The Big Artistic Experiments That Haven’t Yet Earned Back Their Cost

Ignore the sound of my checkbook screaming.

Photo credit: OltreCreativeAgency, CC0 Public Domain.

I am not an artist. But art is necessary for what I do, and therefore I have to budget for it.

Despite my boring-on-paper copywriting job, I consider myself a creative person. It takes a great deal of creative energy to write sentences that may encourage you to buy something someday. The trouble is that sometimes I have to buy that energy by investing in projects, events or experiences. You can’t just conjure that up.

It seems thoroughly indulgent to set aside time and money to be creative, but the results prove that it’s worth it: every time I take a rest or make time to be creative, I always come up with new ideas. I’m inspired to take on new challenges, and that bravery often attracts new gigs and opportunities. I have to rest, or at least take on something that forces my brain to think differently, to do my work well.

And yes, sometimes these creative activities lead directly to more money. (Sometimes they lead indirectly to more money, by helping me build a monetizable skill.) But they don’t always earn back what they cost.

Here are three examples of big creative projects that hurt my wallet but made me better at pretty much everything:

I watched 500 movies in 14 months.

Full disclosure: I missed my original goal of watching 500 movies in one year.

This experiment cost me less than $50 in actual money. It was relatively cheap to consume media in 2016 and early 2017, though I subscribe to a lot of streaming services and paid for a lot of individual films. What I really lost were potential work hours. I once spent ten hours in one day watching Red State, Tusk, Stephen King’s It and Cleopatra, when I could have spent that Saturday attending networking events, fixing my website, or developing new pitches. There’s no telling how much money I could have earned if I had spent my movie-watching hours actually working.

But I learned so much from watching those movies. I achieved the result I wanted: understanding what makes a good story. Tapping into the wisdom of the ages. Watching classic and contemporary films and studying how they were put together. Doing this giant experiment made me a better writer.

(I could also write off a lot of the streaming expenses because I was doing this work in service of a forthcoming book.)

Managing such a behemoth project also taught me how to prioritize myself. It illuminated which friends would support me in my endeavors and who wouldn’t get it. Sure, I failed at my original goal. But it led to a bigger shift in my professional attitude than I anticipated. Taking a project seriously helped me take myself seriously, and that in turn helped me grow my career.

I attended big, spooky horror events.

I’ve written a few articles about attending Halloween Horror Nights, and it also makes an appearance in a future book. But going to Halloween Horror Nights costs a lot of money—I have to fly to Orlando, for starters—and I haven’t yet earned back the cost of these trips.

Travel for Work Was My Biggest Expense Last Year

Still, I can argue that this investment is benefiting my career. I learned so much from the marketing campaign of Halloween Horror Nights 25, for example, and use that knowledge to think outside the box for campaigns I work on.

I also got involved in the horror fan community. It was the first time I’d really belonged to a fan community for anything, and it has been one of the most joyful and rewarding experiences of my life. I finally knew other horror-fan adults, who could talk about The Exorcist at length and debate whether a 3D horror maze is any good. I let myself succumb to the madness of something for the first time in years. Worth it? Oh yes.

I hosted book club events.

My book club is based mostly in Portland, Oregon. Back when it was just getting started, most of our members were based in the same city. Most of the meetings were in-person, which meant I had to find a venue, buy food, draw up questions and games, and plan how the evening would go. I spent $110 on the first major meeting I hosted, and contributed at least $20 to hosting expenses three more times. Plus most meetings required me to purchase a book.

Did I make major, life-changing connections in these meetings? Of course not. But nothing was better practice for event planning, public speaking, politely bothering people to RSVP, or any of the other soft skills I use as a consultant or research aide. It’s easy for someone in my career to stay glued to a laptop. By spending money on a party—and being forced to coordinate a bunch of fellow nerds—I could practice my public self. That’s invaluable.

Just because these activities were “worth it” doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be human. It feels like a childish indulgence to spend so much time and energy on just having fun. If I didn’t see proof that having fun helped me earn more money, I probably wouldn’t be as keen on doing it.

But that’s the non-artist in me. Most of us aren’t artists, or at least don’t consider ourselves to be artists in the professional sense. I’m in a weird space where I’m a creative entrepreneur—I have to be both an artist and a businessperson. At least there’s proof that each side can fund—and fuel—the other.

Brit McGinnis is a copywriter and author of several books. Her work has appeared on Paste, SparkNotes and anywhere fine stories are sold. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Fails series.

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