Quitting My Day Job
As an artist, it can be pretty hard to know when to play it safe and when to take big risks. The whole artistic endeavor is fraught with risks and uncertainty. It can also be incredibly lonely. Non-artistically inclined friends and family may not always understand what drives an artist, what it's like to have that fire burning inside of you. They may not always understand the inherent challenges that come with the territory of creating art, the hours of solitude, the frequent zoning out with thoughts of the current project, the driving need to create something, express something, to share something of yourself with the world.
The flip side of this reality is that artists don't always understand how non-artists see the world with its inherent demands and practical considerations. I know I certainly have struggled with this. From the outside looking in, I think creating art can seem pretty selfish at times. We artists need a lot of time to ourselves, we can be protective of that time and the required solitude, we value our work and believe it has worth often times that is not readily apparent to others around us. What's more, we tend to have a pretty high degree of faith that any day now things are going to work out, we're going to get that needed break, that major step forward will happen, the right people will notice our work, the book sales will start flowing in, the right gallery will display our work, the right film festival will select our film, we'll get to pitch the project to the right investors, so forth...
So we toil on.
This has been my story for the past thirteen years. I have toiled on (almost blindly). I worked hard toward a dream of having a career in filmmaking. In the process, I ignored some pretty important red flags. First, the film industry is an incredibly competitive field saturated with talented people working day and night to get their big break too. Secondly, the film industry is first and foremost an industry. It's about churning out sellable products, and not always about making meaningful art. Thirdly, I'm an introvert prone to anxiety and depression. I struggle to be the type of person who can network effortlessly and leverage those connections to make breaks happen for me.
These three elements combined don't mean I shouldn't have pursued a career in filmmaking. They just mean my odds of actually launching a career were that much slimmer than the already mathematically imprudent odds others with more charisma or raw talent faced. But I stuck to it. In fact, I made my pursuit of a career as a filmmaker and writer my "day job." Sure, I was a freelancer doing video work and occasionally getting to direct some small commercials or actually getting paid to be the cinematographer on a short film someone else was producing. But the reality is, I made my creative endeavors my day job. And it nearly cost me my marriage.
I failed to truly appreciate the importance of being a fellow income-earner with my spouse. Sure, I had some income, but it was a far cry from hers and was pretty inconsistent. Okay, super inconsistent. We made sacrifices throughout the years because my focus was on this big dream. In retrospect, I see now how many of those sacrifices were not fair to my non-artist wife. Once we started a family, those sacrifices were no longer tenable.
"Don't quit your day job," is a bit of advice often dolled out to young artists. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't. But I'm not sure the younger and far more stubborn me of more than a decade ago would have listened. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't. Some of us just have to screw up, learn from failures, and move forward in a new direction. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that part of me wishes I'd never quit that first job as a video editor in Northern Indiana. It was a good job.
The bit of reality I really wish someone had more forcefully shared with me is that the vast majority of the creative life involves moving from one failure to the next, learning what you can along the way. While many do have incredible raw talents, none of us are born artists with a priori honed skills and the maturity to create lasting and meaningful art. That comes with the refinement process of working, failing, learning, and working more until little successes start to mount up to something more substantial.
"Never give up on your dream," is the other advice often dolled out to artists. We'll probably hear someone say so again from the stage of the Academy Awards this year as we do almost every year. When I heard this in the past I used to nod and whisper, "yeah, that's right." These days, frown a little wonder, "Isn't a little easier for you to say that holding an Oscar than it might be were you still toiling in obscurity? Would you be able to say such things with the same level of enthusiasm and goddamn certainty?" Maybe? Mayne not? I don't know for sure, but I can't help but wonder. After all, the reality is that we can't all make it. And I'm not even talking about winning Oscars. I just mean having a career doing the creative work we love.
Maybe the better advice might be to combine the two ideas: "Never give up on your dream, if you're really serious about it. But, don't go quitting your day job either. Be patient, be smart, and strategize." And to be fair, I think that many people mean this when they say, "Don't quit your day job." It's just hard to hear that last part when you're a young struggling artist filled with ideas and longings you wish you could dedicate all your waking hours to. You want to respond with, "You just don't get it." Okay, okay. Maybe it's not hard for you. It was just hard for me.
So, what am I getting at?
I'm quitting my day job.
What I mean by that is, I'm no longer pursuing my creative endeavors as a career, or doing such work as my "full-time" work. That's not to say I've given up either. For a long time, I thought that making this move would mean admitting defeat. And I think, to some degree, if I'm talking to that stubborn and delusional kid I used to be, sure, this is defeat. I've been vanquished. But what did that kid know? He wasn't a father. He was convinced he was special (in the narcissistic kind of way). What that kid didn't know was that there are no guarantees in life. He also didn't appreciate how fleeting art can be, even when it's good and meaningful stuff.
So, that's where I'm at. I'm quitting my "day job." I'm looking for a full-time job where I can meaningfully contribute and earn a steady income to help provide for my family, which I love more than life itself. But creating is part of who I am. I'm a storytelling. And as such, I doubt I'll ever stop creating stories. What time and experience have taught me is that life needs balance. And sometimes that balance has to change and shift with the seasons. So I will remain a storyteller (these days almost exclusively through the written word) while I do the work of being alive in this world, present to the moment, and contributing in any way I can.
The ironic twist to all of this is that it also frees me to approach storytelling from a rather selfish posture. If my livelihood comes from elsewhere, what I write about can be what truly interests me the most, regardless of potential "marketability." For the act of creating becomes the life-giving experience I can enjoy without the constant guilt or worry relating to how little income such acts of creation have ultimately brought about. There's a profound private joy to be hand in this. And as an introvert prone to anxiety, it's not the pitching and schmoozing and marketing part that I enjoy anyway. Like, at all. It's the creating.
So, now that I've quit my day job... I kind of need a new day job. And that's what I've been up to for the last few months. Turns out that's currently as uncertain as any creative endeavor I've ever embarked on. Go figure. But I'm ready to try, fail, learn, and try again.