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March 27, 2018

On cobbling together a life as an artist

Steff, Tr00 Metal Life, Writing Runes

tongariro national park steff metal

tongariro national park steff metal

This weekend, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of being a full-time writer/artist/professional creative person/thinker and maker of things. I celebrated by hiking around some volcanoes with some awesome friends (more about that in another post).

I am so incredibly beyond happy right now you wouldn’t even believe it. Very few people in the world get to make a living as an artist and I am now one of them. I speak from a place of incredible humility, because I only get to do this because of all the amazing readers who support me and buy and read my books and spread the word.

One month in this game is not nearly enough time to give any useful advice to other artists, writers, or creative people. However, I am getting a lot of questions about how I got to where I am right now. So I thought I’d share a few random thoughts.

There’s a bit of a movement happening now encouraging essayists to identify their advantages and privileges, especially when writing anything that might be construed as life advice. So here is my list: I am white. I am educated. I applied for and received scholarships and other assistance for my education, and as such, I entered the workforce without debt. I grew up in a working/middle-class family and have never worried about not eating or whether I’d make rent. I was taught good financial skills from a young age and didn’t accrue debt until I got a mortgage. I married a man who was also educated and who carried minimal debt (a student loan, now paid off) when we got together. I have never been without a job for the last decade. I do not have children or carer responsibilities, which has given me dedicated time in evenings and weekends to work on my art.

Some of those things are inherent privileges I was born into. Some of them were born of deliberate decisions and actions that I was educated enough to understand and action. All have been played a role in getting me to where I am.

I also, as you know, live with a disability. Like many people who live with a disability, I’ve grown up with a sense that I have to work twice as hard as everyone else just to get to the same place. I have seen many times that hard work is not always rewarded, but it is something that I’ve always done because I find doing my best to be emotionally satisfying. I need to be able to look myself in the eye and know I did everything I could in a particular situation, and the rest was out of my control.

I got here by working hard. I’ve dedicated I’d say at least twenty hours a week every single week to pursuing writing as a career since I started my first job, over ten years ago. I’d write on my lunch break, in the evenings after work, on weekends, on holidays. I had a very specific goal in mind and I knew my best chance of reaching it was to work hard.

I made mistakes. I got distracted. I went off on various paths that ultimately proved to be a waste of time. I tried to quit my job once before and had to get a new one because I was miserable. I learned from everything. I kept going. I didn’t give up.

I got lucky. I started self-publishing at the right time. Some books did terribly. Some did great. Mostly, I’ve done okay for the last three years. But when you combine okay with other streams of writing income and a partner with a regular 9-5 and no debt beyond your mortgage, you end up with a (hopefully) sustainable career.

I wrote and published twenty books before I had one that I could say was an actual success. And it’s still early days.

But imagine if I’d stopped after three books, or eight books, or nineteen books?

Don’t give up.

I’m a firm believer that whatever privileges you do or don’t have, eventually hard work trumps them all. Eventually, hard work pays off. It might be immediate. It might take two years or ten or thirty, but it does eventually happen.

I say that standing on the career I’ve built from a lifetime of living with a disability and twelve years of hard work and four years of learning and experimental and failing at self-publishing. It took me that long to really find my voice and figure out what I’m trying to say and what kind of books I want to write.

Think of all that hard work as practice. It all means something. It all contributes, even when it feels like a waste.

Diversify

I think any creative would be well advised to create multiple streams of income. For years I thought this meant having lots of different mini-businesses, so I did that. Wedding celebrant, online store, this and that. It was hard and ultimately unfruitful. Don’t spread yourself too thin in the interests of diversification. Know what you want your career to look like, and focus on that.

My income now comes from several sources, but they all feed into my ultimate picture of how I want my career to proceed. My novels and freelance work pay the bills (much more so from the novels now). I have side-projects that build my profile or allow me to experiment with new ideas or different mediums, but they all ultimately feed into my grand artistic plan. Some of the work lights up my soul, some I do because I need to eat and keep my cats in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed, some I do for the chance at making a difference in an area I’m passionate about, but all of it is important.

Doing What You Love isn’t the point

I don’t want to sit here and say, “Go for it! Do what you love! I did it and look at me! I’m super successful and you can be too!” I don’t think that’s fair, or accurate.

