How A Non-Creative Day Job Can Help Your After-Hours Arts Work
The struggle to juggle a day job with creative pursuits is real. Missed deadlines, constant eye bags and the inability to attend writers’ festival events on weekdays without resorting to ingenious excuses are all but part and parcel of the part-time office drone/part-time artist gig.
But too often, we hear from writers and artists who also work in publishing houses, bookshops, arts organisations, universities and festivals. What is it like navigating the challenges of working in a day job firmly situated outside the broader arts industry, while simultaneously contributing to the national discourse in a meaningful and tangible way? It sounds near impossible.
I recently made the switch from journalism to communications work, swapping the constant threat of being made redundant with the ability to pay for my daily $4 coffee (almond lattes are expensive) without having my card declined. But that also meant forsaking the daily act of threading words together for a more nebulous position, where writing is not always at the forefront.
Twitter is a medium I consume voraciously in my free time, and writers’ festivals are non-negotiable times for any other event in my social calendar, but they function in lieu of the constant exposure to likeminded people, the frequent engaged discussions about the issues propelling the arts industry forward (or sucking it backwards, in the case of recent arts funding cuts), and the fact that the conversations with people outside my literary circles rarely gravitate towards books, politics and feminism.
Is an arts job then the be-all and end-all to being an artist?
How non-creative day jobs can be super positive for creatives
It’s often assumed that day jobs play an important role merely in paying the rent – especially non-creative jobs – but they can be enriching in their own distinct ways.
Playwright and writer Claire Bowen’s day job as a project administrator and executive assistant allows her to be in contact with non-artists, self-fund projects and pay collaborators.
Writer Scarlett Harris finds her relatively undemanding part-time job in an incoming customer service call centre the perfect conduit for consuming pop culture, pitching, writing, researching and editing in her free time.
“I don’t really know what it’s like to work full-time in a creative industry,” says Scarlett, “so I don’t have a comparison, but the mundaneness of my day job and my general competence at it makes it easy to switch my brain to creative mode when I need to.”
Research scientist and queer writer Olivia Wilson regards the lack of pressure to produce creative work as a means of income as both a luxury and a liberty. And her day job isn’t just a means to an end either – Wilson is about to embark on a PhD regarding the potential tsunami impact on NSW, and strikes a healthy balance between working in the sciences and writing in the arts.
“Research requires a certain creativity, too. It might mean that when I do write, my writing is quite concentrated, as the ideas have been building up in my day-to-day life… Being restrained in using emotive language at work can sometimes mean my creative writing has a kind of unleashed expression to it.”
Performing arts reviewer Nerida Dickinson transitioned from teaching to working as an executive assistant. Up until her recent promotion to a more senior position, the day job provided the perfect set-up for her writing.
“My day job emphasises the technical side of my writing craft, while not demanding my personal connection with the content in a way that I found school teaching did.”
From simple things like working better in the face of time constraints to using her experiences at work as fodder for her writing, the security of her day job facilitated her writing in various ways.
“I had set hours, set duties and a set wage from which I could take more risks in sending pitches, continue to write for outlets that did not pay and continue to write for outlets that may get around to paying me eventually – without stressing too much over whether I would make rent that week as a result.”
You’ve got to be committed to making time for both…
Contrary to how you expect people who have day jobs to fit everything else in (using Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner, of course), the lack of a routine pervades through many creatives’ lives.
“A routine is death to my art. I like missed deadlines and frantic late nights, but I am getting better at that! I work with collaborators now to keep me honest and on track,” Bowen says.
Wilson similarly concedes that there is no regular schedule she upkeeps in managing her day job and creative work. “I just try to make time where I can and keep making time regularly. Sometimes, I just have to drop everything else and write.”
Making use of every spare moment is central to Dickinson’s freelance work ethic. “I tend to work late on show nights and then go straight from work to attend shows. I then use the commute the following day to write up the review.”
…And keeping in with the scene
When you don’t work with likeminded people, actively seeking them out and getting drunk together at art festivals is necessary, although it may require some extra effort on your behalf. Why? You’re connecting with those who resonate with the frustrations, challenges and triumphs of being an artist, and you become part of the community.
Events and social media are the go-to options for many creatives. Wilson seeks out stimulating events where she has the opportunity to spend time with likeminded creative people and challenge herself, while Bowen has a strongly curated social media feed and developed artist networks. Harris says she would be lost without Twitter.
Operating out of a small city like Perth allows Dickinson to keep up with performing arts developments through interviewing people and going out for coffee with creatives. She is also part of a playwright group. For the most part, however, Dickinson derives a certain amount of joy from not being entirely up to speed on current trends and themes: “I don’t want to be forced to write that way or about those topics simply to fit a trend.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but it works for people
Perhaps having a day job that sits completely outside the broader arts industry, or having a day job at all, isn’t the easiest way to approach your creative practice, but it’s certainly one that has its merits and works for many people. People whose career progression paths haven’t landed them in the arts, people who nevertheless derive something important from their job, and people who find enough meaning in writing and keeping abreast of the arts to continue doing it even when it doesn’t pay the bills.
As Dickinson articulates when asked why she’s made a choice to stay in her current executive assistant position: “I wish to retain the joy of the art of writing as a part of my life, rather than coming to resent it, dread it or even despise it.” And that seems as good a reason as any.
Sonia Nair is a writer with food intolerances who blogs at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com. She has written for Spook, The Big Issue, Australian Book Review, Books+Publishing, and tweets @son_nair.