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The Struggling Artist’s Guide to Life

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I spent most of my life thinking that a creative life wasn’t a practical one. After all, if I told an adult about my artistic dreams, I was automatically advised to choose a back-up plan for when my dream didn’t quite work out. Even when the words were encouraging, there was an undertone of disbelief. I learned very early that artistic jobs weren’t real jobs.

It came as a bit of a surprise when I transitioned into a creative lifestyle years later. It turns out that artistic jobs are, in fact, very real jobs with very real pay. Not all artistic careers pay as well as others, but it is no less valid of a career path.

I look back on all the years in jobs that I wasn’t in love with and wonder how I was able to stand it. Then I remember the pile of bills that I had to pay and how I would spend the work week counting down to weekends and vacations. So many of us live this way that we forget that there’s another way to live entirely.

My initial disclaimer should be that I am what one might call a struggling artist. I’m at the beginning of my career. I have to spend a lot of time writing and sending out pitches. I worked for free for a long time before I decided that exposure will never pay the bills. I’m on a ridiculously tight budget and have to make a lot of sacrifices to live off of my work.

But I will tell you that, for me, it’s worth it. Every time I finish a new article or a new chapter in the books I’m writing, I know that I am doing exactly what I was meant to do. I don’t count down for my work to be over, even though it is actually work and effort. I find the work personally rewarding, even in the face of great criticism.

Because the criticism doesn’t go away. People still assume it’s not a real job, interrogating me about the validity of my chosen field. Others assume I should be willing to work for free or for the joke that is exposure, an exploitation I see in many artistic fields. I still have well-meaning individuals send me job listings for work outside of my area of interest or not-so-casually suggest that I should get a “real” job. There are even judgments levied against me because I’m a mother. While my children have everything that they need, it’s implied that I should get another kind of job so that they can have so much more.

Which is why I offer you The Struggling Artist’s Guide to Life. It’s my tongue-in-cheek way of viewing the creative life. One I hope will help you, too.

  1. Be prepared for struggle. Get ready for it by reducing your overhead. Cut out debt and unnecessary expenses. Learn how to coupon and use rebate apps like Ibotta. Get over your need to buy new and look at used options. Locate your nearest plasma clinic, or evaluate a few side hustles. It’s about to get real!!!
  2. Be prepared for criticism. Not everyone will understand your choices, and it may change your relationships. Do it anyway.
  3. You have to actually do it: not just talk about it. I get frequent messages about how to be a writer, and all I can say is: write. Just do it. Start somewhere. Don’t call yourself an artist if you’re not really producing work.
  4. Learn about the career you want. Study the process. Figure out how to blog, how and where to pitch stories, who pays and who doesn’t, how to develop a query letter or proposal, and how to build a social media following. That’s just for writing. Whatever your area of interest, figure out how it all works and start doing it.
  5. Network with others in your field. I love having a supportive community of writers online, and I recently joined a local writer’s group. Surround yourself with people in your industry and learn from them.
  6. Promote and support others. It’s not just about networking for your own benefit, and it’s not a competition. Learn to be a support and actively promote the work of others. Share your tips. Pass on what you know. In many fields, we’re taught to covet the information we have, keeping it to ourselves so that we can succeed and surpass others. I don’t recommend this. First, it’s good karma to be kind to others. Second, I always appreciate the support I’ve received and try to pass it on.
  7. Be prepared for rejection. Not everyone will love your work. Not everyone will want to pay you for it or will understand what you do. It’s not about them. I’ve had my share of rejection letters already, and it can be a challenging experience. Remember that this is all a part of the process.
  8. Practice self-care. A creative career can be draining at times. Figure out ways to take care of yourself so that you aren’t depleted by it.
  9. Remember your value. Working for free can be great at the beginning. Think of it as an internship. You learn the ropes and get a little exposure. But there comes a point when you should recognize your value and expect pay for your work. It’s okay to turn down non-paying gigs. It’s okay to take a hard pass on work that offers only exposure in return for your efforts. Look for organizations and patrons that see the value in what you do and believe you should be paid for your work.
  10. Don’t be afraid of change. You might try it and decide it’s not for you. You may start working in your field and decide you need a side hustle or second job. Life may not be what it once was. All of that is okay. Just know that creative work is as valid as any other.
  11. Don’t judge others. Not everyone wants to live a creative life. As often as I’ve been faced with judgment about writing, I’ve also faced judgment about people who “sell out” and work a corporate job. We all have different paths, and it’s not our place to judge what others choose.
  12. You don’t have to explain yourself to others. Don’t feel that you have to justify your work or give details on your pay. You’ll be asked a lot of intrusive, personal questions, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what you do or why.

Living a creative life comes with its challenges. But it’s no less challenging in many ways than staying in a job we hate, counting down until we can finally clock out for the day. While there are challenges, I hope that you won’t let that deter you if your true passion and aptitude lies in the area of the arts. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not valid work simply because they don’t understand it. Instead, stick with your passion, and learn how to make a good life no matter how much struggle may come with the territory. May this Struggling Artist’s Guide to Life encourage you to stay the course!

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