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How to get creative work after a self-imposed exile?
December 12, 2005 6:28 PM   Subscribe

RoyalTenenbaumFilter: You're a precocious artsy wunderkind. You have a nervous breakdown and the years fly. How to claw your way back up?

What I need, really, is some life advice.

Like generations of too-sensitive artistic types before me, I grew up in the suburbs, relying obsessively on art and music to get me through a latch-key childhood and years of emotional and physical isolation. Both as a form of personal therapy and from sheer drive, I worked obsessively on my art (prose nonfiction and songwriting) and became very, very, very, very good at it.

In high school, I started a record label, put out a crapload of records, and got a great head start on a freelance writing and publishing career. I moved to a big city for college, got an amazing job at a well-known record label, and started making the local "Next Big Thing" lists with my own music the next year. By the age of 24, I'd put out four CDs, published a crapload of articles, done some modeling, had a press kit the size of the Webster's dictionary, toured the country a handful of times, had played with (or at least met) most of my lifelong musical and artistic heroes, and generally had my shit together to a ridiculous degree. I had aimed for the stratosphere and, Icarus-like, I was getting pretty close.

Then, one day, the stress of burning at both ends totally exploded in my face. I had a nervous breakdown onstage in the middle of a high-profile performance. Battle-scarred, embarrassed, and embittered, I dumped everything and ditched it all to go live the domestic life in the suburbs, where I tried in vain for three years to live a normal, picket-fence, day-job life.

In the suburbs, work-wise, I was screwed. Because I had always arrogantly assumed I'd be living primarily off of my art, I had either temped between tours or took low-paying, demeaning administrative jobs to keep the money coming in. I had great entrepreneurial and creative skill sets and experience, but because "musician" and "songwriter" and "essayist" don't exactly fit on a workaday resume, I didn't have much to recommend me. I swallowed my pride and did anything I needed to do to get by. As the years passed, the daily grind just ate away at me. I left my partner and decided to move back to the city to have another chance at the life that I needed.

Now I find myself at the other end of the telescope, staring 30 in the face and not quite the fresh-eyed kid I used to be. I have more "real-life" experience, which is not to be dismissed, and I've lived to survive failure, which is also important. But, on a day-to-day level, this endless stream of career-hopping jobs has killed me more than anything. Music companies won't hire me for entry-level jobs because I know too much, but I also don't have the resume "bang" to get me a higher-tier job that would challenge me and bring all of my myriad experience to good use.

I'm relatively happy with my artistic life, as I've kept busy doing commissioned music/theater work and earning my writing stripes through freelancing, but it just seems like such a huge waste to be stuck doing finance administration when my friends constantly tell me that I'm squandering my talent.

To be blunt, I am dying to get back into the business of publishing and/or music. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that I'd prove myself in spades. But, as a not-exactly-recent grad, how do I climb over all the freshly-minted, internship-sharpened, wet-eared BA candidates and editorial whiz-kids to get in the door with such a ... unique back-story?

Thoughts, please.
posted by mykescipark to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Therapy, therapy, therapy, therapy.

Therapy.

Oh, and get the hell out of the suburbs. The suburbs is where dreams and ideas go to die.

(Probably not the answer you were looking for but it's all I've got.)
posted by ryanhealy at 6:34 PM on December 12, 2005


To be blunt, I am dying to get back into the business of publishing and/or music.

Frankly, you have to do it the same way you did the first time - write and make music. What do you have that 21-year-olds don't? An inside knowledge of the industry. Contacts. Start calling up former friends and colleagues. Unless you burned all those bridges when you moved to the suburbs, they should be a great resource, especially if you have recent examples of how stellar your work is.
posted by muddgirl at 6:39 PM on December 12, 2005


Oh, and go to a career counselor for help on your resume. Maybe consider going back to school and getting a business degree or a MFA?
posted by muddgirl at 6:41 PM on December 12, 2005


Compete with wet-behind-the-ears BAs by getting a BA. Go into a program with co-op/internships, and you'll have some recent experience.
posted by acoutu at 6:48 PM on December 12, 2005


staring 30 in the face and not quite the fresh-eyed kid I used to be. I have more "real-life" experience, which is not to be dismissed, and I've lived to survive failure, which is also important.

I think you have your answer right there. At 30 you are by no means over the hill. You've been around the block, learned a number of things about the world and more importantly, yourself. If you want to get back into the business that you were in when you were in your early twenties, I think mudgirl is right - write and make music. Call up those people you used to work for, play music for, play music with and any other contacts you can think of. You have nothing to lose by renewing that old network and by getting back into the swing of things. But...

You have to remember that you had a breakdown. Have you examined why that breakdown occurred? Have you looked deep into yourself and figured out what makes you happy? Is this really the path that you have to take?