First of all, I’m not super successful. Well, probably by many standards I am. But I don’t feel as though I’m there yet. And I have to sustain that success over months and years because we’ve got to eat and pay our mortgage. There’s pressure – mostly pressure I put on myself. It’s scary. Situations can change in a heartbeat, so don’t let anyone convince you it’s as simple as flipping a switch inside your head and suddenly you can make a living as an artist or a tarot reader or whatever.

I’m not doing what I love. I am doing what the world needs. If the world didn’t need my books, people wouldn’t buy them. I’ve no qualms about what I do – I’m an entertainer. I give people an escape, a breather. I let them sort through their problems by seeing themselves reflected in characters. I’m a therapy session or movie ticket for $3.99 on Kindle.

Work is about doiing shit the world needs to get done, whether that’s writing books or building houses or cleanng toilets or filing papers. It needs to be done and someone needs to do it so you’re stepping up to the task.

Being an artist is soooooo not about you. It’s amazing because it is what I love, but that’s not the point. The point is what you give to the world, and whether that has any value. And the world values different things in different ways (not all of them fair).

A friend shared this article some weeks ago about the Do What You Love mantra and how it devalues actual work. I agree with a lot that’s said here.

I took a course a couple of years ago about helping get started in business (to help me set things up for this year) that had this DWYL messaging. It was aimed at women, and the attendees in the course were mainly starting spiritual-based businesses – tarot reading, life coaching, astrology, business advice from people who’ve never run a business before. If I’d known this I probably wouldn’t have taken the course. It was very light on actual business advice and VERY heavy on spending time brainstorming things you enjoy doing and then finding a way to get people to pay you to do them.

Having spent a lot of time working in startups bringing products to market, this course seemed to miss essential steps on market research and what the role of a business in a market actually is. All the time it devalued a lot of the actual work these women were doing in their lives – a lot of them were lawyers, charity workers, social workers, arts coordinators – actually really interesting and important and valuable jobs.

Being in business is hard, and it’s not a solution for dissatisfaction with your current job. That shouldn’t be why you do it, especially if you need two weeks of brainstorming exercises to figure out what you supposedly “love”. I enjoy home brew, but it doesn’t mean I should start a craft cider company, you know?

The startup world is full of this DWYL mantra, too, but in a different way. It’s used to push people to work long hours and “live at the office.” When I worked at a tech giant, a lot of people’s entire social life came through the office because they spent 60+ hours a week there. If you’re not doing the (unpaid) overtime, then in certain places you’re seen as not being passionate enough, and you’ll be cut. This ends up pushing out people who have families or other commitments like caregiving (disproportionately women).

The academia example in the article is prevalent in the writing industry, from publishers who earn millions off books and pay authors a pittance, to publications that pay in “exposure” because writers write for the love, while they collect subscriptions and royalties. It’s one of the reasons I love being indie so much – I have a lot more control and meet a lot less of this nonsense.

My dad is a builder, my mum is a part-time nurse. These are still middle-class careers, but they’re not in the “creative, intellectual, socially prestigious” camp. My dad doesn’t love what he does, but he can be proud of the quality of his work and the fact that working hard means he can support his family. He enjoys making things with his hands. My mum is kind and likes helping people. That kind of rhetoric would be so lost on them.

I think of friends who worked at the freezing works (one of the main places to get employment in my small town), cutting meat and hauling carcasses around. Not “loveable”, but there was always a lot of camaraderie among the workers, and they have some hilarious work stories. As I pick up my steak from the supermarket, I hate the idea of saying their work isn’t meaningful because they don’t love it. If I was on a desert island, I’d rather be stuck with a meat worker than a tarot reader (as a writer I’m probably pretty useless desert island company myself).

The work isn’t always lovable. It isn’t always meaningful to me personally. But as an artist who needs an audience to survive, I have to respect the fact that it’s not about me.

Women email me and say my books are what they read during their limited leisure time between working two menial jobs and running around after kids and partners, and how much they appreciate that. That makes you fucking humble.

Thank you, because without you reading my books or sharing my blog or supporting me on Patreon or doing the other stuff you do to support me, I couldn’t do this. I am so lucky (and it really is luck) and it’s all because of you. Because of that, I want to spend the rest of my days writing the books that give you joy.

What are your thoughts on cobbling together a career in the arts?