Celebrating a Year of Freedom From Desk Work

Savannah Pagan Pride was this past weekend, and it was awesome.  Last year we had to set up in sheets of rain, nearly ankle deep in mud, so just having a sunny day was a huge improvement in the experience.  The festival itself was lively and full of friendly faces.  It’s one of those where everyone is kind and open, and you have no end to interesting conversations.  Sales weren’t bad either, which was also nice, but even if they had been abysmal it would have still been a good festival.  I also got to reconnect with an old college friend (and am now regretting not spending more time hanging out when we did live closer than four hours away).

Savannah was also significant in that it marks a year since the fates forcibly ejected me from my toxic day job and set me afloat on the turbulent seas of a full time art career.  It’s not been an easy ride, but it has been both educational and rewarding.  In the space of this past year, I’ve done more festivals than I used to do in three years, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons from the experience.

First, know thine audience.  When I found a repeating festival in Marietta that only cost $40 a week to vend, I was very excited (most start at $100).  I signed up for it, got accepted, aaaaand learned that Marietta has a very small population who is interested in monsters and foxes eating people-food.  One telling moment came when a woman bustled into my tent, demanded to know if I had any landscapes (I didn’t).  She then slammed through my prints before disdainfully asking “Is this ALL animals?” and leaving without another word.  I think I only made $17 that day.

Monster-in-the-Rain

It wasn’t all “animals,” but yeah, it was pretty close.

I was on the point of despairing that I was just a crap, hack artist who makes stuff no one likes when I decided to pull out of one of the Marietta weekends to do the smaller Atlanta Pagan Pride.  There, in addition to meeting many delightful people, I also made about as much in a day as I used to make with four days of full-time office work.  I might be a crap hack artist in at least some opinions, but I’m one who’s learning which people don’t think so.

Also, summer festivals in hot climates aren’t worth it.  Not even when they’re free to vend.  Everyone is hot and angry and just wants air conditioning and won’t take much time to browse.  If you have anything metal or glass on your table, you risk burning people.  And, come tear-down, you risk some serious heat-related medical problems.

Luckily, summer is my busy season as an instructor at Johns Creek Arts Center.  I’m approaching my first full year as an art teacher, and it feels like I’ve found a second calling.  The first year was hectic; as a new teacher I had plenty to learn about the kinds of projects that work for a classroom of kids aged 7-10.  I used to be terrified before each class, but after keeping a room of 26 students reasonably behaved while teaching them to draw a face in profile, I feel much more confident going into year two.  Now that I don’t have to make every lesson plan from scratch, I should also have plenty of time to work on my own portfolio.  This year my goal is to find a more cohesive look for my work, following the advice of the Dragon*Con jurors (I passed jury, but was waitlisted for actual floor space.  One step closer!).

All in all, I’m very optimistic about year two of no corporate shackles.  Now to knuckle down and get drawing!

A Helpful Strategy for Keeping Your Creative Work on Schedule

One of the biggest challenges faced by the creative worker is scheduling.  When you work a day job, you have to figure out how to schedule your creative work around it without losing your mind and burning out.  If you’re … Continue reading

3 Vital Features of a Day Job That Supports a Creative Lifestyle

My day job has ended.  I knew it was coming; they told us a while ago we were getting shut down as part of the acquisition of our parent company.  Just business, and a solid decision for their goals.  Honestly, I was getting ready to cut ties, and only held back my notice to see if this new company would close us and save me some of the panic of making that decision.  I am thankful.

It feels a little strange.  I just got back from Ireland to the news that this albatross had been cut from my neck, that I was officially free.  It’s sinking in slowly.  Free is just shorthand for complete responsibility for your own fate.  This is exhilarating and terrifying in waves.

The end of a job is a lot like the end of a relationship, especially if that job wove itself intimately into your life.  Even more so if you don’t have a lot of context by which to compare it.  This was my first “real people” job, and it frankly wasn’t a healthy one by the end.  Luckily, in addition to introducing me to some amazing people, it taught me how important it is to make sure your paying job aligns well with your yet-to-be-supporting creative aspirations.  In the future, I will be checking three vital features before accepting a new position to ensure that it will nurture rather than drain my creative work.

