Ask Polly: How Do I Make a Living As an Artist?

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Dear Polly.

I am an artist who has just come into her own. I think my work is original and could bring me some fortune, if I could figure out how I want to be received. Not in a gallery, but maybe in a series of books. (I realize here that I’m still not going to make a living from it without being incredibly luckily and even more ambitious, and I’m not very ambitious.) I did have a publisher ask me to put together my own book this year. It didn’t work out, but it helped me come into my own artistically. Other people suddenly valued what I spent my time and heart focusing on.

I’ve been trying for a long time to be “successful,” and while I’ve had a smattering of success, I pretty much feel like the picture of failure because I don’t earn much of a living from my work. And now I’ve become kind of uncompromising. This is good for the creative side of the work, but not remotely pragmatic in terms of doing whatever type of artwork is needed for a publication/client. Basically, I want to make art the way I want and be appreciated for it.

I am 34 years old and have a 2-year-old son. It’s time for me to be gainfully employed. Every year, I apply to full-time jobs and I don’t think I’ve ever had an interview, even though I’m well educated. I know I should grow up, but I can’t seem to commit to just doing something for a living. Right now, I work odd jobs (teaching for silly companies) to make ends barely meet. My husband makes the living, but would like to carry some weight. Am I just a shameful lazy bum who wants the world to carry me so I can be an Artiste? I feel like I don’t have a place professionally. I feel like a social outcast. I want to create art, but I want to be socially accepted as well, as more than a dreamer.

So, woe is me, the artist’s complaints. Maybe I’m avoiding taking care of my own needs by not earning a living. I was a neglected kid who took care of others and put out my family’s fires with calm (fake) maturity. I have trouble giving myself exercise and buying things for myself or filling my emotional needs. I just focus on making art and caring for my family. But I do know that I’ll always work on my art, because it’s deeply fulfilling, personal, and exciting to me like nothing else, and it’s all mine, and I don’t give a shit what others think. 

Is my problem that I won’t grow up? Should I just go get a day job as a salesperson at a boutique already? That doesn’t seem like a good use of my energy, but I can’t find anything I care about. Most jobs just seem terrible, or I have zero training for them. I’ve applied for every entry-level job that makes sense for me. Am I just bad at applying for jobs?


Dear Struggling,

You’re extremely conflicted. That makes it pretty hard to look for work. Half of you feels like the picture of failure because you don’t make a living from your art. The other half believes that you’re a smashing success, because you do something that makes you happy and gives your life meaning and frankly, you don’t give a shit if no one else likes it, you’re going to keep doing it anyway.

Which half do you want to embrace? If you get a day job, will your soul shrivel up and die? If you refuse to get a day job and remain focused only on your art, will your whole self die of starvation? Will your marriage suffer because you aren’t pulling your weight?

For some people — people who ARE starving, for example — the pragmatist must save the day. But even big dreamers have to get practical sometimes. The kid needs tutoring or wants to go to college. The landlord is raising the rent, or your husband has been laid off. Suddenly, the cushy artist’s life is no longer tenable.

Here’s what you need to remember: A job doesn’t have to squelch your artistic pursuits. Before you go out looking for a job again, though, you MUST embrace and nurture and feed and defend the fact that YOU ARE AN ARTIST. You are an artist first and last. Being an artist is everything to you, it makes you happy, it keeps you glued together, and YOU ARE GOOD AT IT. This must be your personal religion.

You can have balance in your life — be a good mother, be a breadwinner, be a good wife, be a good person in general — and still fervently believe in yourself as an artist. You can work at a fast-food joint or work as the CEO of a multinational company and also be an artist. Whatever you do to earn money should not compromise your commitment to your art.

So, the first item on your agenda is to drop this idea that you’re a failure simply because you don’t make a living from your art. You can say, “Well, of course I don’t REALLY believe that.” But listen to me: You wrote it down. It’s a part of what’s blocking you. Expunge that from your vocabulary and instead, decide that YOU ARE AN ARTIST. Period. Repeat it until you believe it. People can roll their eyes all they want, but you still have to practice this religion passionately, and never give it up, for the rest of your life.

