How can I support myself as an artist?
December 5, 2014 1:16 PM   Subscribe

What are some things that I could do to support myself while doing creative work, *without* taking up so much time that I can't actually do art?

I am interested in pursuing writing and/or composing professionally. So I've been doing research on some things that I could do for money that would give me plenty of time for these pursuits. (This is motivated in part by the fact that school leaves me with hardly any time to work on my own projects, and that this really stresses me out.) I have looked at some past threads on this topic, but was just looking for other ideas/opinions.

I have read that in some countries (e.g. Japan) English teachers sometimes work as little as 20 hours a week. A friend's relative has a similar workload while spending most of his time on painting. I have read similar things about freelance translating. How common is this, however?

Aside from language, what are some other fields that have jobs with low time commitment? Web design, maybe?

I understand that I'm kind of asking to have my cake and eat it too, and I don't have any unrealistic expectations about the availability of these kinds of jobs. I should also note that I don't really anticipate making any huge financial commitments (e.g. kids, house, car) and that I don't have any expensive lifestyle demands.
posted by myitkyina to Work & Money (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Don't become a programmer or do anything involving the Web, tech, or IT. That's the mistake I made. You'll be lucky to have a 40 hour workweek.
posted by starbreaker at 1:29 PM on December 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Lots of people want jobs with flexible hours and a high hourly wage. How much time are you willing to spend training for these positions? Are you looking for something that is 20 hours a week, or are you willing to work, say, two weeks on and one week off? How much money per year does it take to support you?
posted by craven_morhead at 1:31 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was once a paralegal/law assistant at a very sleepy practice. I had to be at my desk 40 hours a week, but the actual work took maybe 10 hours a week, so I had a lot of time to scratch away on a terrible romance novel.

I found the job through temping.
posted by mochapickle at 1:33 PM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Spider Robinson tells a story about how he was a security guard for an entrance to a sewer, so he spent his night literally guarding shit. Gave him plenty of time to write.

I had a fiend in college that had a job watching a button. If it glowed he was to push it and call someone. (There's a bit more to it than that, but basically, they wanted a person, so they could get the line started up right away after. Now days they would probably automate it). Four years of that and it never went off once.

I was a box seat usher for a civic center. Once people were sat down I had 3 or 4 hours to do nothing but make creative notes.

Night clerk at a hotel generally has a lot of downtime.

There are tons of jobs out there with little actual commitment to accomplishing anything.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:40 PM on December 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Waiting tables. I have friends who do it as their day job, and it works really well for them. Shifts are short, and it's possible to make a living wage working only 4 days a week.

In order for this to work, though, you'll need to find a restaurant that hires people full time, provides benefits, and pays a decent before-tips wage.
posted by Sara C. at 1:44 PM on December 5, 2014

Best answer: 1. Look for a job where you can do projects at work --- a lot of office jobs are like this, as well as a lot of night shift jobs. I know someone who worked the night shift at a rest home and spent the whole night writing, because babysitting sleeping people is pretty low-key.

2. Seasonal jobs. I have a relative who works in construction and demolition and it's a hard job and a full-time job, but it's also a summer and fall only job. In the winter he paints and plays music.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:46 PM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I work from home doing customer service 25 hours/week. The downside, though, is that the hours themselves are not flexible. But there are tons of ways to make money working from home.
posted by girlmightlive at 1:47 PM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Given some of the above comments, you might be interested in perusing this Ask: Time Enough at last

I understand that I'm kind of asking to have my cake and eat it too, and I don't have any unrealistic expectations about the availability of these kinds of jobs.

"There is always room at the top."
I do freelance writing. I have not made a lot of money at it yet, but I have worked hard at resolving some of my own issues in terms of things like workflow and learning what the service wants from me in terms of writing quality, and I am seeing opportunities begin to open up for better paid work. I find the better paid work mostly easier to do for various reasons than the less well paid work I was doing, but in order to qualify for it, I had to make sure I was meeting a certain standard that I initially just could not meet.

I once talked to a guy who told me that when he had been in the military, at one time he had a job sending urgent messages or something like that. In order to qualify for the job, he had to type wicked fast. Once he could type wicked fast, he mostly sat around playing cards or whatever. The slow typists had to work all do doing ordinary, non-urgent messages. The urgent messages only occurred occasionally. He had lots of down time, but to get it, he first had to be better than everyone else.

I also once talked to a woman who was mostly a stay-at-home-mom. She worked 15 hours a week in real estate and I think made 6 figures a year, thus giving her lots of time for her kids and enough money for a comfortable life. But, obviously, she first had to become really good at what she was doing and I think she worked in some kind of high-end real estate niche.

So if you are willing to put in some time and effort to first get good enough to qualify for something better-paid -- and put some thought into what kind of work and how it is structured so this doesn't become some hamster wheel of running ever faster to keep up without getting the downtime you are looking for -- then, yes, some people are able to arrange to make enough money part-time and/or flexibly such that they can focus on the things they want to do and not so much on just paying the bills. Some people fall into that. Some people work hard to arrange it. It isn't easy to arrange, but it isn't just crazy talk either.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:55 PM on December 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nursing. You can easily work part-time and could get paid up to ~$50/hour depending on experience and location. The job does require a fair bit of effort to enter, however.
posted by queens86 at 1:56 PM on December 5, 2014

Unless, you are starting in these fields (writing and composing) from the beginning, I would say find a way to make money with your current expertise in said fields.

