How long can a starving artist live like that?
April 2, 2010 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Should I continue to prioritize my art in my life over my financial security as I get older?

When I was in high school, I made up my mind to throw myself body and soul into a creative, competitive field and ignore everyone who told me how hard it would be to succeed in it. It was a calling, a destiny, a cathexis, and I've never wavered from it even though I haven't yet "made it" and may never. My strategy was to take "day jobs" that I wasn't emotionally invested in and that didn't take time or energy away from my art. I got by on very little money for about six years after college, where I majored in a soft social science field that I thought could enrich my art and give me a broad base for jobs. (It's the kind of major that you need a master's in to do anything with, though). After six years of day jobs, I went to grad school (in the creative field) which gave me time, money (student loans), and focus. I stayed in grad school for five years and then segued into an occupation closely related to my creative field, which proved to be draining to my creativity after another five years. This occupation involved self-employment as well as working for a couple of companies as a W-2 employee.

The almost-creative work I was doing became a casualty of the recession and is unlikely to return, and I'm also burned out on it and want to use my creativity for my own projects. Since I left that occupation, I've had one grant-driven nonprofit position in which I helped others (which I loved), and another job shortly after that which I still have, which is clerical and also involves recruiting, and will end in about six months. I just turned 43.

Along the road I've described, I've had a number of encouraging successes in my creative field, but nothing lucrative. I was also held back by my own lack of confidence stemming from childhood verbal abuse, and it has taken me this long to do the difficult twofold work of overcoming the legacy of that abuse, and maturing as an artist. It's been a long apprenticeship to the muse. Now I have the confidence I've always needed to put my work out there. I've worked very hard to become excellent at my craft and emotionally stable enough to know that I am.

I am also, however, realistic about the fact that even the most talented creatives don't generally make a living as full-time original artists in any genre, and concerned about long-term financial security. I have no children and I still live very frugally, and I have a partner who's also an artist working day jobs and has a very similar outlook on life to mine, so I don't have family responsibilities and don't really have to worry about anyone's financial security but my own, but I'd like a few more luxuries and a nest egg, and to pay off those student loans someday. I have not given up my hope that I'll one day earn a living doing what I love, but in the meantime I still have to eat. The reality of this is much more tangible now than when I was younger. I don't want to be an impoverished senior citizen, or have my life cut short due to inability to get proper medical care (though I'm in great health at the moment).

As I see it now, I have a few choices:

1. Try to get a sales job (it would have to be a product I believe in) without experience, focus on the job and the money, and deprioritize my lifelong dream and a major part of my identity due to the massive time commitment I think is involved in selling.

2. Return to school for a particular career I think I would enjoy, that involves helping others and pays $60K+ yearly. Risk spending more money on another degree and not finding a job (though according to the occupational outlook for that career is excellent). Deprioritize my art because this career path is not just a job; it's a commitment. This particular career is one I've carefully researched after narrowing it down from a list of about a dozen based on several career interest and aptitude tests.

3. Start my own nonprofit or small business which would combine helping others with creativity. Again use my creativity in ways other than my own projects, except this time it would be more on my own terms. However, it still might drain me for any of my own projects. While I'm working on getting funding, continue working whatever day job I can get.

4. Carry on as I have been, prioritizing my art for the rest of my life and working whatever day job I can find that doesn't tax my energy, even if it's got nothing to do with helping others and seems pointless and boring (as my current job often does). Work even harder at getting a breakthrough in my chosen field. Accept the fact that I may always be poor because I could work for a lifetime at my art and not be financially successful at it. Go through periods of unemployment between bouts of underemployment. Be unable to save money for the future or for emergencies. Live this way til I die slumped over my last creative project, maybe stressed and bitter at the end.

FWIW, I score high on the Highly Sensitive Person test by Dr. Elaine Aron and my Myers-Briggs type is INFP. If I could sum up what I want to be remembered for, it would be that I changed people's lives through my art -- inspired or comforted them or helped them find their own artistic voice. I also take a deeply sensual pleasure in the creative process itself and have arranged my life so I can get as much of this as possible. I prefer to work one-on-one with others in a peaceful environment, so teaching is not an option, except for tutoring. Even a job along those lines, though, would come second in my heart to my art. It would just be more bearable because it would be fulfilling, and I'd be making a contribution. Then again, many helping jobs don't pay any more than what I made freelancing.

