When Doing What You Love Doesn’t Pay: What Next?

by Alizah Salario

Right after college, I lived in Santa Monica for a few months, and a friend introduced me to The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. As I read, I imagined a finger emerging from the page and pointing at me as if to say, “You! Yes, you! You are an artist, and this is your way! Forget the stepladder career path. You have a creative journey ahead. You’re a writer, so write.” It was a revelation at the time.

Except that I didn’t write. Instead, I became a teacher. I did so because I’d heard you should pursue a creative field if it’s the only thing you can possibly see yourself doing. I figured if I had genuine talent, I’d feel it in my bones, whereas my marrow is made of self-doubt. I didn’t think I have what it takes. Also, I wanted stability. Also, I needed to support myself. If I couldn’t write great American novels, at least I could teach them. That was enough.

Until it wasn’t.

Six years later, I left education for journalism, and with pent-up creative energy to spare, I returned to fiction. I was writing evenings after work, then late into the night. A story sprinted across the pages, the pages became chapters, and soon I saw the “You Just Wrote A Novel” banner waving at the finish line, even if it was still another 30,000 words away. If only I didn’t have the pesky distraction of going to work! An idea wormed its way into my brain and burrowed deep in my mind: If I quit my job, I’d finish my book, get an agent, a publisher, and then, shazam! Novel, done. Maybe my convoluted path from teaching to journalism to fiction was my artist’s way, and I needed to heed the book’s advice once and for all: “Leap, and the net will appear.”

So I did. I gave myself three months to live off of savings and finish my novel before finding a new job. Three months turned to six, and my savings dwindled. I queried agents, got rejected. When my lease expired, I couldn’t get a new place. I took stock: I had no job. No steady income. Soon, I’d have no apartment. Worst of all, I didn’t have a book deal.

I had leapt, but the net never appeared. My brave risk was a foolish gamble. My artist’s way was a dead-end.

So I folded. I got a fact-checking job at a magazine, then an apartment and a steady paycheck. I parsed reductive messages about money following those who follow their bliss, and realized I never saw the vast swath of grey between the black and white poles of “you’re an adored bestselling novelist” and “you’re a piece of shit who can’t string a sentence together.” But a lingering sense of failure and guilt over the fact I wanted financial stability more than I wanted to pursue my dream at all costs led me to call Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and expert in personal finance wellness who often works with writers and performers.

“People are so squeamish about allowing themselves to care about money, which frankly I think is a think is a certain squeamishness rooted in self-worth and ambivalence about how permitted we feel to take care of ourselves and speak up for our own needs,” says Clayman.

That’s just the beginning. Claymen helped me untangled my beliefs about risk, success and achievement. We identified some of the myths that hold artists back, and the realities that can help us pave our own way(s).

Myth #1: Commercial/financial success doesn’t matter if you’re an authentic artist

I took a long-awaited risk. I believed the universe and I had made an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” deal. Turns out, the universe doesn’t have fingernails. It took me a long time to recognize I didn’t just want to write a novel. I wanted to publish one. I want my words to be read by the masses. Art for art’s sake wasn’t enough, and admitting this (still) feels crass, shallow and vain.

“This is one of the big myths, and frankly the traumas, of creative people who run into career or financial trouble,” says Clayman. “They feel like I did my part, I was supposed to remain artistically pure and just pursue my work. I claimed that the commercial success didn’t matter, and maybe I didn’t even realize that I had this expectation. Accepting that you wanted commercial success can be like coming to terms with cutting off a piece of yourself.”

Myth #2: If I’d written the perfect book, the success and money would have followed

The notion that the perfect book/sculpture/performance equals the perfect life stems from a deep-seated belief that if “you can be the ideal artist and be so in touch with your creativity, everything else will just fall into place,” says Clayman. For many artists who cherish their process and that euphoric sense of flow, “everything in life gets oriented around that value. People tend to tell themselves that if they just do this one thing so well or so perfectly, it will all into place in a lovely — and even fantastical and luxurious — way.”

