A little over a year ago, I was still working my museum job and had just conceived of the idea for this blog. I was trying to create as much content as possible in advance and I reached out to my husband Brad's childhood friend Sam, who works as a storyboarder here in Los Angeles, to see if he would be interested in writing about the intersection of artistry and making a living.
He said, "What if I think that you have to put yourself in a position where you have no other option but success?"
Sam's declaration hit me like a riding crop right in the ass. I had already been thinking about moving up or out of my current position. Also, on my walk to work every day, I had to walk right past this fucking mural:
The caption, translated, reads: "The greatest loss in life is not death, but rather what dies within us while we live."
I actually loved my job and the place that I worked, but at the time I frequently got the creeping sensation that I could work there my whole life, truly enjoy it, and then still look back at my life from my deathbed and have serious regrets. I remember sitting in a meeting where museum researchers unveiled a new collaborative center for urban nature, and everyone was so excited. The volunteers were asking a gazillion questions about how they could participate and communicate the new initiative to guests; the staff had a hundred ideas about connecting new programming. And I was just sitting in the back thinking, this is how I feel about books.
Two weeks after I messaged Sam, I gave notice at the museum.
Now, I’m not saying Sam’s advice is the best advice in the world for every artist. In fact, it’s decidedly bad advice for probably the first ten years of your artistic development. But Sam’s assertion hit me at the right time. I was in a place where I was looking for the next step in my career, and my husband and I didn’t need my salary to get by. So I thought about it. What would it look like for me to put myself in a place where success was my only option? It did, in fact, feel remarkably like the time in Lake Tahoe where I jumped off a twelve-foot rock into icy-cold water — I made my brother go first and then it still took me seven minutes to work up the nerve. But I realized it was the logical next step for me: all or nothing time. Time to commit all my time to the work I loved best.
To detail it out, here is a list of all the experiences and positive factors that made this a good decision for me:
I was three years out of graduating from a creative writing MFA, so I had a degree in my artistic field
My student loans were paid off
I had just sold my first piece of writing for actual money
I was working on a new sci-fi novel every morning before work anyway, so I already had the committed habit and a specific, long-term goal to focus on
Most importantly, I had a working spouse who made enough to cover all our living expenses, so my salary was actually extraneous, and we could remain financially solvent
For most writers, a day job is essential. Quitting a day job to devote yourself to art can be financially disastrous, and it has the tendency to put too much pressure on the work itself. It’s hard to be artistic when that’s your only means to a paycheck. Quitting a day job is not something I recommend for most artists. But perhaps “putting yourself in a position where success is your only option” doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your day job. Maybe it means working a day job where you’re still honing your artistic skills while earning that paycheck. Maybe it means getting an arts degree that will let you spend two or three years learning and practicing. Maybe it means working three jobs, two of which are related to your art and one as a bartender. Maybe it means getting up at 5 am before work to pound the keyboard. Most likely, it means consistently making choices that will eventually put you in the position where the next best step is to create art full-time.
I did all of these things over a period of about ten years. And the truth is, I had always been putting myself in a position where success is my only option, because I put writing at the center of my life. I got an MFA even though it required taking out student loans. I found a job that helped support my writing habit by giving me inspiration, creative outlets, and training in education and online marketing and design (and paid off my student loans) And Sam happened to remind me of that while I was at a crossroads about what to do next
A year later, I have a completed manuscript, a working blog, a decently clean house, and an active social media presence that I am (very slowly) turning into a platform. I also have a new novel I’m worldbuilding for and an old memoir I’m in the middle of reworking. Tonight Brad and I are headed out to have dinner with a screenwriter friend to discuss his notes before I do a final rewrite. Things are moving. Slowly. But they’re moving. And I have no other option but succeeding.