If you have answers to any of those questions, then you already know what to do. Maybe the question should really be, "why aren't I doing what I love doing when there's nothing but hard work to stop me?"

Therapy may not be a bad idea, nor a career counselor, but I think you have the tools at hand - you just need the chutzpah to go do it.

But, as a not-exactly-recent grad, how do I climb over all the freshly-minted, internship-sharpened, wet-eared BA candidates and editorial whiz-kids to get in the door with such a ... unique back-story?

Your back-story IS your resume. You can't buy or go to school for life experience, and I think that in the field that you're in, having a unique life is almost a pre-requisite. Go out there and sell it...

I wish you all the luck in the world.
posted by ashbury at 6:57 PM on December 12, 2005


Here's the first thoughts that sprang to mind, as someone who also had to/is still trying to reinvent themselves.
1. Prioritize. Visualize the primary goal that means the most to you, unfettered by self doubts and confusion.

2. Give up on being a "wunderkind" and living in the past (which always seems so much more brilliant and certain in retrospect than it probably felt at the time) and make choices based on your long term goal. Forget cool and respected. Keep your eye on your prize.

3. Think of the wealth of experiences you've had now that prove you're able to pick yourself up from the lows and weather (your self-defined) daily mediocrity. Marry your past ability to plug away at mundane tasks to your current aspirations. Let your work choices support your dreams, if only by freeing up time to concentrate on what you really want to accomplish.

4. Art is hard. Music is hard. Beware of buying into idealistic and unrealistic career expectations. I know or have met a lot of successful writers, artists, and musicians (successful in this case being that they are well known by the public) and very few of them haven't needed to take on some freelance or full time work outside of their discipline on a regular basis.

Things have a funny way of falling into place once you recognize and accept what you really want. The hows are much easier once the whats are defined.
posted by stagewhisper at 6:58 PM on December 12, 2005


Hey, you have connections. Use them.

And as a songwriter myself let me assure you that your life experience will make you a much better songwriter than you ever were years ago.
posted by konolia at 7:21 PM on December 12, 2005


These are all excellent and wonderful answers. I am a big fan of therapy, incidentally. :-)

However, I wasn't very clear in my original question, I guess. It is true that the occupation of "songwriter" is one that I wouldn't deign to return to on a full-time level. I acquired a catastrophic level of stage fright over the years, and I would never want to run a label and be the performer and be the radio promoter and be the distributor etc etc etc, ever again. I've decided that I'm of far more use "on the other side of the glass," so to speak, and out of that particular spotlight.

I'm really more looking figure out how to parlay my experiences into an actual desk job, albeit one at an arts-focused company or in a creative position. I have no problem at all with going to a 9-to-5 job, but I would like to put all this hard-won experience to good use. (I think of parlaying my writing experience into an editorial-assistant or a junior-editor position, for example.)

It's really about turning those "impractical" skills (and I use that word purposefully for effect) into an honest job for a goal that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning: the love of the art. At which point you may be saying, "Buy me a nice popsicle in Hell when everybody has the job they want." But there's more to life than being the junior boy wage-slave for the bank, surely.

Thanks, all, for your answers thus far. Great food for thought, but I'd like to direct it more away from the insecurity about past achievements and more towards "How to get a good job with a spotty resume," with the above-mentioned spanners thrown in. Any more thoughts?
posted by mykescipark at 7:48 PM on December 12, 2005


... oh, and I actually did get my BA, in case that wasn't clear before. An English degree with honors from BU. Perfect waiter material! LOL.
posted by mykescipark at 7:50 PM on December 12, 2005


I hate to say it, but think outside the box.

Music and audio doesn't just mean CDs and concerts and record release parties.

Audio is film, television, video games ... the list is endless.

You probably have tons of skills that we could use right now at my current company (video game development). Step back, look around, go forward.
posted by frogan at 8:30 PM on December 12, 2005


It sounds like the reasons that led to your nervous breakdown are still somewhere in you, even if they are dormant currently. You sound like you have an enormous desire to succeed and excel and while this got you very far, it also brought you a lot of stress and unhappiness. I don't have a whole lot of advice about busting into the music or publishing businesses, but I can give you some advice about living as an artist. In artistic careers, the work you do cannot be judged entirely objectively, and the line between who succeeds and who doesn't can seem, more often than not, random or arbitrary. This can lead to all kinds of sour grapes and bitterness. I don't think you're necessarily a "failure" if you don't make a living with your art; I think in the end you are your only true judge, the only one who can decide if your work was satisfactory or not.

