“No one talks about what happens when following your passion leads you off a cliff.” ~ Twitter user whose name I cannot recall
I suspect, because humans are creative and curious by nature, that we have been dreaming big and failing with equal bigness since the first primitive human decided hunting mastodons just wasn’t his bag and he was going to give it all up and become a cave painting artist. Some of that ambitious cave man’s friends and family applauded (or grunted enthusiastically) at his decision, while others thought he was making a colossal mistake. Sure enough, when our artistic ancestor realized–no matter how well he had captured the joie de vivre of the hunt in ochre on the cave wall, and how transported he felt in that moment of creation, and how he knew that this is what he was born to do–that nice paintings don’t fill an empty stomach, he despaired. Sure, he could still paint after mastodon hunts and on weekends (as soon as weekends were invented) but it wasn’t the same. He had dreamed of a life of art and he had failed.
Or maybe it didn’t happen quite like that but art, as a full time occupation, has been tempting innocent victims throughout the ages. The handful of famous writers, artists, dancers, and musicians that we remember are a dot on a flea compared to the hordes who passed into obscurity. And even many of the artists we call famous today were not appreciated (or paid well) while they lived.
Making a Living is the artists’ holy grail. It is that to which we aspire and when we summon the courage to seek that grail, to follow our passion, we do so accompanied by two big fears:
- That we are not good enough and we will fail.
- That we will have to display our failure to the world by getting a “real job” once more.
I am an old hand at following passions off cliffs. It feels great to tell everyone I was a professional stunt performer for 10 years but I was about two weeks away from giving up that pursuit forever in favour of a Real Job when I lucked out and snagged the final credit needed for my union membership. In fact, I was so broke and so frustrated that I had already started sending resumes out to veterinary pharmaceutical and food companies in the hopes of a lucrative job as a sales rep. It would still be another three years before I made enough at stunts to give up my part time job as a veterinary assistant, but union membership opened up enough opportunities to keep my hope and bank account afloat while I waited.
I got lucky. Make no mistake, it was pure luck. Yes, I know, I know, “the harder I work the luckier I get”, but I could not have worked hard enough in that two week window to generate any more luck than already existed.
Other passion following has not gone so well. My permanent move to the Bahamas with my husband…wasn’t. Obviously. (I’m still with my husband, we’re just not…well, you get it).
I haven’t put much thought into my recent transition from full time writer to part time writer and part time Real Jobber. Given the circumstances of the past year, I was simply happy to find employment with a decent wage, fun and friendly employers, and a healthy work environment. There was no time to angst or feel like a failure, there were only bills to be paid and a driving desire to overcome the state of depression and inertia into which I had fallen.
Then my artist friend Andy stopped by for a visit.
Luck was on my side. I had the entire day off to spend with my Alaskan Breakfast Squad-mate and the sun was shining. I made sure we did as many touristy things as we could fit in but that we also had plenty of time to catch up and talk.
Of course we talked about art. A lot.
At one point, Andy very delicately asked me how things were going and how I was feeling about returning to the Real Job world. He’s not only a mega talented artist but also a kind friend who has made his own crossover–from Real Job to full time writing–in the past year.
I assured him that everything was fine and here’s the strange part: it is fine.
Strange because for so long I felt as if the worst possible fate that could befall me was to admit defeat as an indie author and face big fear #2: my failure on display.
When my financial stress started getting the better of me in 2015 I fought an internal battle and after much metaphorical hand wringing went out in search of a regular paycheque. That felt like defeat. That felt like failure. That felt like shame.
Luck had passed me over this time around. Oh well.
And then my annus horribilus happened and I had other worries to occupy me. Bullet dodged but stress still 100% intact.
It was during that year, however, that magic happened. This magic came, as magic so often does, in the form of a book. Not my book, a book by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Big Magic played on audiobook as Prez and I drove home from California and I was transfixed.
I have recommended this book to many creatives and if you are a creative I recommend it to you now with my whole heart, liver, kidney and spleen.
Books with subtitles like “Creative Living Beyond Fear” usually sending me running for the hills, sometimes throwing up in my mouth a little as I do. I am not a “woo-woo” person. I am a hard work person. Thankfully, writer friends I trust and respect had read and recommended this book and so I took a chance.
Gilbert has many good things to say about creative living–some I already knew, some that I needed to hear again–but the section that resonated with me concerned money and debt. There was no “follow your dream no matter what!” rhetoric here. Gilbert was clear about the need to remove financial stress, even if that meant creating your art in tiny slices of time away from your Real Job. This was not about success or failure, this was about giving your brain the space to create without stress or pressure. One line in particular slapped me awake:
…debt will always be the abattoir of creative dreams.
Exactly. I had come to a point where the moments I usually spent daydreaming and playing with stories in my head had become moments where all I could think about was our bank account and how we were going to
make it survive once we hit retirement age. I hated that my husband carried the weight of our financial responsibilities almost entirely on his shoulders. I hated feeling as if I was a leech, not a partner. Day by day these feelings eroded the joy that had once come with my creative life.
By the time we made it back to Campbell River, the word failure had vanished from my thoughts, as had the two big fears. A Real Job would not mark the end of my creative life, it was the only means by which I could continue to have a creative life. Having a Real Job didn’t make me a sell-out and didn’t relegate my writing to the realm of the dreaded “hobby”, it was the path to longevity, the magic potion to enable persistence.
My Real Job, which is seasonal and will end in mid-October, makes me happy on several levels. The money isn’t huge but it’s enough to cover rent and some groceries. Stress is relieved and I can once again hold my head up high as a contributing financial member of my marital partnership. My Real Job empowers me within my marriage. Now that I have my own income again, I feel as if I have a right to speak up about how our money is spent. (And I can buy a few extra kitten treats without feeling guilty). My Real Job is fun! I get out of the house, meet new people, and talk about some of my favourite things–the ocean, whales, dolphins, eagles, bears.
If you are a full time creative struggling with the decision to “give up” and go find a Real Job or to keep banging your head against the wall of debt…stop. Take care of your finances. Tell those two big fears to take a flying leap and do whatever you need to do to alleviate the stress that kills your creative joy. If you are a creative who feels inferior because you still can’t make enough to leave your Real Job…stop. If your art is important to you, if creating is what makes you feel like a better person, then it doesn’t matter if your art is paying your bills, only that your bills get paid and your art gets made. If you are a creative preparing to leave your Real Job and pursue your art full time, good for you! (But remember it doesn’t have to be a one way trip).
My friend, the ridiculously talented author and publisher, Mark Teppo, in his most recent newsletter (you should subscribe–worth it!) talked about the frustrations he has dealt with in the past few years. He talked about thoughts of giving it all up, walking away to punch a clock and disappear, but came to the conclusion that he could never give up his writing.
…all of the whining and stress and rage has nothing to do with failing, and everything to do with being disconnected with who you are and what you truly desire.
This is the heart of it: Who are you? What do you truly desire?
I am a writer. I am happiest when I’m writing, even when I’m completely miserable (writers, you know what I mean). I am fulfilled when I write. I am a better person when I write. Anything that stands in the way of my writing must be dealt with–including money or lack thereof. When I clear the obstacles from my writing path, that is success.
Perhaps one day I will find myself in a position to write full time again or perhaps I will always need the help of a Real Job but, no matter what, I will always write.
*Photo: On the set of Millenium