On Day-Jobs And Starving Artists

There was a bit of a to-do yesterday on the ol’ Twitters about how artists and writers should follow their dreams with reckless abandon because life is short and you don’t have to play it safe so go quit your day job, so on and so forth. And I think there’s reason to see some value and truth there: life is short, and as the old saying goes, get busy living, or get busy dying. If you want to be an artist, or a writer, or a maker of any kind, the best time to begin that journey is *checks watch* now. Not tomorrow. And yesterday’s already gone. So: now.

Great.

Fine.

Coolcoolcool.

But also, you understand that you can be safe when you do that, right? Like, to learn how to skydive, you don’t need to actually construct a parachute on the way down. If you wanna learn to play the piano, you don’t quit your job and buy a baby grand and expect that you can tickle the ivories right into stardom on day fucking one, right? Like, there’s buildup. There’s an arc. A smart, savvy, and dare I say that boring-ass word again, safe rise to learning how to do the thing you wanna do before you expect for that thing to be able to support you. Actors wait tables. Artists sling coffee. Writers, we hide in the dark, hunting roaches for our vampire masters.

Translation: there’s no shame in a day job.

Let’s rewind a little bit.

I have wanted to be a writer for a very long time. I wrote a lot as a kid, and drew cartoons, and then decided in eighth grade that I wanted to be a proper-ass professional writer.

Went to college, did all that shit, graduated, and immediately started taking day jobs. I worked at the International Cash Register Dealer’s Association, I sold computers, I worked at various bookstores and coffeehouses (and sometimes I made coffee at bookstores, lookin’ at you, Borders), I was the IT manager for a fashion merchandising company, I did marketing for our library system.

Etcetera.

Now: I was young for a lot of this, BACK IN THE OLDEM TYMES, and arguably, that would’ve been the best time for me to throw all my fucks to the wind and quit some jobs and try to have a go at writing full-time. If ever there was a time to run screaming headlong into the slavering maw of my dreams, it would’ve been then. I had no dependents. I’m sure someone would consider not knowing how to pay my bills as “character-building.” I would have been forgiven of the impulse as youthful indiscretion. But here’s the one problem:

Being young means, well, being young.

I wasn’t ready to fulfill the writer dream because I just wasn’t that fucking good, yet. At the time I was writing novels, and they were stinky. Just stenchworthy bricks of bad prose. I had to write those books. I had to write bad books to learn how to write not bad ones and, I like to hope, eventually write good ones. (Or at least ones that were publishable.) So, had I quit to pursue my dream with reckless abandon, I would’ve faceplanted on the sidewalk, because I did not yet have the skills to pay the bills. And more to the point: I really did need to pay bills. I wasn’t living in a piano crate, I was living in an apartment. Which turns out, is not free. I didn’t have any couches to ride and I wasn’t living with my parents. And living in an apartment means I needed things like electricity which was required to make food and so forth. I’m sure there’s some fascinating romantic vision of myself where I was hunting squirrels in the forest and cooking them over open flame like a True Man and a Visionary Murder Artist, but I kinda liked having a bed and a microwave.

(Plus, at that point I couldn’t cook. My squirrel would’ve tasted like a burned wallet.)

Somewhere along the way I picked up freelance work for a game company and that was creative writing — but even then, I didn’t quit my day job, because freelance gonna freelance. The money from freelancing is wildly inconsistent. It arrives with all the warning of an earthquake or tornado, and is as reliable. To write the freelance words, and to continue writing Very Bad Novels, I simply worked day jobs and stole time when I could. Morning, lunch break, night. Weekends. Sometimes if people were going out, I didn’t, I stayed in and got some wordherding done. And eventually I met my wife (well, she wasn’t my wife at the time, it wasn’t like I met some time traveler lady who had married me in the future), and she had a steady job and drum roll please, insurance, and so I was able to disentangle from the day job and work freelance full-time.

But even there, some vital notes must be underlined —

First, I required her support to do this. Emotional, yes, but financial, too. My freelance income matched hers, but her income was steady, week to week, and again, came with insurance.

Second, the freelance ultimately became a day job. (But without the security of a day job.) I was now using my writing time to write for other people, not for myself. This wasn’t the worst thing in the world — it helped me train on deadlines and deal with editors and learn to write cleanly and with clarity, but it was still ultimately delaying a larger leap into novels.

