Here’s to Creatives Who Work a Day Job

Very few creatives completely support themselves financially through their art. It is those who struggle to find the time and creative energy to produce while managing other work responsibilities that I am thinking about today as those of us in the United States celebrate Labor Day.

Take the more than forty creatives I interviewed on the cross-country U.S. road trip captured in my forthcoming travel memoir Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. Only about ten percent of those could truly be said to be completely self-supported by their art. The rest held a variety of jobs, some related to their creative skills, some completely different.

This became clear early in the trip, when I started in New England and interviewed, among others:

  • Vermont printmaker Sabra Field: She lived off of sales from New York galleries and direct orders of her works. That economic security allowed her to produce her Cosmic Geometry series driven purely by her love of art found in science (although you can still purchase a print run). Yet she was quick to say that she also generated income by taking on commissions, something she pointed out Rembrandt did as well.
  • Maine commercial photographer Brian Fitzgerald: He did earn a living as a photographer, but all of his work was commission, usually corporations or Realtors needing professional photographs of buildings, etc. He enjoyed bringing his creativity to those projects, however. He also liked how owning his own business gave him control over his schedule so he could pursue personal photography projects not presenting immediate opportunities for financial gain, such as his desire to document via photographs representatives of every U.S. Native American tribe.
  • Taken across the street from where I interviewed Brenna.
    Taken across the street from where I interviewed Brenna Lyons in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

    Massachusetts novelist Brenna Lyons: She had already seen published more than one hundred books when I interviewed her in 2010, but she supplemented her indie press income with other work. One job she had held, she said, was supervising adults with developmental disabilities. They could become quite physical, she said, and at times she’d come home with bruises. But she still maintained that wasn’t harder work than writing.

My aspiration is to live a life like Sabra Field. When I left my full-time job to start writing Committed I turned to freelance writing for income, a hybrid path not unlike that of Brian Fitzgerald. Now I find myself more like Brenna Lyons, a book coming out from an indie press but working a salaried day job, although mine involves a lot of writing, so in that sense I’m still similar to Brian.

Brenna was right; creative work is as hard as other kinds of work. What is truly hard at times is finding enough creative fuel in the tank when you burn a lot of it at your day job. It evokes the line “I gave at the office.” Brian somehow found a way to balance those competing demands. But someone wiser than me would argue that Brenna had it right by working jobs unrelated to writing.

When William Least Heat Moon completed the U.S. road trip that became the iconic Blue Highways and set about turning it into a book, the former teacher took a job at a loading dock. He did so because he wanted to save all of his creative faculties for the book. The problem for me, and for creatives like Brian, is that we can earn more money using our creative faculties. I have a family, as does Brian. Heat Moon was single.

Heat Moon returned to teaching after the publication of Blue Highways while continuing to write, so he adopted at that point more of a conventional day-job life for a writer. And that may be my fate one day. But this has all been on my mind because the last few weeks have been brutally challenging in my day job, and that won’t change for the foreseeable future. Still, I’m forcing myself to find time to write, and I will find a way to market Committed this fall and winter. I’m inspired by the level of commitment demonstrated by the creatives I interviewed on my road trip; they would expect no less of me.

What challenges do you face in balancing your creativity with the financial realities of everyday life?

35 thoughts on “Here’s to Creatives Who Work a Day Job

  1. Strangely enough, I found that the full-time, regular hours job I recently got (after a time of being a student, or cobbling together part-time jobs) has actually allowed me more time to work on my writing. Because I know that I will be on the bus getting to work for an hour every morning and home from work an hour ever night, I know I will have an hour lunch break around a certain time, and I know that I will get home around 6pm ever night and have weekend free. This has allowed me to structure my writing time around this all (and still have time to occasionally disrupt that time with social obligations). I don’t have children so that allows me to structure my own time outside of work how I want. I am in awe of those who have a family, a full time job, a social life, and still manage to get creative work done!
    I also found it very hard to want to be creative when I got home when my work was demanding of me in that way. If I was having to do a lot of writing, creative thinking, and expending a lot of energy putting programs and activities in place (I did a lot of work in early childhood ed) I felt SPENT by the time I got home.
    So, feeling like I’ve hit a good balance just now (when I ignore the fact that I could pick up other paid work to help pay down debts faster, because it would mean not having time/energy for my writing). Of course, still dreaming that I can make money (even just a little) off of my writing, but… I don’t have anything quite ready yet to even try that with.


    1. So I don’t actually think the structure you describe means it’s odd you’re finding that time. I had an MFA instructor who talked about the importance of carving out time in your schedule you knew was creative time. Your subconscious would know that as well, and be primed when that time came. I got through that MFA program by carving out time around dawn each morning; but it could be during a bus ride or a lunch hour or whatever works for you. I’m glad you’re finding the time.

      The dream of making money off of your writing is a good on to have. The more you write the stronger your writing will become, so who knows what the future holds.