So how can I balance my needs for self-expression, helping others, and being financially secure, as well as have the appropriate level of commitment to any career path I might choose? If any particular jobs come to mind I'll happily take suggestions.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You're 43 - how much have you saved for retirement? I know its boring, but supporting yourself through your lifetime is an important consideration. Looking at your job history, I don't see anything that's going to yield a pension.

I'm not telling you to do a job you hate. Just putting it out there that you're making a decision that has long-term outcomes. If you can't put anything away for retirement, then you'll live your entire life dependent on day work. Those types of opportunities might be more difficult for an elderly worker to find.
posted by 26.2 at 9:04 AM on April 2, 2010

Agree with 26.2. Remember, even Bach and Mozart had rich patrons supporting them.
posted by Melismata at 9:06 AM on April 2, 2010

Put it this way, how are you going to live when you're 70, 80 and can't work, don't want to work? Creativity isn't going to keep the lights on. It will only keep your happiness.

Time for a "real job" and start socking away as much as you can. No one won the award for creativity living on the streets.
posted by stormpooper at 9:12 AM on April 2, 2010

Given the work you've done to mature as an artist, and the way you explain that, I wouldn't give up now. The paragraph where you describe your "apprenticeship" feels extremely powerful.

I guess I don't see the choices as starkly as you do. Is it true that the only way to pursue art is to work a horrible, insecure job that doesn't pay well? Is it at all possible that you could find a well-paying, secure non-distracting day job? Is it true that any job you like would pull your commitment away from your art? Is it at all possible that you could find a day job you care about that didn't leave you too drained or distracted to focus on your art? (I'm not sure the self-employment situation counts, because in my experience, consulting inherently has a distracting level of job insecurity.) It seems to me that what you're seeking here is a secure W-2 job, that pays well, that makes room for art (perhaps by ending promptly at 4:45 or by having a part-time option), and that ideally also allows you to help people in a quiet environment -- in that order. From what you say, I wouldn't prioritize your enjoyment of the day job over your art, but I would prioritize its long-lasting security and its ability to fund your retirement and pension, if not also a more comfortable lifestyle in the meantime.
posted by salvia at 9:14 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoops, that was poorly written, time for coffee!
posted by salvia at 9:15 AM on April 2, 2010

I always thought John Gorka put this dilemma well in his song Land of the Bottom Line.

Most creative artists face these kinds of dilemmas, as you know. I don't think I'll contribute much except to remind you that no choice is forever. In life, I think there are times and reasons to prioritize creativity, and times and reasons to prioritize financial security.

Right now I'm concentrating on financial security, because I recently turned 40, and 'did the math' about retirement. I've watched several lower-income friends in their 60s dealing with serious health issues, with and without insurance, and needing to host fundraisers and take donations in order to get by. I've watched people wishing they could do more for their parents, or wishing they could move, but not having any options because they had not enough money. I don't want that to be me. I'm working at a job now that pays well, getting rid of all debt, and working up to saving significant amounts. I don't really expect to do it forever - I expect it to position me better to have more choices down the road, and launch more creative projects. Some people say "Oh, but you could get run over by a bus tomorrow." Sure. But chances are good that I will live a few more decades. If I do this now, those decades will be a lot better for me. If I don't do this now, I can clearly see what my life will be like at 65 or 70, and I don't like it at all. It's one thing to 'get by' when you're young and healthy, another thing entirely to have serious needs you can't cover.

Like many people, I'd like to have more time for creativity. And yet I don't really believe that all the best art in the world is produced by full-time art-pros. I think that the extraordinary talents and creativity of working people are underappreciated. I question the idea that fulltime artists are more productive or more talented. In fact, sometimes a person dealing with the pressures of a working life who also prioritizes artwork produces more than someone who has more time. I know quite often when I have some time off and plan to do some writing or songwriting, I fuck around a lot of the day - it's not like increased time means increased productivity in a nice direct relationship. Conversely, some of the stuff I've liked best that I've done has been done in late hours, on deadline, with much excruciation in the process.

It's not really an either-or choice. It's a how-much, when choice.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on April 2, 2010 [14 favorites]

Should I continue to prioritize my art in my life over my financial security as I get older?

No. I'm surprised you aren't jaded yet.

Work is called work because its work, not karmic experience of the transcendant oversoul based inspiration. I think it's time to get serious about your finances and continue praticing your art as a hobby. You can sell completed pieces of art if you want, but the pressure is off because you will have a regular job and you don't have to worry about compromising your art for marketability.