Time

If your day job takes away all the time you need to build your creative work, it is not the right job for you.  Because job searching is a full-time job, building a creative career is a full-time job, and working a full-time job is, of course, a full-time job, it can be frustratingly difficult to leave once you realize the job’s a bad fit. If you are between work, make a compatible schedule a high priority.  Feel out potential positions for the likelihood that they are going to start requiring excessive overtime or having you on-call at all hours.  If you’re an actor, don’t take a job that will prohibit you from attending auditions and rehearsals.  If you sell at craft fairs, don’t take a job that requires weekend work.

When I took my position, it fit my schedule perfectly.  It was a full-time 8-5 gig, I was writing for a maximum of 25 clients, and I was able to fit all of my work within a day and be done with the month early.  I never felt guilty about leaving at 5 because I had measurable and reasonable tasks to accomplish.  Unfortunately, the company redeveloped its system several times to maximize the workload of each employee.  By the end, I was expected to come up with, research, and write titles and instructions for an outsourced writer, then edit the resulting content for up to 700 posts a month.  When our team underwent structural changes and fell behind in production, I was expected to increase my output to 80 units a day.  Given only 6 minutes per unit in impossibly perfect conditions, this load no longer fit within a workday and I worked months of overtime trying to keep up.

It can be hard to predict when a job will change as dramatically as mine did, but if you see the signs coming, make the move to get out early.  Once overtime starts piling up, finding a moment and the energy to seek new employment is a massive challenge, especially if you’re also trying to maintain your creative work.

Learning Opportunities

No day job is ever going to pay you the full value of the work you do; they have costs associated with keeping you employed and part of their profit comes from you providing more value than it costs to keep you aboard.  So knowing that you won’t get full monetary compensation for what you provide, try to find a job that will at least give you experience, contacts, or knowledge to help you in your creative endeavors.

My job was pretty good about this, which was the reason (other than fear of homelessness) that I stayed. I was writing as a pretend-expert for a variety of interesting clients, including marketers and designers, and much of what I learned could be applied to my own life.  Once things got crazy, work did at least require less active mental involvement, so I was able to listen to online classes while I typed at mach speed.

There’s no shame in working a job that doesn’t put you in contact with people or information or experience to help your creative work, especially if it doesn’t suck all of your time and energy away, but try not to settle for that.  It’s hard to say when or if the creative ambitions will reach feeding and housing levels of income, so you may as well be getting more than a paycheck from your job.

Values

Working a job that doesn’t match your values is one of the fastest ways to burn out creatively.  Whether it’s a company that works for causes you don’t believe in or if the company’s manner of conducting business puts you in a position where you can’t work to your own level of integrity, you will feel drained and depressed at the end of the day.  This is not conducive to the challenges of creative work.

In my case, the increased workload meant a heavy compromise in writing quality and original thought.  I went from using three or four resources to come up with a unique spin for each blog post to grabbing one, sending it to an oft-unmotivated writer, and editing the results as quickly as possible.  I rarely saw the finished product and never saw the results to know what was working and what wasn’t. The goal was simply to check off boxes in a long list of what felt like pointless tasks.  My job at the movie theater was more rewarding than what this became; at least there I could make a kid smile or fulfill someone’s dreams of extra butter popcorn.

Working for quantity over quality, losing the personal relationship with the clients, and rarely seeing the results of my efforts was ultimately far more exhausting than any amount of overtime I put in. Putting in long hours without evidence that you’re adding value to anything except maybe a bottom line quickly becomes a breeding ground for depression, and the mental inertia that follows is a greater death-knell to creativity than any lack of time.  If there is one area where you do not compromise in your day job, let it be this one.  Your creative work will thank you.

 

I hope this helps you evaluate your own current and potential day jobs.  We all need to eat and pay rent, but don’t let the workday IV drip of money drain your creativity to feed you.  After all, no one wants to look back in 40 or however many years and regret letting their real goals burn to fuel a life they didn’t believe in or fully enjoy.

Success in your art is never a guarantee, and it will never come easily.  It is, by a lot of measurements, an impractical goal.  This doesn’t make it any less meaningful or worth pursuing.  Let your feed-me job support it, and never resign yourself to a lifetime of pointless drudgery.  Practicality and creativity need not be enemies.

What features do you look for in a supportive day job?  I’d love to hear your insight as I start my search for the next one.