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.

Preorder: Print | eBook


34 responses to “On Day-Jobs And Starving Artists”

  1. YOU TOOK THE BLOG POST RIGHT OUT OF MY MOUTH but wrote it much better than i would have tbh so honestly no loss here.

    also like: HEALTH INSURANCE, MAN! YOUR DREAMS WILL NOT GIVE IT TO YOU!

  2. I was part of a content farm for a while. It was not a reliable source of income for me personally. I wasn’t subbing on a regular basis and couldn’t really call myself an expert on anything – it was mostly ‘How To’ type articles. For some people it can work (after a fashion) as a passive income source, especially if they specialise in a certain subject, but no one is getting recognition for their work in there.
    It did help me write better, just because it was practice, and it did sometimes pay (a little bit) so it’s not entirely worthless – but often, the articles and content requested are prescriptive and leave no room for developing a ‘voice’.
    It’s also worth noting that, even after an article is accepted, it can take a long time for it to be picked up, and then usually another month before the content provider pays the writer – quick wins from this avenue are pretty rare.

  3. Thank you for writing this piece, Chuck. SOOOOOOOO true! I’m a freelance writer whose husband’s job let us have insurance and a steady base income, which always helped. The lean times, which still come after nine years of independent contracting, still come. Had some late last year and it was NOT fun! I hit the marketing bricks and got more work from existing clients and one new client, but I’m still having to get my name out there.

    As for novels, I’ve never published but I’ve written a bunch. Quitting freelancing to devote full-time to noveling? Not bloody likely. I, too, like having a roof over my head.

    Good advice, as always. Thanks!

  4. I work full time and I managed to write over 160k words of fanfiction last year. I’m never going to write a novel or anything, but I still do the thing I love and have done more or less constantly for nearly 20 years. So you can definitely write and work a day job. Of course, it’s different if you want to be a professional paid writer but almost all the fanfic writers I know have jobs, so I think we’re proof you can do both.

  5. Fistbumps from another former Border’s coffee-slinger! (Not sure why they didn’t let me play with the books…)

    Mortgages make freelancing sound VERY scary. I’ll be clinging to a day job so long as I have one.

  6. This is such good advice, thank you.

    Also is there anywhere I can petition for the VMAs to be replaced with the Visionary Murder Artist awards?

  7. I am a full-time writer and translator simply because when everything came crashing down all there was was me, at 48, without a job (who hires a 48 y.o. paleontologist?), and a 50K bucks mortgage.
    It was three years ago. I’ve paid (most of) the bills, managed to eat at least once a day, and the bank’s not out for my blood (yet). I keep writing.
    I’d kill to get a day job because it would mean security, and I still get told twice a week that you can’t make a living writing. People out there have a lot of weird fantasies about what’s a “real job” and what’s a “real writer”, and in general, everybody knows exactly what you are doing wrong.
    Screw them.
    (and thanks for this post)

  8. I totally agree with you, Chuck. As a community of writers and artists we should be encouraging and helping each other. Being a writer and artist isn’t the easiest road anyway. In my case, I had no support system for my writing in the beginning. I had to work a day job and do my best to stay a step ahead of an abusive husband. Of course, kids need love, interaction, protection, food and clothes, insurance.

    Like you, I wrote on my lunch break, at night, when I could on the weekends. Eventually, I found a local writing group and they had a speaker who was a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) and that was a writing life changer. When I joined I learned most of those ladies still worked a day job even while being traditionally published. As an RWA member the attitude is if you can write full-time do it, but if you can’t, work out a schedule where you can write and go to workshops/conferences to learn. You do what you can.

    I don’t know who started that crap but my first impression was this person is bitter because they can’t write full time or they did quit their day job with no planning and are trying to justify poor planning on their part. If if’s the latter then they are a wanker-headed hippopotamus which isn’t anyone’s fault but theirs.

    Wishing you and everyone here the best. Y’all know in your heart what you need to do for your writing career. Surround yourself with people who care. Family isn’t always those who are blood relation, family can be the one’s who choose us and we them. Be proud of where you and plan for where you’re going.

    Awesome blog post, Chuck. Thank you!

  9. Exactly! When your stomach is empty you can’t work. But, it’s not just like that. If you’re self-published author, you need to pay for you platform (hosting domain), your mailing list (the bigger it is the more expensive it gets), and finally you want to pay for the ads, and none of that is possible if you don’t have a job.