That is merely one example of how binary thinking stifles artists, and I got caught in this, deep: Because my book wasn’t perfect, it, and I, were trash. Therefore, I didn’t deserve all things I wanted but couldn’t afford: a latte, a new pair of strappy sandals, a sense of stability. I often compared myself to the exceptions as if they were the rule. You know, the J.K. Rowling-type wunderkind who dashes off a novel in her spare time while working and being a single mom? Unfortunately, this binary thinking turned the boundless creative process into a charge to succeed at all costs.

Myth #3: If you change course, you’re a quitter

There can be sweetness in the struggle, but in my case, not making money held me back. For so long I’d envisioned writing full-time as the ultimate freedom. Instead it became a different sort of trap.

“One of the reasons the starving artist myth has been with us for so long is because it does give meaning and dignity to the struggle. It gives dignity to the pain that people experience. They don’t personalize it so much, because they’re able to connect it to something higher,” says Clayman. “Where that’s very limiting is that people don’t take care of the things that they can and because they’re hiding behind that myth. They’re using it to justify a limiting behavior.”

Which leads us to …

Myth #4: It’s all or nothing. You’re either a broke and a failure, or rich and successful

Caught up in black and white thinking, I bounced from one extreme to the next. I’d gone from postponing my dream to diving in head first, and neither tactic worked. I had failed twice over. Or so I thought. Clayman helped me recognize that going to extremes was all part of my process.

“There’s a real misconception that balance is a consistent move to the middle,” she says. “The way that we seek balance is usually through a series of over corrections. We go from one extreme to the other, and through ping-ponging back and forth, that’s how we find our middle.”

Eventually I did find middle ground, financially and creatively. Though I’m still working on it, I came to terms with the following realities.

Reality #1: Everyone has a secret

The more writers I meet, the more I’m attuned to how the writing life is full of financial trap doors. They’re camouflaged to the point of invisibility, but they’re there. Sometimes these doors lead to a wealthy spouse or a trust fund. More often than not, they open to compromises.

“We envision that things will sort of fall into place, and for a very luck few people they do,” says Clayman. “But for most of us, we are really stuck in the grey area and having to make some tough choices about our boundaries. We assume that it’s just working out for other people, but the secret is that there’s a secret that’s making it work.”

My secret? I write content for financial services firms about 20 hours a week. The work is steady. The pay covers my basic expenses and gives me flexibility to do other types of writing. It’s not a perfect solution, but better than feast or famine. So, #noshame.

Reality #2: You don’t have to be like your parents

I grew up in a family where work was about earning a living, not pursuing one’s bliss. Hard work was a matter of pride, and being able to pull your own weight was expected. That’s why not publishing my novel triggered a debilitating shame spiral: it seemed indulgent and maybe even illegitimate. When the lessons you learn about money growing up aren’t specific to your circumstances, it can be very hard for creative people who aren’t replicating the life of their parents, says Clayman.

Reality #3: Balance is not a destination

In order to find a sense of writing equilibrium, I had to release the fantasy of ever achieving a perfect balance between passion and practicality. Clayman reframes balance by defining it not as a permanent state, but as “more of an orientation. So when you feel out of balance, you’re able to reorient yourself and realign to the place you’re moving toward. But it’s always about a dynamic. There’s movement in it, it’s not stasis.”

Reality #4: Money is a mirror

Ironically, it was grappling with something material, money, that helped me sort out intangibles like values, goals and dreams. Going broke clarified my priorities in ways that philosophizing could not.

“One of things that’s so interesting is people’s journey with money is that in a personal and philosophical sense, money is a thing that takes us on a journey. Sometimes it’s the journey we need to have in our lives take to grow and become balanced adults in our life. Money was the thing that taught you [Alizah] about the facade that other people were presenting, and the need to have something that’s stable, and accept that you have needs and deserve to have them taken care of.”

Amen. And onward.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. Her reportage, essays, and criticism have appeared in Money magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Narratively, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.

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