Third, when it came time to buy a house, oh ho ho, I still had to return to the dread day job world. Why? Because the bank didn’t speak freelance.

This was literally the kind of conversation I had with the lender:

“Who is your employer?” they asked.

“Oh, I don’t have one, I’m freelance.”

“Freelance… freelance…” he said, as if the word were weird, and in German.

“Yes, sorry, independent contractor.”

“Right! Of course.”

“I have steady income and contracts I can demonstrate going forward and a history of getting paid, plus savings, which I’m told should be good enough.”

“Absolutely, Mister Wendig. Again, who is your employer?”

“I don’t — I don’t have an employer –“

“So you’re unemployed.”

“No! Yes. No? I’m an independent contractor–“

“Right, right, right, yes, absolutely. Ahem. So, who is your employer?”

Then I chewed my way through my phone.

Meaning, I got a job to show a payment history to a mortgage company so I could buy an actual house. If I wanted a house of our own, I couldn’t just juggle a couple of middle fingers and pay them in the currency of my dreams. It sucked. It wasn’t fair. It was what it was. I got the house which then meant a mortgage, which thankfully I was able to pay with freelance — but even when it came time to disentangle from freelance and try my hand at writing novels, I was forced then to endure the worst financial year of my life. I’d thankfully saved up, and again, had the critical support of my wife. But shifting over to writing novels only was a scary leap — one that took a long time for which to prepare, one that needed careful planning and not just a bold sprint toward a brick wall. It was a risk, yes, but a calculated one. And one that for a year left our finances as decidedly “touch and go.”

Presently, I remain a full-time writer. My wife no longer works, and was a SAHM and also helps me with the business side of authorial life. The ACA was honestly instrumental in allowing us to do this — though who knows what happens when that goes away, or when the costs of health insurance become simply untenable. I may need to return to a day job, who knows?

And if I do, I hope there will be no shame in that.

Because there jolly well shouldn’t be any fucking shame in that.

At all. Full stop.

Most artists have day jobs.

That’s how it works. Because the alternative is often starvation, and I assure you, the “starving artist” myth is one that serves the people who want to take advantage of you. If your belly is empty, you are not going to work at your best, nor will you make excellent decisions, and it won’t take much for an exploitative content farm to dangle something in front of you in the hope you’ll take a bite. Art needn’t be made in discomfort. There is no shame in comfort, in paying your bills, in eating food and enjoying the shade from a ceiling which itself is underneath a roof. You may even be likelier to make great art while comfortable, because you aren’t desperate. Yes, there’s certainly a romance to the scrappy young artist, not kowtowing to the man — but there’s also a powerful reality to an artist who can afford some time and space and more than a packet of ramen upon which to subsist. You can do both. You can work a day job, and continue to make art. Great art. Your art. Risky art.

Art is enough of a risk as it is without you making it riskier.

Yes, we’re all going to die one day. No need to hasten it.

More to the point, beware the privileged advice that demands a kind of sacrifice on your part in service to your art — especially if that comes with any dose of shame or judgment about what constitutes a real artist, a real writer, a true visionary. I’m hyper-privileged and was lucky to have a support system in place, somewhat, to help me get to where I am. My wife was instrumental. I also didn’t have student loans thanks to some great scholarships. And even then, I still had to take day jobs, or I’d have been fucked from day one. If you’ve come here seeking practical advice on when to quit your day job? I can’t tell you that. I don’t know your situation. For me the answer was: I quit the day job when I had to make a choice whether or not to keep working the 9-to-5 or hop the rail and devote all my time to freelance. It became one or the other, and to keep the day job would’ve meant losing the freelance work because I couldn’t hack it. I made my choice, and it worked out, but it was a choice I had to make, not one I made prematurely — and even when I did make it, I made it with as much money saved up as I could in case of sudden professional drought.

But you? Your life isn’t mine and I can’t tell you what to do, or what not to do.

And more to the point, nobody else can tell you, either.

Sure, we’re all gonna die. And yes, if you wanna make art, then make art. But how you do that, on what timetable, and in what circumstances, is up to you. No shame. No judgment.

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out July 2nd, 2019.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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