Gather around kids and let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, people grew up and got one job that paid all of their bills, let them save some money, and was enough to do big things like buy a house and put their kids through college.
Once upon a time, that was just what happened. It’s sometimes called the American Dream, but it was just reality. Weird, I know. For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about a day job, but what I mean is whatever income streams you’ve cobbled together to pay for your life.
And even weirder if you’re an artist of any kind who has it in their head that you’re supposed to figure out how to make your art give you that kind of life.
The idea that your art has to be the kind of pillar of your financial life that that barely even exists in the corporate world anymore is a dream killer.
You aren’t a failure if your art doesn’t let you quit your day job.
One more time for the people who really need to hear it.
You aren’t a failure if your art doesn’t let you quit your day job.
And that day job? It will suck a lot less if you can wrap your head around the idea that it’s serving your art.
Seriously. If you can make yourself believe that the idea that showing up for your 9-to-5 is part of your art, it will change everything.
It will knock your day job off its pedestal and it will relieve your art of the pressure to pay its own way. And it will crack your brain open so that the idea of building a living around your art, instead of feeling like a failure if your art doesn’t pull in enough money all by itself, can take root.
Start by prioritizing your art.
If you have a regular job, chances are there are hours in your day that you don’t have control over. That’s okay. We ALL have hours during the day we don’t have control over.
Even full-time artists who earn a living with their art.
Get a calendar though, an agenda of some kind, and schedule your art like it’s important enough for you to show up for. If you wouldn’t blow off working for someone else, don’t blow off working on your art.
Here’s the deal: you don’t have to put eight hours a day into it. But I bet you can find an hour a day, five days a week. Start there. Write it in and protect that time like there’s a boss who will dock your check if you don’t show up.
Think outside the 9-to-5 box.
Brainstorm how you can make your day job work around your art, instead of the other way around.
Are there income streams you can build that will let you work fewer hours?
Can you find work that will free up more of your emotional and physical energy for your art?
How about focusing on finding a job that pays more per hour so that you can make the same money in fewer hours, and open up time for your art?
Is there some aspect of your art that you can turn into an income? Think about teaching, blogging, freelancing.
Instead of fitting your art into your day job, shift your thinking so that you’re building a life around your art.
Build an audience.
A couple of years ago I set up a little corner of a shared booth at a tiny local comic con to spread the word about Ninja Writers.
I was surrounded by artists of all stripes. Writers. Comic book creators. A girl who made tote bags out of Doctor Who and Star Wars fabric. A man who sat in his booth all day and drew superheroes.
I sat there with my little poster promising to give away a $25 Amazon gift card to one of people who gave me their email address — and I realized that literally no one else around me was collecting email addresses.
A few passed out postcards or bookmarks with their website addresses. Those disappeared into bags full of similar ephemera. I talked to as many as I could and tried to encourage them to collect email addresses from the people who were stopping to talk to them.
I handed out my business card and told them that I’d be happy to help them learn how to build an email list if they emailed me.
It didn’t work. The few people who did take my business card didn’t use it to contact me. I haven’t heard from any of them.
Artists need audiences.
It doesn’t matter what your art is. Writing, painting, sculpture, theater, making TARDIS tote bags. If you are an artist of any kind, you need an audience.
I can tell you from experience that even having some big producer of your art get involved does not guarantee you an audience. Ask anyone whose had a film flop, an art show fail to result in sales, a restaurant go bust.
Ask me sometime about how being published by Penguin worked out for me.
Artists need audiences, and no one else will build them for us. When you are ready to make the move to making some of your income from your art, you’ll need people who care about what you’re doing.
The one thing you can do is start building an email list. Get a free MailChimp account. Or just start writing names and emails in a notebook. Send everyone two emails a month. In one talk about cool shit you’ve come across that you think they might like. In the other talk about what you’re working on.
Make a habit of asking everyone if they want to join your list. It’ll feel weird at first, but you’ll get used to it.
Your day job is the first investor in your art.
If you have a day job that pays your bills, then it’s paying for your supplies, it’s putting a roof over your head, it’s feeding you. Maybe it’s paying for you to take some classes so you can learn to be a better artist.
Seriously. Your day job is like having patron. Sure you have to work for it. You have to put in the time to get the pay check. And maybe that sucks. I’ve had jobs that really, really sucked. I know that place.
When you have a day job like that, sometimes the only thing that helps is shifting your mindset.
Instead of: I can’t be a writer because I have to work 40 hours a week at this shitty job that I hate and it sucks all my creative energy.
Try this: I spend 40 hours a week at a shitty job that I hate, but it pays for me to spend 20 hours a week writing.
Or even better: I’m grateful for this day job that pays my bills so that I can be a writer.
Give your art a break.
The best gift you can give yourself as an artist is to stop expecting your art to support itself. Especially if you’re still learning.
Maybe your art will earn a living someday. It’s unreasonable to put that burden on it when it’s still a baby venture and you’re still learning how to create it.
I know so many writers who put everything inside them into writing a book. They shine it up and send it off to agents — as they should. And when rejection comes — as it always will — they are crushed. Absolutely devastated.
So devastated that sometimes they just stop writing. What’s the point if it’s never going to make money? Obviously, if this one book failed then they suck and they just aren’t really writers anyway.
Don’t do that to yourself. Please.
Embrace your day job. It has one job. Paying your bills. Let your writing (or whatever your art is) off the hook. Just create. Practice. Take in the masters. Learn to be better.
Come back and talk to me when you’re ten books in about whether or not you should pack it in.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.