So my advice is essentially to get back to what drives you to create and focus on that, outside of what success it may or may not bring you. Easier said than done. But it'll bring you closer to lasting happiness regardless of how "successful" you may or may not be, and it's likely that the quality of your work will also be better for it. And as a writer/musician, your greatest resume is the quality of the body of your work.

I am a little confused about whether you want a career in the music/publishing business or if you want to be a writer and/or musician... those are two very different things. Careers in music and publishing can be just as uncreative and demoralizing as careers in other fields. What, exactly, do you want to do to combine your artistic life and your career? Some specific direction here might help. If you're a multitalented person sometimes it's hard to find that specific niche.

It can also be hard to find the time to really work on your art if you also have a taxing full-time job. If you can afford to, maybe quit your day job. This sounds like the dumbest advice ever, and maybe it is, but it may be the thing that actually pushes you to make it in the art world. Because you'll have to, or starve!

I guess the one bit of practical advice I would have is to get back into the fray and play with other musicians. If you're as good as you say you are, your talent will be appreciated and sought after. There's already a network of social and professional contacts there just waiting for you. It's the kind of thing where you never know where the next opportunity might come from. When musicians meet up it's a win/win situation all around.
posted by speicus at 9:03 PM on December 12, 2005


Songfight may give you an outlet.
posted by phrontist at 9:31 PM on December 12, 2005


Well crap, I didn't read your reply until just now, which makes most of my advice irrelevant. Sorry.

I don't know about the corporate path, but why would you want to go there anyway? I know some musicians who have transferred their experiences into arts administration, mostly for universities. You could try that route. I also know someone who heads up an ensemble which runs as a non-profit organization and has all kinds of events going on. He seems extremely gratified artistically but it's definitely not the most stable path financially... he supports himself by teaching as well.

But again, most of these people got these jobs as an outgrowth of just being a musician. I hope your stage fright doesn't preclude playing out altogether... not only would it be helpful, I think it's gratifying to play for an appreciative audience. You don't have to be "the" performer, but be open to collaboration.
posted by speicus at 9:33 PM on December 12, 2005


Stick with a job for awhile. Work your way up. Stick to small companies, where there is a greater responsbility to the individual, which means you'll take on more functions. At least for awhile.

Meanwhile, due to things like GarageBand, Acid, etc, it's cheaper than ever to do what you did before.

The only person standing in you way...is yourself. Post that over your bed....keep up the therapy route...and just spend the same energy you did here...on trying again.

Unless you don't believe in your art (he says, trying to goad mykescipark) What's stopping you from going to clubs, finding acts that need promotion, and starting there? Who knows about your breakdown...really? It's ancient history
posted by filmgeek at 9:44 PM on December 12, 2005


If you absolutely must get a job, find a mellow niche. There's a finely-honed sweet spot somewhere between flipping burgers and sucking corporate wang 24/7. Small or unusual companies are the best bet, usually.

Don't discredit your own accomplishments as irrelevant. That's totally resume material - use your creative writing skills to sell it. I put all kinds of personal life experience stuff on my resume - frankly, that's all I really have. Since I primarily work mid to upper level user-centric tech support, it makes perfect sense to list everything technical that I do as skills. Everything from Audio/Video engineering/production work to graphic design to photography to writing. It all applies in an educational tech support environment.

That way my employers know with certainty that they can send me into a classroom and I'm going to inherently already know how to set up a small PA, or something as simple as a VCR and a TV, or a camcorder and a monitor - above and beyond my ability to do real tech support.

Artistically: Again, find a niche, but be willing to break it. Bend the rules. Do think outside the box.

And "thinking outside the box" is more than a cliche. Very, very few people think outside the box. There are those moments of epiphany when you may realize that you've just barely glimpsed the edges of the box inside - strive for outside of that. I'm a pretty weird motherfucker. It may sound like I'm tooting my horn here, but I'm emphatically doing no such thing - I'm freely admitting my boxed-in-ness, and trying to exhort and describe how vast and how nearly all-encompassing "the box" really is. I've barely seen the edges of the box, art and creativity-wise. There's a marginal chance I've made it outside the box once or twice. Everything else has been lackluster.

How do you know when you've left the box? It feels like space out there. Hard vacuum. I found no easy associations to readily available thoughts that I've previously though, and very little language to describe the strange, disconnected, floating sensation. You'll know it when you feel it and see it, because it's like that "eureka!" feeling amped up a few orders of magnitude, and it hits you like an brickbat to the head.

So. You probably know already what sells, and what doesn't.