You NEED this religion, because our world values cash, and art is rarely lucrative. Some great art is embraced and some of it never makes the tiniest splash. Your new religion rejects the notion that money anoints you as holy and a lack of money demonstrates your worthlessness. And listen, “successful,” professional artists and writers need to remember this, too. We need to remind ourselves, every day, that just because we’re getting paid doesn’t mean we’re being true to our talents.

The nice thing about high capitalism is that people are making softer sweatshirts and tastier beers. The bad thing about high capitalism is that we have a twisted idea about the differences between things that sell and things that don’t sell, winners and losers, masterful brands and flaccid brands. And we think of ourselves in those terms, too. This crass world holds a pretty twisted view of what it means to create something without being widely acknowledged for it. Most people look at bands that never hit it big and sculptors who don’t live off their work and they say, “Oh, he’s still nursing that silly dream,” or “She’s a wannabe rock star.” They say, of a radio host, “He had to settle for the local market.” They look at the talented star of a dinner theater production and say, “She never made it on Broadway.” They make these assessments without knowing the first thing about what it actually means to be a successful rock star (constant touring) or what it takes to make it on Broadway (in some cases, training your voice to sound far less interesting than it really is).

We can recognize that the general public is misinformed in their belief that people who are “truly talented” will naturally become famous and make loads of cash (and therefore people who aren’t making piles of cash just aren’t talented enough) — but these people are our mothers and brothers and cousins and next-door neighbors. They say things like “How’s that novel coming along? Seems like it’s taking forever!” as if writing novels is exactly like accounting — you just get ‘er done and cash your check. They say things like “Your pictures are really weird, but it’s nice that you have a hobby.” They say things like “Maybe you should design logos. I read about this one guy who got rich doing that.” They say these things with good intentions. They don’t need to be reeducated. YOU need to be reeducated. You need to practice your religion more fervently, so that these very nice people, who are simply reflecting the values of high capitalism, won’t get under your skin and change your understanding of your purpose on the planet.

After all, the artist’s job is to never, ever allow the shallow demands of the outside world to fuck with his or her personal vision. You can’t allow regular people — who are also full of imaginative impulses and complex ideas, by the way — make you insecure about who you are and what you do. You CAN’T take the confusion of a crass world and use it to cast yourself as the neglected child who’s invisible no matter what she does. You are not failing. So drop that narrative now and never pick it up again.

From now on, the world’s confusion has nothing to do with your identity. That confusion is merely fuel for your art. And when you do slip up and take that confusion personally, channel that into your art.

You also have to stop claiming that you’re not ambitious. You ARE ambitious. You work hard every day at your art! Even if you have mixed feelings about what it would take to be successful, or the bullshit and egotism that tend to go along with success, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t ambitious. So drop that story while you’re at it.

For years, I told myself I wasn’t ambitious. I had a friend who loved to strategize about her next big writing goal. I hated that! I never wanted to talk about my writing career. I thought it was creepy to chase down big-time success. That it was a status-focused, ego-driven goal that I couldn’t support.

But I wasn’t writing that much, and I didn’t know how to stop and savor the satisfaction of writing something good when I did write. Basically, I let my mild depression confuse me into thinking that I lacked ambition. I thought my mild agoraphobia and hidey-hole living meant that I wasn’t into mainstream life. I hadn’t learned to embrace my shifting moods yet. I didn’t know how to appreciate my warped personal viewfinder. I only knew how to see these things as a liability, as traits that would invite suspicion from a confused world, that would get me rejected, that would strand me on an island by myself.

Something broke loose in my mid-30s. I decided that I was an artist. I know that sounds pretentious, but it helped me to stick to my guns about what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. Suddenly, I was ambitious — about my professional career AND about my side projects. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to create weird puppet videos. I wanted to give people advice on my blog. If I had never been ambitious about my side projects, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I think it’s easy to assume that being ambitious will lock you into a life that you don’t want. But that’s not true. Being ambitious means that you have the enthusiasm and energy to finish projects and then take them out into the world, knowing that even when other people get involved, you’re still the one steering the ship. You can say no to things that don’t make sense to you.

