Don’t Quit Your Day Job. DO Make Your Art.
How to Realize Your Vision AND Keep Your Career
“Just chuck it all and go pursue your dream,” they say. Well, maybe if you’re in your 20s. For many of us, the dream is alive, the passion to create stirs within, but giving up on a good career and a steady paycheck — it’s just not going to happen.
I love my work. I’m a copy editor at The New York Times. I love being a part of an institution I deeply admire, I’m honored to play a part in the daily miracle of bringing the news report to fruition, and I enjoy exercising editing skills honed over decades.
Yet I have more to express and to do, and I’m not going to wait around for anyone’s invitation to do it. But how to manage the work/art/life balance? That is the question.
About 14 years ago I dropped a nice life in Tokyo, working as a writer/editor at The Japan Times, to rush back to New York and take on a project I was utterly unprepared for: making my first documentary film.
Fortunately, my utter unpreparedness was matched by an abundant keenness, and I took the long road to completing that project, being sure to make every rookie filmmaking mistake, and then going back and painstakingly correcting it, along the way. I was young, single and working, so I could afford to do it the long, hard way. And I learned a ton.
I do not recommend this course.
But not because my results weren’t good. My 90-minute film, “The Duck Diaries,” traveled to a half dozen film festivals and screened at as many universities, even collecting such awards as Best Director (NYC Independent Film Festival) and a Special Jury Award for Archival Storytelling (Arizona International Film Festival).
I also held jobs, mainly as a copy editor, at such publications as The New York Post, BusinessWeek and CNBC.com, though there was also a period when I found myself between jobs — time I was able to harness by driving the documentary to its completion.
Now, in addition to a full-time job, my home life has gotten busier: I am a husband and a father to 4-year-old girl.
Despite how busy my life has become, I am taking on my second feature documentary project. By necessity, I will run a much more efficient operation this time around.
Here are the keys to managing a complex creative project, in the handful of free hours per week a working parent may be able to dedicate. My project happens to be a documentary film, but the same could apply for many creative pursuits.
I will expand on each of the following below.
• A Manageable Scope
• Sufficient Skills and Equipment
• A Funding Strategy
• A Focused Plan
• Passion & Dedication
A Manageable Scope
Every documentary — or other artistic project — begins with an idea. You know at a glance projects that are beyond reach. Perhaps you’re a painter who’s struck with a vision to reprise Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Well, unless you’ve got a lot of free time and cash, it may be difficult to spend the time necessary with your subject.
I considered a number of ideas to be my second documentary project before locking onto one. I started developing one having to do with renewable energy and climate change, but soon concluded two things: (1) I did not have the resources to fulfill the vision I saw, and obtaining them was unlikely (2) I knew it was a crowded field, with many well-funded projects out there. Would mine really have a chance to shine? Even though I thought I had a fresh and unique angle, I shelved it.
The idea that ended up taking hold came, as the best ideas often do, from close to home.
Here’s the hook that got me started on this documentary: Three octogenarian brothers going to compete in a national 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
Pretty good, right? You can see straight away a story that has structure — a destination, a tournament; and intrigue — Who are these old dudes, and will they win the Gold?
It so happens they are my dad and his two brothers. So, importantly, I have great access.
I also happen to know that they’re tough, aggressive ball players and that they won the Gold in the 75–80 age group at the National Senior Games four years ago. So I have reason to believe they’ll be real competitors in the tournament.
But hold on. It’s a decent hook, but is there really enough for a movie there?
Perhaps there could be: It’s documentary film, so you never know what unexpected story might unfold before your camera. But a good horticulturalist does not just wait for a gorgeous flower to pop up out of the soil unbidden.
So I started going deeper. What is the bigger story here, beyond these three 80-something ball-playing brothers? What is important in it that would speak to a broad audience?
It occurred to me what’s striking about these brothers and the guys they would compete against is how much vitality they have, even past 80 years old. Why do they? Is it their activeness? What they eat? Their genes? Or what? And is that attainable for anyone?
So I began doing some research that led down several different roads. I soon found myself reading about the fascinating science of telomeres — the enzymes said to hold the keys to human aging, that will soon likely change many of our expectations about old age.
So intrigued was I that I reached out to the author, and soon had him on the phone, and then on board to speak to me for the film.
The big idea had begun to take shape in my mind: The basketball tournament would offer a dramatic framework for an inquiry into vitality in old age. The title: “Winning At Life.”
Without giving too much away, the film will go back and forth to the brothers’ progress in the tournament, intercut with three segments about different aspects of the leading thinking about maintaining vitality in old age.
Importantly, I saw that the project had a scope I could manage: a few day trips to conduct key interviews; a week dedicated to shooting the tournament and related footage, the rest of the work to get done on nights and weekends, or perhaps with some hired help.
It would be a lot, but with dedication, it appeared something I could manage over the span of several months to a year.
So consider realistic scope for your time and budget. Follow your muse, but be adaptable; perhaps “18 Views of Lady Liberty” is more within reach.
Sufficient Skills and Equipment
Presumably this is not your first time to the rodeo, or the paint store, or the editing bay. This is your passion, so you have some experience and probably at least some of the requisite gear for your undertaking.
If not, well, try some crawling before you get up on two feet.
