Vocation and Passion: Letters to a Young Creative Artist
LETTER TWO: 8-17-14
We’ve got to talk about money for a minute.
I know, it sometimes seems like the antithesis of art, but it’s something that must be addressed if you are going to survive. A long time ago, primarily in Europe, artists had benefactors and commissions. And some were set free by this accommodation. Many wrote, played, and created for their champions and we’ve never heard from them again. There is a fine mix between money and art. And if you don’t get the blend right you might find yourself writing or creating things that no longer resemble art, but look more like advertisements or vanity pronouncements.
One thing is certain, you have to figure out your money. Without it life is hard. And in extreme cases it does more than crush your creative dreams, it can drive even the most creative and prolific artist into depression and even death. We don’t want to go there. The tortured artist mode is better as an affectation and not a reality. Let’s avoid the starving artist mode as much as possible. As long as that premise is okay with you, we can continue…
You can decide to make a living with your art, or you can decide as I did, to make your art in spite of making a living.
When I was working at an advertising firm in my twenties I began taking MFA classes at a nearby college. I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to write. And the environment of college is a great time and place to be productive and supported as an artist. The only problem is, college costs money. And the terminal path of the MFA is teaching. And teaching doesn’t pay much, and the job market for writing, painting, creativity teachers is awful. Hear me. You will likely starve to death by going down the teaching path. Too few jobs, too many MFAs (you might as well get a Ph.D while your at it, to delay your real task of making a living), and a starting pay scale that might keep you in ramen, but won’t afford you the aperitif and Starbucks life you might aspire to.
And I’m not saying you can’t do it. What I’m saying is the odds against making a comfortable living as a teacher of the creative arts is possible. But the competition is as fierce for the jobs as it is for publication in the New Yorker. It happens. And new writers do get published in the New Yorker, but they are competing with John Updike and Billy Collins for the few weekly openings. And at some level, that tier of publishing is about networks and connections more than the writing.
So what I want to say, and what rang true for me when I started taking MFA classes, is that you *can* go the teaching to creative artist route, but it’s a long shot. And more often you will end your college degree with a nice loan payment and no job to start paying it with. So you might be working at Starbucks (they have great insurance) rather than enjoying a latte on the Champs-Élysées. So let’s look at the other options.
The head of the MFA program at this small school agreed to meet me for beers one evening after our class. And we had a nice chat. He is one of the winners. He was a tenured professor at the head of an MFA program. Not one you’ve ever heard of, but he was working AND writing, so let’s say he was a home run hitter. And across the table over craft beers, he said something profound. "Keep your job," he said, referring to my gig at the advertising agency. "You’re making more money there, than you ever will as a teacher, and that’s IF you could find the job. And that’s the lie. There just aren’t very many teaching jobs for writers. And even the top 5% of graduates from The Iowa Writer’s Workshop will be competing for small college assistant professorships with no tenure."
"So if you want to write," he continued. "Then write. But don’t quit your day job."
I had been talking about my job and how I was jealous of the students who were full-time at the university. I was contemplating taking a two-year sabbatical and going to school full-time again. He advised against it. "There just aren’t any jobs. It’s a lie. It’s like we’re selling a dream that just doesn’t exist. Most of these kids will be working at jobs that have nothing to do with writing. And you are already there."
I thanked him and walked away fairly defeated. (Maybe that’s how you’re feeling now, as you were contemplating your "creative" degree program.) But I have never forgotten his advice. And I should probably ask him to coffee again. I’ll buy. (grin)
Okay, so let’s look at the other path. The non-creative job path. This is how I have survived. I did keep the advertising job. And while I completed the ‘creative’ sequence of the MFA program, I dropped my first academic class the next semester. I didn’t want to write another research paper, EVER. So I didn’t. I walked away. And there really was no further I could go at this university without changing plans. The professor is still there. I think he’s been made the head of the entire English department or something. And he’s published three books in the 15 years since our discussion. I really should look him up. He was also my favorite teacher.