I think you have to understand your expertise in terms of your Craft (expertise with knowledge and technique) and Art (purely creative). If you'd like to write creatively, get jobs in writing to pay the bills...while always honing your writing. The same with music.

Use and develop your craft for profit and give yourself the needed time to create. This can be hard balance to find. But in my experience most successful artist have this.

In my life as an artist, living each day with what you know perpetuates the level of your Craft and Art.
posted by Lucky Bobo at 1:58 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It is certainly possible to work well below a 40 hour workweek teaching English in foreign countries - I have a friend who does it in Taiwan.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:23 PM on December 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't become a programmer or do anything involving the Web, tech, or IT. That's the mistake I made. You'll be lucky to have a 40 hour workweek.

Well, I know I'm lucky, but I'm a musician who spent some years trying to answer the same question as the OP, and now I'm a web developer -- "software engineer" is my official title, I work on a large javascript app -- and I have a 40-hour workweek, and I'm very pleased with the situation. I have a good amount of time to work on my music, and I can afford to fund it, too, which to me was a more significant obstacle in the past than a lack of time.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:31 PM on December 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you're okay with giving up any expectation of privacy, webcam work might be an option. Also, if you live in a relatively large city, figure modeling for art classes.
posted by danceswithlight at 4:08 PM on December 5, 2014

If I were you, I'd start off deciding whether you want to write OR compose professionally. Find an entry-level job with a music publisher, a recording studio, or even just the front desk of a theatre. Be prepared to spend several years working a regular part-time job making contacts, and work on your own thing at any given opportunity. Don't think of the part-time job as something that pays the bills whilst you're doing your creative thing. Think of the part-time job as something that pays the bills AND gives you an entry to the world in which you want to be working.

I worked part-time for 5 years before I leapt into making my creative pursuits my full-time job (and be aware, your creative pursuit is a job). I found an entry-level job in my industry and worked 18 hours a week - although it worked out as almost 40 hours a week because I was expected to write reports and do admin outside scheduled working hours. Then I worked about 35-40 hours a week on my own thing - it was hard graft but it eventually paid off. What I guess I'm saying is that you need to think long-term and strategic about what it is you want to be doing and how to get there.

Good luck!
posted by kariebookish at 4:39 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are willing to put in the time, being an MFT can be quite lucrative and flexible. I know several who work 20-25 hours a week and make in the 100k range. Takes some time to get the credential. Not only can you work as many hours as you want to whatever age you want, but it is one of the few jobs where you are perceived as being better/wiser as you age.
posted by jcworth at 5:23 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sell real estate. HUGE payoff for not all that many hours worked.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:42 PM on December 5, 2014

when I was up against this problem my solution was to find somewhere to live where it was possible to get by with very little money. I had a part-time job that paid badly but well enough, I had a lot of time to write, and it worked out quite well in the end.
posted by spindle at 7:00 PM on December 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know you say you're struggling to make time for creative practice amid the demands of school, but have you thought of... more school? When I did my MFA in creative writing, I was fully funded to the tune of $20k/year, and so were all my classmates. Most good graduate creative writing programs in the United States fund their students somewhere between $12-25k/year, usually with the expectation that they'll teach a section of composition or creative writing every semester. You take 2-3 classes a semester, for 2-3 years, and in the meanwhile you build a strong network of writer friends and get to spend several years really honing your nascent body of work. Sure, you could be a security guard or wait for a button to flash, but you'll probably become a better writer, especially if you're just starting out, by surrounding yourself with other writers and artists than by potentially flashing buttons.

The downside of grad school: you'll likely never get a (decent) job in your field afterward, because the academic job market is stacked against anyone who isn't 1) winning Pulitzers and 2) doesn't have 5-10 years of teaching experience under their belt already in 2014. But going to grad school often generates the expectation that you'll teach writing afterward, and so it can be mightily dejecting to discover that you'd earn more money as a janitor. If you go into it striving to better your abilities as a writer, but not as a career choice, you'll have a much better time. There are a handful of hard-to-get fellowships and grants that you may be eligible for after grad school, like the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing's fellowship, or the winter residency at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, or the NEA Literature Fellowships, that can help support you year by year if you're quite lucky. Don't count those chickens until they're fully hatched, though.
posted by tapir-whorf at 8:12 PM on December 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am making this work by teaching part-time in my creative field. Downsides: no job security whatsoever, and I am terribly poor. Plenty of time, though, and teaching people to do the things I do improves my own skills as well.
posted by velebita at 8:29 AM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's very possible to make a living in China or SE Asia working part-time teaching English,editing, etc. (you just have to deal with the visa if you work part-time). Most full-time teaching jobs at public schools in China do not require full-time hours- I only had 2 classes a day with minimal prep.
posted by bearette at 11:17 AM on December 6, 2014

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