The Right Way to Be a Starving Artist
We’ve been too literal about this concept for way too long.
The idea of the starving artist is something we all subscribe to at one time or another. But it’s particularly rampant for beginners who are constantly told that they have to work for free to get their foot in the door.
Conjure up, for example, an image of a young writer or artist — I’m betting they live in a tiny overcrowded apartment, and spend all day working, with occasional ramen breaks. They also drink an obscene amount of cheap coffee.
But that idea of the struggling beginner has been twisted into a lifelong contention with money. Some people even believe that making money is a bad sign for creators—that it means we’ve left behind our ideals and poisoned our work with blood money.
Ok, that’s ridiculously dramatic, but admit it: We all believe, at least to some extent, that artists are supposed to struggle. And sometimes that belief translates to us rejecting or ignoring high-paying gigs. It also makes it harder to ask for what we deserve or negotiate pay for the gigs we do seek out.
And there are people who will tell you that your work doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t warrant a living wage. Take the brutal Twitter account, “For Exposure.”
WARNING: If you’re having a good day, don’t scroll through this account. It’s way too real.
The account gives you a sense of what creative people have to put up with when they dare to ask for what they deserve. It also showcases how little some people value creative work.
But that doesn’t mean those people are right, it just means that some people are awful/misguided human beings. They feel that they should only pay you as much (or more accurately, as little) as they feel is enough. And given historical devaluation of artistic work, that often means demanding that you work for nothing. And that’s, frankly, bullshit.
It’s time to take a new approach to this idea of the creative lifestyle. Here’s how.
Shifting your perception.
The “starving artist” concept is grounded by the fact that they cannot afford to support themselves. But if you shift your understanding of the trope, you can make it fuel your work, instead of letting it detract from your morale.
The key is focusing on hunger, rather than starvation: hunger for work, hunger for creative outlets, hunger for improving our craft. We aren’t starving ourselves because of a committment to art. We are starving for the next project and we’re going to go after it like our lives depend on it because the work means that much to us.
Your initial reaction might be to resist this concept because it requires confronting long-held ideas and fears about what it means to be a good and worthwhile artist.
One of the main concerns about this type of work ethic is fear of selling out. Once you get past that, finding places for your work and getting over rejections can be huge hurdles. Here’s how to navigate those obstacles:
Combating the idea of selling out.
We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our quality of life for fear of selling out. In fact, that idea is so out of touch it’s almost comical. But some people still cling to this idea because it lets them feel like they’re doing o.k., even when paid work is almost nonexistent—at least they aren’t selling out, right? No!
You don’t have to sell out to make money as a creative. You have to find the right market for your craft and define your idea of “selling out.”
For some people, selling out means working for any large corporation, for others it means doing work that they aren’t passionate about. I happen to fall into both camps, but that doesn’t mean I shut myself off to every opportunity out there.
I don’t turn down opportunities without checking them out. I also go after my idea of worthwhile work like it’s got to pay the rent — because it does.
Finding your market.
You have to know exactly what you want to be known for, what you want to do, and what you’re good at, if you’re going to succeed. That’s a tall order for a beginner. It’s also why so many people struggle for years to get a real start in the creative world.
To figure all that out, I like to use the Japanese concept of ikigai (a “reason for being”) because it forces you to name the specific things you enjoy doing, and exposes the areas you might want to focus on.
Start by listing out everything you can for each category—excluding anything that would fall into the “What I can be paid for” circle. Don’t be afraid to be super granular about it, either. Then research the “passion” and “mission” sections to find places that pay for those specific items.
It might seem a bit strange, but it works. And you might be surprised by what you find. A lot of people focus on the obvious, overcrowded markets, rather than looking for niches that are starving for talent. But that’s usually where the real money is.
It’s just as important to know what you don’t enjoy doing—the tasks that leave you feeling drained and unfullfilled. So take that into account when performing this exercise.
Getting over a fear of rejection.
If you never try, you can never fail, right? Wrong! Failure to try, when it’s something you care about, is failure in itself.
In creative industries, rejection is inevitable. It’s a fact of life. And it’s something we all need to get used to. But it doesn’t matter if that rejection comes in the form of a polite rejection letter, a simple “no” or silence—it all feels terrible. At least at first.
For me, the best way around this was an exposure therapy, of sorts. I spent the first month of my freelance writing career focused on sending out as many pitch emails as I could, every day.
I dreaded pressing send and I was terrified by the idea of getting a negative reaction or somehow getting blacklisted by editors I respected. But that exercise enabled me to use my fear to fuel my work.
Was I tempted to just give up? Yes. Did I have moments when I seriously considered lowering my expectations in terms of pay? Absolutely. Did I give in after hours of agonzing over whether or not I had any talent at all? No.
Having a lot of things going on made it harder to focus on how much I wanted to hear back from any one publication. I was too busy for that. And it paid off because now pitches are 1,000x easier than they were a couple months ago.
And after all that hard work, I was able to land paying gigs, negotiate my rates and get what I felt I deserved, even as a “beginner.” (Though for full disclosure, I’ve been writing professionally for a couple years. I went freelance a few months ago.)
A note about working for free.
You can’t keep creating if you don’t have enough money to survive.
The traditional conception of the starving artist implies that our work has no immediate value, that it’s disposable, that we should just be grateful if anyone sees it. But art has intrinsic value. And just because some people can’t appreciate it, that doesn’t mean it’s somehow “less than.”
I get why someone might work for free though—and creative industries have thrived off of the fact that we’ve bought into the idea that it’s something we all have to do. It’s also paved the way for newcomers (like publications) to get off the ground, and that’s great.
I’m not 100% opposed to working for a new publication that can’t yet afford to pay me, especially if I’m excited about what the publication could become. But I make sure that they’re looking to create a relationship, rather than publish a single piece, and I try to find out if/when they expect to be able to pay me for my work.
Free work shouldn’t be a way of life—it’s unsustainable. And as much as we’d like to pretend that money doesn’t matter, it really does make the goddamn world go ‘round. Yes that includes the big companies out there that make it hard for the newbies to get a foothold in their industries. But it will also fund your future creative ventures. And that’s worth fighting for.