Don't be ashamed to create marketable art to make the money that makes more art possible, but don't be afraid to take huge risks and explore new territory, either.
posted by loquacious at 10:16 PM on December 12, 2005


Myke, I have an English degree, but went on to a successful career in marketing and, later, business consulting and, more recently, teaching. I also completed an MBA a couple of years ago. Would something like that be in the cards for you?
posted by acoutu at 10:36 PM on December 12, 2005


You are cute and your blog is good, by the way. :) You might work hard at blogging and online prose/music production as a supplement to a primary career.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:44 AM on December 13, 2005


When asked about A Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift said 'What a genius I had when I wrote that book.' And there's something about that early work of his that he never quite repeated: it's fizzy and bonkers and brilliant. But he replaced the fizz with depth.

So, if you're looking to take the Deborah Gibson / Cathy Dennis approach (sorry if those names make you queasy) I'd say you need to focus on a single talent and area, then work the heck out of it. Look at your resume for jobs that match that theme, and fine-tune (not falsify) the descriptions to point towards it.

What I think you need is a combination of jobs: something steady which offers the chance to build up über-high-level skills through spadework, with enough room to take on creative sideprojects. The admin/support side of the academic world may well be a good place to start looking.
posted by holgate at 2:06 AM on December 13, 2005


Why do you have to totally write off songwriting?

I'm not looking to be a performer myself. Other people are doing all the work of promoting, etc etc in my case. I can do what I do in a cave and not come out if I choose.

Whatever you do, I wouldn't let the creative thing die. It is not a common gift and you should use it at some level.

One other thing-you don't give too many details about the breakdown...I'm bipolar and I am aware that many people in the arts have mood disorders. Wouldn't hurt to be checked to see if you have organic brain chemical issues, if you are afraid of another breakdown along the line. If you do have brain chemical problems, a desk job is no guarantee of mental health in the long term.
posted by konolia at 4:04 AM on December 13, 2005


Music and audio doesn't just mean CDs and concerts and record release parties. Audio is film, television, video games ... the list is endless.

Absolutely. Most of the audio work I'm doing now is, in fact, for radio-art projects and theater soundtracks. An enjoyable path, and one which could conceivably move towards a livelihood with enough regular work, but I'd like to keep the pressure off of my actual music-making as a means of primary income. Working in marketing at a record label, writing PR and press-release copy, booking tours, working with distributors ... that's stuff that I have real-world experience in that would make a perfect day job.

Careers in music and publishing can be just as uncreative and demoralizing as careers in other fields. ... It can also be hard to find the time to really work on your art if you also have a taxing full-time job.

My job right now is certainly lucrative - it pays more money than I've ever made in my life - but I come home depressed, exhausted, and unproductive. And while I recognize that an arts job per se won't automaticaly produce instant happiness like sausage from a grinder, I think being in a likeminded, arts-supportive environment would be a fine start.

Stick with a job for awhile. Work your way up. Stick to small companies, where there is a greater responsbility to the individual, which means you'll take on more functions.

I would love to. That's the main thrust of my post. I'm having trouble even getting an interview for all the "work-your-way-up" jobs at record labels or publishers that I want. They are looking for impressionable, entry-level, recent college grads to do their entry-level, recent-college-grad work, not late-twentysomething guys who are in career-salvage mode. That's the frustrating thing about technically being in "mid-career," experience-wise, but without the paper trail to prove it or back it up.

I have an English degree, but went on to a successful career in marketing and, later, business consulting and, more recently, teaching. I also completed an MBA a couple of years ago. Would something like that be in the cards for you?

My current company is pushing me towards an MBA so they can fully accredit me as a financial planning relationship associate. Although I have no doubt the business acumen would help me figure out a way to market my own work, I'd rather go back to grad school to get a Masters in journalism or print communications or something that applies more specifically to what I love. Finance is just totally not my thing.

What I think you need is a combination of jobs: something steady which offers the chance to build up über-high-level skills through spadework, with enough room to take on creative sideprojects.

I've been thinking something similar. If I can't get a full-time job that I really love, I'm willing to take a three-quarter-time job (~30 hrs/week) doing something that's just acceptable and forcing myself to freelance to make up the residual income. That way, I have to build my creative resume by default, while giving me a base salary so I won't totally starve to death when things get thin on the ground.

You've all given me a lot of terrific ways to at least modulate my thinking on the subject, even if I can't seem to change the "call-back rate" for my current job interests. Thank you all a thousand times over.
posted by mykescipark at 4:15 AM on December 13, 2005


I'm coming a little late to this discussion, and I don't have any experience in music, but I do have a thought. Have you considered trying to be a manager?

The advantages of this are:
(A) Your previous good experience would help you guide a young musician's career--and your previous bad experiences might enable you to help a young musician avoid burning out the way you did.
(B) You don't really need an employer's permission to start doing this. You just need to find a single young musician who is willing to give you a shot for a few months.
(C) As long as you only have one or two clients, you can probably do it part time.
posted by yankeefog at 5:37 AM on December 13, 2005


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