Of your posted options (which are far from the exhaustive options available, really) I would choose the sales job. You are either grossly overestimating the time consumption for most sales jobs or not used to a normal workday. Sales only consumes as much extra time as you let it.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:58 AM on April 2, 2010

Hmm, I think you're getting a lot of both practical and jaded advice. Money for retirement is a good thing, sure! One must think about what exactly will be happening at 60 and 70 and 80, knock wood.

I'm just a couple years younger than you, and I'm broker than I've ever been. I have zero savings! And some debt! And you know what? I don't care! I'm going to do what I want to do. I could go work at Starbuck's, if they'd have me. (Iffy!) Yes, there are practical choices to be made in there, with regard to operating with mindfulness of future income (doing that!) and the like. But really, I never wanted to settle when I was 15 or 25 or 35, so why should I want to settle now?

You and I may end up homeless and elderly and alone, but at least we'll have had a good time. (Don't worry, conservative friends, I'm not suckling at the public teat.)

That being said? I do, however, vote for your option #3? Being involved with other people, and finding ways to work with people, is very valuable and while sometimes exhausting, brings other great benefits.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2010

No one won the award for creativity living on the streets.

posted by nathancaswell at 12:59 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

get serious about your finances and continue praticing your art as a hobby

Can we please finally ditch this ludicrous idea that an ambitious creative pursuit that doesn't happen to be your insurance-bearing job constitutes a "hobby"? What an inappropriately and unnecessary dim prospect.

As salvia and Miko point out, this isn't an either-or proposition.

Evidently you're trying to find a better-paying job than you've had. There's no way you'll be happy if this overrides your art, but you'll undoubtedly have to figure out how to accomplish more in less time, with bonus points if your job can supply some inspiration or material. That might take some figuring out, but take comfort in knowing that sometimes constraints can help you.

Mostly you're going to have to take extra good care of yourself so you can sustain your energy level, exercise unusual discipline, and keep your distractions down.
posted by tangerine at 1:17 PM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

How long can a starving artist live like that?

The answer to your question, without opinion added, is "As long as your will allows."

Being this post is from four months ago, I'd love to hear where you're at now.

Save one, it seems the majority of comment attempts to point you in exactly the direction you are so against. Right you would be to do what you want. People spread fears, because they have them. There's no purpose to blaming anyone for what they believe.

Some people have the feeling inside them that there are no limits to this world. Some people need to believe they know what they are doing. Sometimes people need to believe they had to accept what they did.

So how can I balance my needs for self-expression, helping others, and being financially secure, as well as have the appropriate level of commitment to any career path I might choose?

To give an answer to the whole question, there's a need to know what specifically are your needs for self-expression. I'll assume this consists only of time in your days to be creative.

Regarding helping others, there are several careers, jobs, businesses and free-lance opportunities depending on how you want to help others. You can even be specific and still have options. You could again join a non-profit (leaving your creativity as a separate venture). You can be a Personal, Business or even Happiness Coach. You can start a business with any goal of helping people, even your own non-profit. Free-lance is just that, free. It's not about what other people do, rather what you can give and how much someone else needs it. While a simple search will turn up free-lance networks galore, the people you know, also know you. Much less competition there. It's about what feels right to you versus what other people think.

Security is a state of mind. It has much more to do with comfort than a lock and key. A first step in financial security would be to put a figure on it. You can find financial and retirement planning calculators on AARP and Yahoo. A search can give millions of options. Once you know what you want, some more financial planning can help. Dave Ramsey has some philosophies that have worked for quite a few people. Just because you get information from someone doesn't mean you have to believe everything they say. You might diversify planning philosophies and find your own perfect groove.

If you choose a path where you set your own hours, you make the time to be creative. There is a lot of freedom in it. If you choose to rely on something, it's good to realize that you are relying on something you have no control over. If you haven't noticed already, you will find large shifts occurring in who people trust their income with. Including where they get it from. No matter how, it's your life, own it.

What can I say other than general knowledge?

Personally I work for myself. I am Happiness Coach. I don't go it alone either. I have my own coach. Having someone always in your corner, no matter where you want to go. That's an awesome thing.

Ambitious as I am, I also joined a network marketing company. I know what they offer. I know what I am capable of and it fit for my situation. With the plethora of business knowledge I have absorbed over 15 years I picked the best.

While I do more than I have to, my situation affords me several things. I set my own hours. I work how I want. I help others in several ways. I am financial secure. I have two children I'm able to care for, guide and spend time with.

All things are possible. What matters is what you want and how much ambition you are able to keep you going. You can accept the life that happens to you, the easy one, or you can make the one you want.
posted by conciergehenry at 4:51 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

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