In all the doubts you have ahead of you about your craft, let’s take money out of the equation. If you are looking to make a living on your art (writing, music, painting) you have a long road ahead. The path is lined with many success stories. And I won’t discourage you from giving it the old college try. (Well, except for the post-graduate college thing, don’t do that, unless you have to.) But what I’m going to suggest to you is, find your vocation along with your passion. If you can do something well, that relates to a specific business objective, you can find a working-for-a-living role somewhere. For me it was advertising. More specifically digital marketing.
I shied away from copywriting because I didn’t really want to crowd my flowery language with headlines and slogans. I didn’t even really want to do jingles and start mixing in my musical ambitions with the crap you hear on the radio. Nope. I made my initial run at advertising through the design and production artist route. So I was a designer and Quark Express jockey. (Today it’s all about Adobe’s Creative Suite.) And as I have grown and aged I have continued to hone my digital skills along with my writing and composing skills.
And here’s the thing you need to be clear about. If your goals are having a family, a house, proper clothing/insurance/food/shelter then you need to look at your career as something slightly different from your passion. And it’s not that I’m not passionate about digital marketing. I am quite passionate about it. (See this blog.) But I’m more passionate about writing. Stories, novels, poems, journals. And creating music in all it’s glorious forms.
You are young, you are just starting college consideration. And your musical talents are starting to rise. You’ve got it. I’m telling you you have something quite special in all that you do. BUT… You’ve still got to make a living. Just put that in your hopper for a minute as you contemplate the next 5 – 8 years of your life.
And the words of that professor might help here. "Do your work. You’re making good money. You’re making a living. If you still have the energy to write and be creative, then put the rest of your focus there. If you are a writer, you’re going to write. Nothing will stop you. But why starve to death while doing it."
He was a living example of SUCCESS. And he was wearing a threadbare tweed jacket (standard college professor issue) and happy to have me pay for the two beers. I love him and all that he stood for. He was the head of an MFA program. He had made it. His writing was fantastic. And at 28 years-old I was already making more money than he was. He steered me back towards my career and what I could do for a living. "Then write your ass off. You’re always going to have the writing."
And that’s sort of where I am today. I’ve been doing digital marketing for the past 15 years. And I’ve had various spurts and leaps in creativity. I wrote my first full novel. (unpublished) A play, a screen play, a musical, and a lot of short stories. And the real joy: I have two kids, a nice car, an a comfortable living. I have questioned my path all the time. And as an artist this is a frequent struggle. You will often question your commitment to art. And you may give it up. You might walk away and go into accounting or law. That’s okay. But the writer, the artist, the musician, is going to find ways to do their art.
If you are an artist your path is to survive. If you can survive and be happy as a musician playing nightly gigs and living with roommates for a while, then go for it. But if you want a home and kids and nicer things that aren’t off Craigslist, then you might consider your vocation as a path to support your passion.
Again, I want to be clear. Art is hard. And you will have challenges all your life as an artist. But the biggest challenge maybe how to survive, how to make a living, and how not to compromise your long-term vision. The two things have to coexist: Work and art. And figuring out the mix that works for you is one of the grand mysteries of life. When you have found your WAY, you will have both enough money to be happy with what you have, and the energy to continue creating your art until the world finally steps up and recognizes you with fame and ultimately money.
If you’ve got a benefactor, great. If you can squeeze out a graduate degree from your parents, without putting yourself in major debt, perhaps that’s the way to nurture and hone your craft. But ultimately you have to find a way to make a living. That’s the prime task of the artist. Your art will continue to come. Your poems, songs, stories, paintings will never be exhausted. You have your entire life to create. But if you run completely out of money, both your craft and your life are going to suffer greatly.
I don’t believe in the "starving artist" ethic. I think you can both make a living and make art. It’s a magic trick to figure it out. But that’s my goal. I’m still working on it. And still writing, poems, songs, and posts like this.
Carry on. Follow your heart. You are young and you have years to figure this out. But keep your career in mind when choosing your paths over the next few years. College is an awesome time, and you CAN lock in some of your craft while heading towards your vocation. But don’t drop-out too far into the artist mode and forget the worker mode. You’ve got to have both.
I believe in you.
- Letters to a Young Poet – Rilke
- Write Time: Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision-and Beyond – Atchity
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, 2nd Edition – Goldberg
- The Artist’s Way – Cameron
- Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace – MacKenzie
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