Your mother wanted you to go to law school. You, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine life stuck in an office, so you opted for an artistic career and a life less ordinary. If that sounds like you, then you know where I’m coming from. After more than a decade spent as a writer and TV producer -- and now more than five spent as a freelancer at that -- I’ve learned a few things about what life is like in the world of artists and creative types.
It’s not always a bed of roses, but when it comes down to it; life does smell pretty sweet indeed. If you’re trying to decide between that “safe” career and the one that will feed your soul, here are some lessons you can expect to learn from an artistic career.
#1 You’ll think -- and worry -- about money, constantly
This might not be the first time you’ve heard it, but it’s worth repeating: A life as an artist is one in which you’re going to earn a lot less than your friends who chose more traditional careers. You might find yourself living in a small apartment while your friends are buying condos or houses. At least a few times, you’ll probably have the exquisite experience of having almost nothing in your bank account, with bills looming. But suck it up, creative one, because being creative also means you’ll find creative ways to get those bills paid.
#2 People will only pay you what you tell them you’re worth
My father gave me this little piece of advice as he was helping me set up my freelance writing business. What it means: don’t undervalue yourself. If you only sell your paintings for five bucks a pop, people will consider your work to be only worth five bucks. Don’t be afraid to value yourself highly. There is such a thing as overcharging and thus never making a sale, but over time, you’ll also learn to ride a fine line and to value yourself enough to say no once in a while, or to refuse work that’s so low-paying that it’s a waste of your time.
#3 You’ll sometimes have to do projects that don’t totally match your creative vision
If you want to be really successful as an artist or creative professional, you have to understand your audience or your market. Then you have to develop projects that will actually appeal to that audience. You don’t have to totally throw your morals out the window or to “sell out,” but if you want to keep paying the bills, you’ll probably find yourself doing a commission for a mural that uses colors you’d never use, for example, or find yourself writing a commissioned poem on a topic you’d never dream of writing about.
#4 You might have to do other work on the side
Sometimes, you won’t want to submit to changing your creative vision. Other times, you’ll find you’re working so hard on the “work” part of your creative career that you don’t have time for the “fun” projects. Take the muralist who’s so busy creating murals for restaurants and local businesses that he doesn’t have the creative energy to get out there and book an art show, or the writer who spends her time writing business proposals and doesn’t have time to finish her novel. If this is you, you’ll have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it to burn your creative fire in that way. Taking a nice, easy job at a bookstore might help that writer pay the bills and refocus her creative energy on finishing that book.
#5 Your life will be full of interesting people and experiences
Another classic quote from my father: “None of your friends have “normal” jobs.” True, my friends tend to be art teachers, musicians, social activists, photographers, journalists, fashion designers and those with quirky side businesses doing things like selling vintage clothing. As a creative type, these are the people with whom I get along, and it makes for a never-ending parade of interesting, fun projects and conversations. Because I am not bound to one specific employer, I can also live wherever I want. Born in the US, I’ve lived in most parts of my country, as well as spending extensive time in both Europe and Asia. Right now I am based in Central America and will stay until I’m tired of the tropics.
In short, your artist’s life might not be filled with the security of a large bank account balance, and you might not have a sprawling country home, but you’ll be rich in experience -- and that’s a life well-lived.