legions of servants who make their beds, and go to the dry cleaners, and serve them fabulous organic dinners every night.  It sounds like a nice gig, being a real artist. Kind of like being a movie star. Or one of those guys at Goldman Sachs who get the 50 million dollar bonuses.

Of course, I know many full-time artists: writers, composers, actors, painters, musicians, ballet dancers, and the odd video artist. Most of them have to go pick up their own dry cleaning, and not one of them has a personal chef.  So my picture of the burden-free life is completely made up by me (although I’m hoping a few of you out there share this fantasy, because it would be very sad if it really were just me).  But wouldn’t it be nice? Kind of like living forever in an arts colony, always supported, and with someone else serving you dinner every night.

However out of touch with the real world it may be, I think we have to honor this little screaming artist’s ego inside us that doesn’t want to be bothered with anything WHATSOEVER except our art.  It doesn’t want to pick up the children, it doesn’t want to cook dinner, it doesn’t want to pay the bills or kowtow to the boss or paying customers.  It just wants to paint or write or draw or dance or direct. We can’t let it rule our lives, because as human beings, we have to eat and buy clothes and live under a roof, and most importantly of all, perhaps, live with other human beings.  But however much it may frustrate us, and make us doubt our own commitment and reality, it does prod us to hang in there and keep our eye on the prize.
Because what creative people really live for is the opportunity to create, and next to the joy of pursuing our work, doing the laundry is bound to be a bit of a come down.