Now, I know that the word artist suggests major delusions of grandeur, big-time ego, and major suspension of disbelief (particularly coming from an advice columnist!). All I know is this: My writing gets better and better the more I indulge these delusions of grandeur, the more I stand up for my need to create. Not only that, but I’m a far more generous, less egotistical person. I’m a better mother, a better friend, a better person. I’m more grateful, and more alive.

When you truly believe in your role as an artist, when you make that your religion, it won’t matter as much that you spend less time on your art so you can make a living at something else. Maybe you also won’t mind the thought of teaching art. Maybe you won’t mind doing commissioned work that’s not ideal, or staying up all night to finish a spot illustration for a magazine, or creating illustrations for a children’s book you don’t love. Every single thing you do doesn’t have to define you. You can try new things and see how you feel and readjust as you go.

My best guess is that you’re mildly depressed, you’re a little avoidant, and you’re also confused because you’ve just started to commit to your art, and now you’re being asked to go out and work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’re more focused on your art than you’ve ever been. The strange paradox of having kids is that it can make you more ambitious and more focused than ever. You suddenly value every minute to yourself, and you want to use that time wisely. You also value the parts of your identity that were overshadowed by your baby’s needs for a while. You value your life more than ever, and that can leave you feeling exhilarated, but also conflicted.

Here’s what I want you to do: Start taking both your job search AND your art more seriously. Stop hanging back, believing that a job will ruin your life and that promoting your art will ruin you as an artist. Instead, throw yourself into both of these things. As long as you KNOW that you’re an artist, you don’t have to be an obsessive shut-in; you can afford to have a balanced life. Obviously, you won’t take a job that will snuff out your creativity. If it does, you’ll quit and find another job. You have to stop fearing work and trust yourself to remain committed to your art.

I also wouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that a lower-level job will be easier to manage. A common misperception among artists is that they should never follow a serious career path — either one that’s related to their art but feels like a compromise, or one that seems like the realm of non-artist types — because that will require tons of time and energy and games of make-believe.

In my experience, nothing kills the artist quite like getting paid very little money to work an irregular (and ever-changing) schedule serving indifferent strangers coffee or sandwiches or novelty retail items. Having a straight job in an office where you’re paid reasonably well for being smart is a much better choice. Doing something that people take seriously, even if you don’t personally value it quite as much, can make you feel like less of a discouraged outcast. Success at a decent career, like having kids, can actually FUEL your self-esteem and your sense of your WHOLE life as positive, productive, and happy.

If all jobs sound terrible, at least choose something that might be interesting as your career unfolds. Work in an environment where smart, creative people also work. Some cafés will fit the bill, sure. But make sure you’re working at a place where people treat you with respect.

Getting a job will help you feel less invisible. You’ll be less depressed and feel less like there’s a clock ticking down somewhere. You’ll feel more relaxed and balanced, and you can buy yourself a sandwich or a scarf or even see a therapist or go on vacation for a change. (Personally, I’m always much more productive when I have a few different deadlines to juggle. When I have no structure at all, I sink into the carpet and feel sorry for myself.) You have to embrace a vision of what good things a job will bring to your life. Use that vision to fuel a new, more aggressive job search.

But because you’ve been so productive lately with your art, I would look into part-time work if that’s enough to help out your household. I would either apply to part-time jobs or I’d look for a full-time job you can do partially from home or I’d be very proactive and pitch a flexible structure to employers. Maybe that sounds absurd, but personally I find clock-punching absurd. I think most people will be excited to hire a smart, energetic adult who takes responsibility for herself and doesn’t need supervision. You have to insist on what you need, and trust me, you’ll get it.

That’s true in your job search and also true in the big picture of your life. You have to believe in yourself and believe that you deserve to have the kind of life you’ve always wanted. You have to believe it now, and you have to keep believing it as the years go by. Will you have to compromise? Yes. And sometimes the compromises will make you feel bad, and you’ll have to stop and back up. Other times, though, the compromises will lead you down a great new avenue that you’re passionate about. Suddenly, your life will be richer and more balanced than you ever could’ve imagined.

I know it’s hard to see that at this moment, when you have a small kid in the house who needs you all the time, and you’re always running behind on making your art, and you’re avoiding finding paid work. But these clouds will lift.

You are not a failure. You are an artist. Insist on what you need, and you’ll get it.


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Ask Polly: How Do I Make a Living As an Artist?