I’ve had some big chats with arty friends lately about whether or not we are just plain crazy to still be chasing the muse in our late twenties when we could be enjoying far more financially lucrative careers if we would just admit that all this is a waste of time and settle down to full time jobs.
When we were at school, and perhaps even more so at university where we were surrounded by sympathetic peers, it was easy to declare that we would not have traditional careers. There would be no office jobs for us! No answering to middle managers, no idle chit-chat with coworkers while the kettle boiled in the staff break room and no photos of us and our cats pinned to our cubicle walls. We would have airy studios and write at corner tables in trendy cafes. Life would be an endless series of gigs, indie film premieres, book launches, soirees and afternoons reading in the sun. Money wouldn’t be an issue somehow. It was cool to be thrifty. We’d make it work.
Anyone who has freelanced or been self-employed knows just how far removed from reality this ideal is. At some point something changes and the pressure to grow up and be a responsible adult kicks in. Most of your friends have jobs and they’re saving money and moving out of share houses into their own places. They have ten year plans, own suits and are going on holidays—not backpacking, but actual holidays where they stay in hotels and eat at restaurants. Suddenly, being at home and still in your pyjamas in the middle of the afternoon is no longer de rigueur.
So you get a job. If you’re lucky, as I was, it’s in the field you studied in. For the first time, you can afford the fancy brand of toilet paper and a slightly nicer house in a less dodgy area. You tell yourself that it’s just a temporary solution till your own work starts bringing in enough money. You’ll still freelance, you’ll just do it in your own time. You arrive home exhausted, but you force yourself to work anyway. You get frustrated because you’re too tired to create anything of substance and then you’re tired at work the next day because you were up half the night working. You give yourself a night off, then two. You feel weird telling friends you can’t come out evenings or weekends because you’re working. After all, you’re not getting paid for your efforts, so it’s not really work, is it? Months go by and you don’t produce anything. The guilt you feel gives gives you panic attacks. But you’re doing well at work, and you are technically being paid to do the thing you studied all those years. Does it really matter if it’s not your own stuff?
If you decide, as I did, that yes, yes it does. You need to make a change. I realised about six months ago that my job was no longer a temporary thing. I enjoyed my work and got on well with my colleagues and felt altogether rather comfortable. There would never be a reason to stop turning up to work each day unless I gave myself one. So I made the decision to go part-time. It’s a scary thing to do, not only for the obvious reason that it took a significant chunk out of my pay cheque, but because I might fail. If I fail, how do I justify all this time I have taken to indulge what many may view as a hobby?
Well, first off, I’m not convinced that feeling will ever go away. I believe we creatives have the best jobs in the world and I think a lot of the guilt we feel comes from the fact that we really enjoy what we do. Yes, it can be and often is really hard, but there’s no reason for us to do it other than out of love. I get the same guilty feeling at my paid job when I’m working on a feature I’m really having fun with.
There’s also the undeniable fact that we’re often paid poorly, if at all. When we start out we usually have to work for free in order to build up our portfolios and attract paid work. Sometimes I find it hard to justify staying home to work on a book no one may ever read while my partner goes out to earn a salary. Those days I have to remind myself that I still pay all my bills. Before I made the decision to cut my days, I made sure I would still be financially independent. I figure, so long as I’m not relying on anyone else to support my lifestyle, then no one’s got any business questioning how many hours of paid work I do.
To my friends and anyone else out there who is unsure whether they should take the plunge and commit some serious time to their creative persuits, I say do it. It’s not glamerous, and it’s certainly not the endless parade of glitsy events we might have once naively hoped, but it’s not crazy or a waste of time either. It’s just a different lifestyle, and we have to get away from the idea that just because ‘work’ for a lot of people means set hours in an office building, doesn’t mean it has to be that way for everyone.
In fact, in many ways going it alone is much harder. There’s no managers to motivte you and no one but you will know if you spend the whole day watching tv in your underwear. It requires huge motivation and faith in yourself, which I know isn’t always easy to come by. But we owe it to ourselves to try.