When people ask me what I do for a living, it’s a hard question to answer. In reality I’m a waitress. I also do some work for my father’s IT company, write and edit for Literally, Darling and oh yeah, I’m an actress. In a perfect world I’d be able to respond to the, “So what do you do?” question with a simple, “I’m an actress and a writer.” However, in the world of creative expression, making money at what you love is not easy. Societally we are expected to earn money, pay bills and support ourselves. And let’s be honest, if you want to, you know, have a life, making money is an essential part of that. But what do you do when the thing or things you love are not at all what brings home the bacon? In pursuing an artistic career, can you play the role of the “starving artist” and not actually be starving?
I have been actively pursuing my art for almost three years now, and to be frank there is not a simple answer. As you can tell by my piecemeal list of jobs, it is a lot of picking up work where and when you can find it and accepting that the road you’re on is a long and bumpy one. I have learned a few lessons that I wish I had known starting out.
When I quit my 9-to-5 job and moved so I could pursue acting, I’m pretty sure I left the office for the last time with a trail of papers floating in the wind behind me as I flipped a scarf over my right shoulder and donned my Ray Bans, touting “I’m going to be an ACTOR, you peasants!” Okay, not really. But I was very confident that my life choice to even pursue art was more glamorous than those sad, drab office folks would ever understand. (Spoiler alert: Life as an artist proved to be not glamorous at all.) What those Monday through Friday workers had—a steady paycheck, security, benefits, paid vacation, time off, a set schedule—I quickly learned were not in the cards for me. At all. And getting the things I wanted out of my life as an artist wasn’t exactly easy. I had to give up weekend outings with friends so I could work at a restaurant, give up big-money shifts to go to auditions for roles I would not get, and spend hours writing pieces that, because of their utter roughness, I would never allow to see the light of day. I have been told “no” infinitely more times than I have ever heard, “yes!” and had many a weepy moment over my budget spreadsheet only wishing I had again what my old office colleagues still do. I learned very quickly that my big head was doing nothing for my art. I started to gain what little success I have achieved only when I took a few steps back and honored the reality of where I was: The bottom of the totem pole with a lot to learn. Only took a year or two for me to get it, but humility, that’s key.
It’s nothing at all like being Carrie Bradshaw.
They make it seem so easy on TV. It seems almost silly not to go for your creative goals when our favorite characters seem to do it with such ease. They have great jobs and security, so how hard can it be… right? Time to get real, though. You won’t live in a bomb-ass apartment, buy stuff for fun or go out every weekend, because you won’t be able to afford it and you won’t have much free time. Your friends will not be able to drop everything and discuss your latest drama, because they will have their own lives and work schedules to worry about. Work schedules that, more often than not, will not at all align with yours, which will inevitably be ever-changing and totally inconsistent. Reliable work will become less a reality and more a far-off, unattainable dream. You will not do just a few great projects and then become a minor, local celebrity. You will spend more time in sweatpants crying over your negative bank account balance than in fabulous shoes and a new outfit every day of the week. You’ll consider a successful month when you can pay the bills on time and have about $50 left over for food. But don’t fret, because experiences like this are all a part of that humility thing we talked about.
Do all the things.
This may sound vague, but what I mean is take as many jobs as you can in as many different areas as you can. Just because you ultimately want to be a writer, an actor, a musician or a painter doesn’t mean you’re too good for the jobs that make the world go round. And taking a job that pays the bills doesn’t mean you’ve “sold out” or “given up.” Hell, you have to eat, too. I have worked as a casting assistant, a “fashion expert” at Express, an employee at a dog boarder, a social-media manager for a company that bred bulls for the rodeo. If it paid money, I probably tried it. I quickly learned that I was NOT going to make money straight out of the gate pursuing art, so I had to make some real-life choices. Yes, I made those choices primarily because I just needed the cash, but looking back, those experiences have helped shaped me into someone with a well-rounded view of things, which I believe every artist, regardless of their medium, can benefit from. Don’t become so laser focused on the romanticized idea of “being an artist” that you don’t take the jobs required to pay your bills. It is also a very good idea to take note of up and coming trends in the creative industry, particularly the online world. At Emerson College Online you could learn about big data and how it links to social media and marketing. Structures are continually changing in the digital world, so give yourself the competitive edge by expanding your horizons in ways you may not have thought about.
Remember why you love what you do.
All this said, going for your dreams seems kind of terrible. But here’s the thing: if you’re pursuing art because you want to make money, you probably won’t be successful. You have to pursue your creative expression with the heart and soul and love for the craft that you quit that 9 to 5 job for. That fire, and the honesty of your truth in what you do, is what will make your artistic work worth admiring. And it might even be the thing that ultimately catches the eye of the people who give out those “one in a million” jobs. When it seems like all hope is lost and you wonder if there will ever come a day where running out of generic brand Splenda doesn’t cause a panic attack, because you simply can’t afford to buy another box, just go back to the place where you light up over that short story you wrote, that scene you performed or that drawing you finally finished. Tapping into that passion is like a turbo booster to keep going. If you constantly remind yourself why the art is so integral to who you are, the idea of doing anything else will seem unthinkable.
I’m constantly learning lessons on this journey. If I had told myself three years ago that by 2014 I had only booked one TV show appearance and one voiceover gig, that I will still not yet be paid to write and will still be working in a restaurant… I’d probably have given up right then and there. But as it stands now, with a few years experience under my belt, I can now look at those couple of jobs I booked as huge accomplishments. I view my opportunity to write for Literally, Darling, a site I will continue to be a part of whether it ever makes money or not, as a true honor. More than anything, I will use these achievements, small though they may seem, as fuel to the fire. And between you and me, these little victories are actually beginning to feel a little glamorous after all.
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