  10. I was really hoping you’d address that particular Twitter thread, and I’m glad you did. Personally, I find the whole “the starving artist is the only TRUE artist” conceit to be baffling, because the times in my life I have been the most creatively productive are the times when I have had the most financial stability. I’m low-income with no savings, and the emotional energy and headspace I have to dedicate to figuring out how I’m going to pay off debts and ruthlessly budgeting down to the last dollar of each paycheck is brutal. Being poor is like having a full time job that pays nothing on top of a full time job that pays lousy. My financial situation is such that I have actually scaled back my writing because I’ve decided to go back to school and get a professional degree, since that’s pretty much the only way I will ever be able to make enough money to live comfortably in my chosen profession (librarianship). If that makes me a hack – well, I’m a hack who somehow has to make the $40 in my bank account stretch until the 15th, so you’ll forgive me if I’m fresh outta fucks to give.

  11. This is extremely important and I’ve shared it far and wide. I really doubt myself sometimes because I’m not rolling in dough as a freelancer. I’ve recently made enough to catch up and survive, which is a major achievement, but I still don’t have health insurance. It’s really rough. I started applying to some low-wage jobs that provide insurance, but realized I’d be working 40 hours/week for insurance + copay money, and would still have to do what I’m already doing to keep up with other expenses… so I’m back to interviewing at those $75k+/year jobs that always seem to pick the other candidate as I’m not technical enough or too entrepreneurial (even though they want an intrapreneur or whatever).

  12. Thanks for this. A while ago, I was listening to an interview with Corrine Tucker of indie rock legends Sleater-Kinney, and she discussed how she had to balance touring around her day job doing some sort of administrative work at an office. Sleater-Kinney are critically adored, sell out 2,000 seat houses in a matter of days, and yet one of the members is still a middle manager to pay the bills. If they are working day jobs, I bet most mid-sized rock acts are working day jobs.

  13. As the old saying goes, marry for love, but marry wisely.

    I am in a slightly odd position myself as I consider my writing a vocation. I do the work God has given me to do, and he provides the needful. I have a secure roof over my head and I don’t go hungry. Not always a comfortable place to be, psychologically, but he’s never let me down yet.

    It probably helps that I live in a country where health-care is free or subsidized by the government (e.g. you pay to see the doctor but not to go into hospital; prescription fees are nominal), and self-employed people only need to pay ACC (insurance) levies if they’re full-timers. I don’t have the energy to write 30+ hours a week, so I didn’t have to argue with the government about why being a writer is lumped in with performance artists, with higher levies than desk workers like computer programmers. Is it all those stage-diving novelists driving the levies up?

  14. A great post about ‘the starving artist’… oh yeah, I’ve come across one of those in recent years. At first, he acted as though the world was at his feet, and eventually, as I got to know him, i realised he really wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. He turned out to be not only homeless, living in a crappy, old winnebago (where nothing at all worked in it – not even the fridge or the microwave) but he had to ‘take work where he could, so long it was art-related’…. yep, he was too prideful to work a real job.

    Years ago, I wanted to do nothing but write a book. I also knew I had to finance my book. So, I got a full-time job at a big insurance company. I spent most of my lunch hours letting my lunch go cold while writing my book in long-hand in the canteen. Over my weekends, I’d spend hours transcribing it onto my Dad’s computer. It took me 15 years to finish that first huge fantasy sci-fi book… and I’m damned proud of that book… now? it’s still not published, but I know what it takes to write like that. I did write some crap – just like you did – before that big book though.

  15. Shout out from another Borders alumni – I slung coffee, books, music in upstate NY – all of it! Wrote then, still writing, and now have the honor of reading woks by more Borders alumni, like yourself and KM Herkes. I have the most boring fucking job in existence (Industrial Hygiene) and save my energy for Words.

  16. This, so much, this. My family lost everything during a cherished political epoch that I won’t get into at someone else’ house. Point is, I’ve been ~ahem~ financially insecure and have no intention of ever being there again. The late-great Donald Westlake said he honed his craft slipping out the back door with his MS while the landlord pounded on the front door. All the burning-with-purity-of-purpose types can have my share of it.

  17. Thank you so much for this post. I hear all this “LIFE IS SHORT, GO AND JUMP” advice and it’s terrifying, and I have a kid, and a husband, and a roof and… Well, I work full-time, and my husband is a teacher, and I actually make more money than he does, so we’re a little (a lot… a lottle?) dependent on my day-job, so I squirrel time away when I can.
    My day job allows me the time to write in the mornings, in the evenings, and on weekends. It allows me to buy books, for research, for pleasure, for warmth as I stack them into a book-igloo.