I’ve accumulated filmmaking gear over fourteen years, including a state-of-the-art digital video camera from 2003 that’s now quite obsolete; its replacement; a good tripod; my new fully souped up and ridiculously expensive MacBook Pro; a cheap lighting kit; a backdrop frame and stand; and probably inadequate audio gear. So I’m shopping for another mic setup. (The first rule of filmmaking? Get good audio.)
Is it enough? Well, you always wish for more and better. But do you have enough, and of a sufficient quality, to fulfill your vision? Make your list. Then figure out what you need to beg, borrow or buy.
Whatever you do, don’t let insufficient gear or substandard supplies undermine your artistic vision. Your sweat deserves better.
For my project, I don’t have all I need to shoot a basketball tournament. So I’m planning to pay for an expensive stopgap: Hired help.
For shooting the basketball games, I’m going to want two cameras following the action (a master shot and one getting closer shots and angles), while another is getting crowd reactions and other B-roll. So I am planning to hire a local outfit to extend my capabilities for several days.
Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a copy editor could afford, does it?
A Funding Strategy
Let’s talk turkey here for a moment. This creative endeavor of yours, are you in it for the money? You think it’s going to deliver a major payday?
If your answer is yes, I apologize I made you read this long. Close the tab and have a nice day.
Because where I’m coming from is a drive to create and express, and hopefully to share with a broad audience. If there’s a pot of gold at the end of it, Hallelujah and God bless. And sure that’s something to hope for. But it’s probably not something to bank on. And that’s OK. We’re all keeping our day jobs here, remember?
On the other hand, we don’t want to blow our savings or go deep into debt, either.
And a lot of projects — documentary films, for example — are mighty expensive to produce. So, money. Dirty grubby money. You need it. How to get it?
First of all, don’t expect it to come easy. It’s going to take some work.
Besides the amount you’re up to contributing yourself, there are:
• Fiscal sponsorship
I’m not providing links to lists of grants and stuff here; your Google works as well as mine. I’m sure you can find grants for the kind of art you do. Then you have to go through the hard work of applying while knowing your chance of success is slim. It sucks. Well, suck it up, work harder, sharpen your pitch, and keep trying.
What you may not know about is fiscal sponsorship — I didn’t until recently. Fiscal sponsorship is not a funding end unto itself, but a means to funding. Organizations like the New York Foundation for the Arts take applications for fiscal sponsorship. If accepted, you have the NYFA seal of approval, so to speak, and you can seek funding from interested foundations and other outfits.
The reason foundations and other organizations want to fund you through NYFA fiscal sponsorship or the like is because then THEY CAN TAKE THE TAX DEDUCTION. If they funded you directly (they won’t) they get no tax benefit, because you’re not a registered nonprofit 501(c)(3). And they just don’t see that as fiscally prudent way of disbursing their funds.
While I gather the NYFA has a highly selective screening process for fiscal sponsorship, others, like Fractured Atlas, take a more laissez faire approach.
And the third way is crowdfunding: Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe are the majors. They’re each a bit different. Kickstarter, for example, requires you to meet a funding goal before supporters are on the hook for their pledges. At GoFundMe, it’s straight up donations, no strings attached except for the string that cuts 5% off the top, and about another 3% more for payment processing.
I don’t have extensive experience with these different systems. I am currently running a GoFundMe campaign for my project. In my experience, it’s mostly your social circle that will support you, and it requires a lot of pushing on social media. Make your pitch, then present it again in a new way. Make it humorous, make it sincere. Send out emails. Host a fundraiser. Keep persisting, but don’t be obnoxious. It’s a blind balancing act. Push yourself, and trust yourself. But don’t back down or give up.
My GoFundMe campaign is off to a strong start but will likely fall far short of its goal. I’m hopeful fiscal sponsorship will come through and help get me the rest of the way.
A Focused Plan
Applying for grants and fiscal sponsorship can seem like a giant pain. It’s never easy putting a lot of energy into something that seems like a long shot. However, because they demand you spell out your projects goals and how you intend to meet them, it forces you to sharpen your focus and think things through.
That effort may benefit your project just as much any funds you may raise.
You’re forced to say just what your vision is; you have to explain why it’s compelling or relevant; you have to say whose help or cooperation you’re gong to need and how you’re going to get it; you need to show your budget, start to finish, and how and where your finished project will be seen, and the audience it is intended to reach. You need to show you’ve thought about the foundations or organizations you’re planning to approach to fund you, and say why they should. You need to show you’ve done good work before.
It’s daunting. And if it’s all too much, maybe you need to think smaller till you build enough of a portfolio that you have the confidence and content to share for these applications.
Passion & Dedication
And finally, the simplest thing.
Things are probably not all going to go as you envision. You’ll hit roadblocks. A supporter will drop out. A location will get rained out. A piece of equipment will be stolen. Your hard drive will seize up and erase your work minutes before you were going to back up your data.
Or maybe you’ll get to the end and say — Damn, my art sucks.
I’ve been there. The only thing that gets you through those dark hours, when you realize you have days, weeks or months of work to redo, or to re-examine it all and figure where you went wrong, is pure dedication. You never say die. You never quit. You will see it through. Because you weren’t wrong when you started on this journey. You have to believe that.
You’ve got something to say. Now say it.
Starting … right after work.