  2. As a creative who held down a full time job her entire life, I could really appreciate the post. Fortunately some of my day job is creative..writing, creating marketing campaigns, etc…but still, the constant yearning of my heart is for more free time in my “creative” hours….


  3. This is such a relevant post, Patrick, but I’m going to add even more of a spin on it with my experience in this respect. I’m disabled and am very grateful I receive help from the government. But in this day and age, that help does not enable anyone to be self-sufficient to support oneself. So the financial end of things for me is that, literally (and for reasons I’m not going to get into here), my writing and illustrating (not yet published) is my only viable option for the possibility of any kind of financial help. We all know the chances of that being anything substantial.

    Though not out there working a steady job, my life is a very full and demanding one in MANY ways. These things have kept me from being able to write in the ways I want and need to for MANY years. Life itself gets in the way, whether there’s an actual paying job or not 😦 I keep pushing, though, to get myself in a place of balance so it allows me the writing time I yearn for. Good luck to ALL of us in this way! 😀


    1. Thank you for sharing your story here. There are many perspectives and many realities, but we all want the same thing; to be able to create and to be appreciated for that creation (which in some cases involves compensation). Keep creating!


  4. “Committed” sounds like just the kind of book I like to read — I look forward to its publication. I have tried many options for balancing income and creativity, from becoming a psychotherapist so that I could create in my spare time (which didn’t work out so well), to working at grunt jobs ( both full-time and part-time), to moving back home to my mother’s house where I pay no rent. My favorite job was being a recreation leader for disabled children, but when I lost it after eleven and a half years I could find no other job and I became a street musician. I have been busking for almost two years and bring in a minimal income from tips, CD sales and a couple of private gigs a year. I occasionally sell a watercolor painting or teach Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice and I work a few hours a week doing odd jobs for a friend of mine. My favorite kind of day job is one that I can leave at the job site, one that doesn’t require me to bring any work home.


    1. I love how you open this comment!

      What a great perspective you brought to us here today. That is quite the story, lots of variety in your approach. It demonstrates initiative and a willingness to take risks and experiment. Yes indeed to your final statement about being able to leave your job at the job; I do not possess one of those right now, and to be honest with you I’ve reached a point in my day-job career where that is pretty rare. But I can find the balance with this job; one I held previously would expand to fill all available time, which isn’t tolerable.


  5. I work in the education department at a Shakespeare theatre, so my day job is a lot of writing as well — but a very different kind of writing calling on a different skill set. It’s academic and instructional, and my biggest challenge is not only finding the energy to create at the end of a day and making myself sit down at a computer again when that’s what I’ve already been doing for eight hours, but switching my brain from one kind of writing into another. It’s also a job that I tend to “bring home” with me, literally or emotionally, and one that often requires a lot of extra hours. I love my day job, but sometimes I do wonder if it’d be easier on my writing career if I went back to working retail.


    1. I hear you on the “different kind of writing,” bringing it home with you, and finding the energy at the end of the day. The only way I got through my MFA program was forcing myself to do that kind of writing before I went to the day job. Clearly I wonder about the non-writing job sometimes; I’ll see where I am in six years when I anticipate not having to pay college tuition for my kids any more!

      It’s clear you’re reflecting on this and thinking about how to switch the brain and balance; that’s the important thing.


  6. The money trap hits all creatives at some point and that is the thing that destroys them. So it’s important to have creating set in the mind right.
    True creatives need to create. It is essential as breathing and it needs to be respected similarly.
    One can expect varying degrees of financial return but this is like being paid to breath. Nothing is for nothing, but keep it in perspective and don’t ask of it. It asks of you and responding has it’s due rewards.B


    1. You know, you’re right about the true creatives needing to create. In the context of balancing a day job with a creative pursuit, however, I would posit that people who have jobs that invite the possibility of creative thinking–it doesn’t have to be writing if you’re a creative writer, it could be creative problem-solving–may wonder if their need to create is encouraging them to drain the creative tank at the office. I explore that concept a bit in the book with a couple of my interview subjects, whether we really have a finite amount of creative energy that we can use up on non-core endeavors. I don’t have a full answer.


      1. For what it’s worth Patrick, I was commenting today with a friend that the Australian Aboriginals appear to be creative because they need that communication technique. It is part of who they are. We wondered if our own reasons for being creative held the same other words they may do it because they ‘have to’ we may do it because we ‘desire to’. Interesting thought and personally I think we do tire from creating but it never ends.B


    1. Thanks for the article. After working my 12 hour shift, I make every attempt to write at least 2-600 words a night. When my head swings back and forth in front of the desk and my eyes stare at the same word I just typed for thirty minutes or more, I give up and go to bed. Now my best time to write are on my days off in two-three hour blocks. I get more accomplished and don’t feel as guilty.


      1. That’s an impressive word-count goal. Wow! But I’m not surprised you prefer the longer blocks of time. I don’t know about you, but I find revision to be very important, and generally takes more time than cranking out those original pages (well, if I’m doing the revision process correctly). That’s why I moved away from a page-count goal, because I felt unproductive when I’d end a session with fewer words than I began, even though that was a good session!


  7. I’m a biology professor at Colorado Mesa University and my day job allows me plenty of time to write. I have a chunk of time during winter break and I don’t teach classes over the summer, which gives me a lot of time to dedicate to writing.


    1. Yes, I know a number of folks in academia who talk about how they welcome those large blocks. One friend, however, has talked about the difficulty of rebooting the writing after a semester of doing little, because his job doesn’t really lend itself to writing during the day job. Glad you have found the write system for you!


  8. Whether you have a job or not, being a writer is a conscious decision. Either you write or you don’t. Most people worth reading do it compulsively (or else are miserable because they don’t do it).

    It’s a release but also a way of sorting out our thoughts.

    Of connecting with the world around us.

    So, cheers to everyone allowing themselves to be a writer!


    1. Cheers indeed! (And I like the way you phrased it, “allowing themselves” to do it. Writing can be, in some respects, a selfish endeavor, a solo pursuit with no immediate return expected, at least not one that would benefit those around the writer in direct ways. We do need to give ourselves permission.


  9. Wow, this was really interesting. For me, the hardest thing is knowing how much time I should split between working, and how much time I should write. I would love it if the only thing I had to do was write, but reality takes over most of the time. Do you think your life will change after your book is released?


    1. Even when you talk to people who fully support themselves with their writing, they talk about all the time they have to spend marketing, back-office type stuff (taxes, etc.), and more.

      Will my life change? Not financially, at least not at first! Perhaps a bit how I view myself; I’ve been a writer for a long time but now I’ll be a published author. And perhaps in how I’m perceived, both because of that difference but also because, as a personal memoir, I reveal a lot about myself that almost no one knows. There will be good and bad that shake out from that, methinks.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. jentheart

    Love this article and thank you for it. I’m a varsity student studying towards my business degree and yes, writing is my 1st love though. I write a lot poetry, music and working on my 1st real fiction novel. Making time to write is hectic especially as a student , I have assignments due, tests as well as exams but I always force myself to write no matter how exhausted I feel. I can only imagine how hectic it will be once I graduate and have to start real work. I believe I was born to write and one day I will find a way to make a living off of it. Much love and thank you for this piece. It’s nice to know I’m not alone as a creative. We all face the same issues.


    1. I just read an interview with David Sedaris, the accomplished humor/memoir writer, who said when he was in college hanging out with the artistic types, they always talked about doing creative things but never seemed to actually do them. He said his father had been a disciplined man, and when he decided he wanted to write he thought of his father, and knew he should make the time to write if he was going to call himself a writer. You are doing that, which is highly admirable.

      I don’t know if it is more hectic in the job world doing “real work” than they do in college. My daughter is in college and she works a lot. What differs, I think, is that the working world forces you onto a more conventional schedule. It’s just different, not less or more.


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  12. asummerbunny

    Great read Patrick. Writing has always been my first love but I have an MBA in HR and was a HR person for the last decade or so. I had this great epiphany last year that I’m supposed to write; I started a blog in January and will be doing an MFA in Creative Writing next year. My obvious assumption was I would have a career like Chimamanda Adichie; write some books, have them become movies, meet Oprah, the works. Realizing this is so unlikely to happen is interesting:( Now I have to write and still somehow make a living from something totally unrelated. Guess I need to continue being a HR person. To be honest, this sucks! Why find your passion if it can’t even feed you? Why not just be in a career that you should not be in and at least pay your rent? He he he…..


    1. You know, I’m still waiting for that call from Oprah. I’m sure it’s on her to-do list. 🙂

      I left a creativity-draining job in 2010 to write (and started this blog to mark that moment, when I returned to an art-committed life). A half-year later I started a low-residency MFA program in creative writing. And about a year after that I returned to a full-time day job. Since then I’ve managed to finish the MFA and finish (and find a publisher for) a memoir that captures the cross-country road trip that led me to quitting that 2010 job. So in some ways I’ve come full circle, but I am not living a life financially driven by my creative writing. All we can really do is make the best of our situation, hope that we’re surrounded by people who are supportive and patient, and carve out what time we can to create. Hang in there!


  13. My daughter, wise beyond her years, and working on a BFA in printmaking says, “You make time for what matters to you.” Every time she says it I have to check my excuses. I have a day job, but my problem is that I also have several creative pursuits that compete for my time and I have to choose. I write to keep my head in the game, blogging has been a great platform to keep it going. It’s harder by far and I salute those working day in and day out on book length works – I think about that, but I’d rather be dancing and travelling and writing bits and pieces right now. Thanks for the discussion.


    1. I’m glad blogging helps for you; that it keeps you creatively on track, as opposed to being another creative pursuit competing for your time. Sounds like you’ve got that one figured out. And thank you for reading!


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