There’s this idea that anyone who is getting paid for their creative pursuits is living the dream, and there’s no doubt that some of those people are. But it’s not the whole story.
When I arrived at my undergraduate school, I had visions of becoming a jet-setting flutist. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t have the talent or desire to make that happen. But I wasn’t worried about it. I’d just be an inspirational music teacher instead. If I couldn’t be the next James Galway, at least I could be the next Mr. Holland. And then I had my first semester of education courses, and I realized that I wasn’t cut out to teach kids.
Not gonna lie, I started to panic a little at this point.
Like many people in the throes of panic, I resorted to fantasy to cope. I would become an expert in music theory or musicology or something. Never mind that I had no idea how I was going to pay for graduate school or that I wasn’t much of a piano player, which is generally required for graduate school in the more academic music fields. I needed to find some way to make a living in music.
Once I returned to reality, I realized if I didn’t do something radical, I was going to spend the rest of my life in low-paying administrative jobs. So I used the last shreds of musical credibility that I had to join the Marine Corps as a musician. I figured if I enjoyed it, I could just make that my career. If not, I could use my veteran’s education benefits to train for a career with better prospects.
Being a musician in the Marine Corps is obviously different from hanging around in academia, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the experience wasn’t what I was looking for. For one thing, the musical quality I encountered was extremely disappointing. The band at my last duty station was probably the worst band I’d played with since middle school (I came from a good high school band program, but still).
But even if the musicianship I’d encountered had been better, I don’t know if my experience would have been much better. We spent most of our time doing other things. Although the particular things that occupied our time are unique to the military, it’s generally true that people who make a living from their creative pursuits often spend most of their time doing other things.
For example, professional photographers often have to spend a lot of their time hustling for clients and dealing with administrative tasks. Also, if you’re relying on clients to pay your bills, you naturally give up some creative control over your work. And I’ve heard from several photographers that working for clients can take up all their time and suck out their creativity.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to make a living from your creativity, but I wonder if a lot of people don’t try to make that leap earlier than they should. This isn’t just true of creative pursuits. People often make the same mistakes when starting a business. James Altucher suggests that it’s better to get paying customers first before you even think about quitting your job. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that if you want creativity in your life, pursue it for its own sake. Gilbert herself worked other jobs until the success of Eat, Pray, Love.
So that’s why I haven’t set a goal yet for the work I’m doing on this site. I’m just committing myself to writing every day and seeing what shakes out. It’s not fair to expect my creativity to support me, especially when I haven’t committed to it in a meaningful way. At least for now I’m enjoying the writing that I’m doing. If I never make a living from it, I still have the benefits I get from the writing process.
But I do believe that if I stick with the process, good things will happen. Those good things might not lead to making a living from my creative pursuits, but that’s OK. Even if the only thing is I don’t spend every day feeling stifled, that’s a good starting point.