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How to Not Be a Starving Artist

A musician playing guitar to make money.

Making money

Creative work is work. It takes time and effort, and those of us who want to devote as much time to it as possible still have to eat and house ourselves, which means that, as much as we might also work for love and fun, we do need to make money.

As we’ve seen, “need” can be useful for creatives because sometimes, when we’re in pain, we need to express ourselves to feel better. Need can also be an excellent procrastination-killer. My upcoming book probably would’ve remained a dream for a lot longer than it has if I had no financial motivation for writing it.

Neediness, however, never serves us. Neediness says that, if people don’t buy our work, what we’ve done is worthless, and so are we. Neediness is full of lies. It makes us feel tight and sad. It constricts our creativity.

Tweet this: Neediness constricts our creativity.

When we approach any relationship with neediness — whether it’s with our Muse, audience, or significant other — the thing we want always recedes from us.

How, then, can we take care of our financial needs and value our creative work, while letting go of neediness?

  • We can give it a price that reflects what it’s worth, while refraining from expecting or requiring it to sustain us materially – at least until it has proven its ability to do so.
  • We can carve space for it around day jobs and contract work.
  • We can save up for a creative sabbatical.
African American woman painting on a canvas. Does she make money as an artist? Maybe she does, and maybe she doesn't.

Artist at work. From the “Unique Voices 1” collection, Death to Stock.

Working with Trust

As much as neediness kills love, trust feeds it. Maybe, then, while finding other ways to address our practical needs, we can still trust that our hearts will lead us to the right place in our creative work.

That’s what Steve Jobs did when he returned bottles to buy food while studying calligraphy at Reed College. Those apparently pointless classes let him bring beautiful typography to personal computers. The connections he made as a result of following his passions and intuitions caused him to say years later in his Stanford commencement speech,

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.

Later, he says,

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking. Don’t settle.

Eating something other than shit sandwiches

Pretty romantic, right? Trust Elizabeth Gilbert to take us back to Earth:

Every pursuit, no matter how glamorous it may seem, no matter how exciting it feels to you, no matter how much you feel like you were born to do it, comes with a shit sandwich, and so the question is not, “What do I love?” The question is, “What do I love so much that I don’t mind eating the shit sandwich that comes along with that thing?” So for me, in my life, writing is the thing that I love and the shit sandwich was the 7 years that I was not getting published, and that I was coming home from my job as a diner waitress, as a bartender, as an au pair, as somebody who worked in flea markets, as a cook, and I was coming home tired and smelling like other people’s french fries, and sitting down and doing my real job, which was to write. And then to go to the mailbox the next day and get another rejection letter. And then say, “Do I still wanna do this? Because this shit sandwich sucks.”

The answer, she says, has always been yes.

Man in art studio working on a musical composition. He might make money as an artist, and he might not.

Another artist at work. From the “Studio 1” collection, Death to Stock.

Taking it step by step

I don’t know about you, but I find such stories terribly demoralizing, because, while I’ve had more than 7 years’ worth of day jobs, I spent most of that time not doing creative work. I was too terrified, paralyzed, and down on myself.

When I hear preaching about needing to pay one’s dues, I feel ashamed and discouraged, because, by many people’s standards, I haven’t paid mine. So what do we do when we want to devote ourselves to an art, and the people doing it tell us it’ll take at least 7 years of eating shit sandwiches?

We do what the marathoner does at the beginning of a race. She doesn’t think about black toenails or bleeding nipples or any of the other awful things runners talk about to make what they do seem more impressive.

She takes a step. And then another step. And then another step. And she keeps going, and when it hurts, she focuses on her breath, the wind, her form, and the landscape, and taking step after step after step after step. And then she’s at the end, and her sense of what she can accomplish has expanded.

What about you, Reader? Where is your heart telling you to go?

Featured image: from the “Studio 1” collection, Death to Stock.

PS: If you’d like a sneak peek at my upcoming book, Creative Unblocking: How to Bypass Self-Doubt and Complete Your Best Worksubscribe for free to my “no spam” email list. You’ll get fresh inspiration and creative insights delivered monthly(ish) to your inbox, and I’ll remind you when the full book is released on August 1st, 2017.

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