    My day job allows me to finance travel. To conferences where I can network and meet other artists.

    My day job recently allowed me the absolutely mad privilege to pay someone I adore to take a look at my WIP and give me invaluable advice that absolutely helped me LEVEL UP (This is NOT the same thing as forcing people to pay for editors. That’s an entirely different conversation.)
    Point is, none of this would be possible without the day job.

    ALSO: One of the many undervalued things about the day job. It forces me to leave my house. And interact with other hoomans. It actively keeps me engaged with the real world, keeps feeding me experience and knowledge that I might not be able to attain were I forever cooped up in my writing shed, which is actually the dimpled end of a second-hand couch covered in coffee stains…

    My day job makes me a better writer.

    So thank you, Chuck.

  18. What an inspiring post! I missed out on the Twitter thread, but oh-well…I work full time, write when I can, will self-pub this year. Not gonna get rich, but will be out there, which is what I’ve wanted since I was ten. Thank you, as always……

  19. Meh…I say any writer worth reading probably isn’t preaching the whole “starving artist”/”suffer for your art”/”bleed your soul on the page” mantra. Types who actually believe in that crap are usually too lazy to get a job and end up mooching off family and friends just to get by, expecting everyone else to take care of them while they lie around the basement chasing their dreams. “You’re 27 years old; when are you gonna get a real job and your own life?” their fathers ask. “Ugh,” they say, rubbing their forehead as if a migraine were creeping up behind their eyes. “You and mom just don’t understand — I have to pay my dues. I have to keep it REAL!”

    You want real? Get a real job. Have a real relationship. Get some real responsibilities. How can you write from a place of honesty about real people having real experiences (or fictional people having fictional experiences, which should be based in some relatable reality) if you’ve never experienced any of that yourself?

    As a writer who fits his writing into his lunch hour at the office and at night after the kids go to bed, I don’t have any strong opinions about this subject or anything! lol

  20. I’ve wondered how someone could take that advice and not nose dive into the icky stuff.
    I wrote at night/weekends for years while paying the bills as a software geek. I would have learned faster and wrote better sooner if I had ‘jumped’, assuming I had still been married and not living in a cardboard box in the back alley.
    I still managed to pub 6 books in a decade. Not all that impressive for a full time author, but for me not too shabby. And each book got a little better.
    Now that I’m retired, I spend everyday writing, reading, researching and playing Pinochle with some friends once a week. I enjoy writing a thousand times more because I can dedicate time and energy to it that wasn’t possible before. I’m at my laptop as much as possible, going over new book outlines/thoughts, researching and exploratory writing.
    It is definitely more fun and productive to work on just writing, without working for 10 hrs and then coming home to a swath of dialog that stinks and must be whipped into shape.
    Thanks for the post!

  21. Thanks for putting that out there. As a writer, and one wanting to do that gig full-time, I completely understand and appreciate your words. The lure to do art full-time is great! I’m often asked if I write full-time. No, I’ve got a day job that pays the bills. No shame in that 🙂

  22. THANK YOU! Thank you, thank you.

    Sometimes well-meaning working-from-home friends ask things like “if you want to be a full-time writer, why don’t you just do it?” And I feel like any answers I have are whiny or excuse-y. But paying my mortgage and eating every day aren’t whiny. Plus, there’s the mental benefit of not needing to hustle for every dollar, which for my mind is incredibly soothing.

    I really appreciated your extensive reminder that it’s okay to put being a human and taking care of ourselves first. Thank you.

  23. Thank you for this! I love writing but I also love my day job and the experiences and interactions it offers. I’ve daydreamed often about writing full-time but I love the security of my job too.

  24. I cannot agree more, though, to be honest every “stable” “safe” day job I ever got ended up consuming my time and energy to the point where I have always had to choose. Though boring and pragmatic wins the day, I always long for the dream, a desire to improve my art and make it my only priority. Perhaps one day, until then I will fit what I can in, and seek the dream of reaching the horizon.

  25. Great post! I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I’ve been working full-time and writing for years and my first novel will be published in May. Going through the editorial process to tight deadlines and starting on marketing alongside work has been really hard and it’s meant no new writing (and not much sleep). Figuring out how to fit all that in, with writing as a priority, without being so knackered I’m useless at my office job, is the next step. Seeing other writers taking on commissions and residencies etc has made me feel less of a proper writer, but I guess I’m not ready yet to step away from work – it’s in my future plans, but just can’t break away from the salary now!

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: