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.
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?