One of the most pernicious myths about a creative career is that you are only successful if you make a decent living at it. I regularly see people beating themselves up on Twitter because they have to prioritise a day job over writing, or they’ve had to supplement their theatre work with office temping, or they don’t make enough money from their dream career to even have to fill in a tax return*. But does this really make them failures? Or, on the contrary, should we not only be reassessing what success as a creative means, but also recognising that having an industry full of part-timers can be a positive – even an essential – thing?
Of course, I think that (most) salaries in the arts should be higher. Of course, I think that the industry shouldn’t depend so much on unpaid labour, casual favours and the goodwill of people giving it all for their passion projects. But given that it is what it is – and seeing current government priorities, it won’t be changing anytime soon – isn’t it our responsibility as artists to redefine how we categorise success, for those around us and ourselves?
Beware the evil of false comparison
One of the most pernicious things about the arts industry is it thrives on hidden inequality. I wrote recently in a piece for Exeunt that theatre “is a world of privilege and money and lying about privilege and money” and I stand by that. Everyone wants to be edgy and cool: it’s hard to do that while admitting you are only staying afloat cos your parents pay your mortgage. But if we want a fairer, more diverse industry, we have to start being honest about what is propping it up. Very few people make their living from their creative endeavours. Most authors don’t make a living wage. Many theatre makers scrabble together on a mix of grants, teaching work, side jobs and loans.
The arts is a business peopled by the privileged, most of whom go to great pains to hide that fact. I know many amazing, talented, hard-working people who would nonetheless not be doing what they do without the benefits of an Oxbridge education, well-off parents, a wealthy partner or some combination of these. (I’m not immune to this: my first stint of full-time freelancing was only possible because I lived with a partner who had a ‘real’ job. When we split up, I had to go back to salaried employment so I could pay my rent.) The privileged among us have to start admitting to that privilege without taking it as a personal slight on their talent, and everyone else has to stop beating themselves up for not achieving the same results when they’ve come from such a different starting point.
A day job can be good for your art
As someone who once did two freelancing gigs alongside a really demanding full-time job, I’m well aware of how keeping yourself financially afloat can take all your time and energy and leave nothing for the creativity you crave. But if you can find a way to balance these competing demands, you can see your ‘day job’ not as something that is detrimental to your art, but that enriches it. We’ve all seen the careers of people who hit the spotlight at 25 then lose their edge with every subsequent project as all they ever experience is the closed circle of gilded success that they now move in. Having a job that is nothing to do with the arts can provide a mental breather, a fresh perspective and a far richer seam to mine for inspiration.
In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert argues that you should support your creativity, not expect it to support you (yes, I know, easy for the best-selling author to say, but in fairness she wrote her first few books while waitressing). Endless stretches of time to write may seem your perfect fantasy, but not only do few people ever get that, even if you do, it can be inspiration-sapping and, whisper it, actually quite boring. You may also find that when you remove the financial pressure of a project from the equation – because you are paying your rent some other way – it actually allows you to be less constricted and more creative.
A day job can be good for you
There’s a temptation to see a creative side hustle as the thing that defines you, no matter what your day job is. You’re a teacher – but really, you’re a photographer. You work for the council – but really, you are a playwright. And if you feel like that – if the bill-paying employment is genuinely just about paying the bills – that’s fine. Go with it. But don’t feel like that has to be true. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you actually like your day job: that you are good at it, that it gives you professional satisfaction. I used to fantasise about being a full-time novelist, so I could leave all my fee-paying commercial work with all its demanding deadlines behind. Then I realised that actually, I love my job. I’m good at it – an expert in my field – it’s well paid, and it gives me a level of professional satisfaction and respect that I would miss if I gave it up. Allowing yourself to accept that you are no less of an artist if you actually like your office job can be incredibly liberating.
There’s no age limit on success
There is an awful lot of truth to the cliché that the arts are dominated by middle aged, middle class white men, but the focus on rectifying that – and a justified drive to include more young voices in traditionally ‘stuffy’ mediums like theatre – can disguise the fact that older people (particularly women) who don’t fit into that demographic are too often erased from the conversation. The arts is an industry that craves new meat, that wants to be young and hip, constantly seeking out the Next New Thing, and that can make you feel like you have a sell-by date (notice how often prizes or grants for ‘emerging’ artists are age-limited, as if young and emerging are equated). Even for younger people, once you have gone from emerging to mid-career and the gloss of the new has worn off, the arts can feel like an arid hinterland where no one is interested in your work – you aren’t new enough to be exciting, or experienced enough to be a sure bet.
I’ve written many times on why age limits are ableist, classist and sexist – there are many, many reasons why people don’t have the time, money or confidence to pursue their artistic ambitions until they are older, and none of them relate to talent – but it can be all too easy to internalise the idea that if you haven’t ‘made it’ by a certain age you are a failure. But a more flexible idea of what an arts career actually looks like allows for late-blooming creatives to flourish – even if that idea of flourishing looks very different at 45 than it would at 20.
Wanting what you want – and admitting that you want it
This ties into my next point: is that so many people feel like failures for not achieving that big something (the acting career, the AD position, the film gig), even if it’s something they no longer want to actually achieve. I have friends who publicly bemoan the fact that they don’t have time for acting anymore, but the truth is – they admit after a few wines – that they decided the itinerant life of a jobbing actor wasn’t for them, and they are happier with work that allows for a more settled home life, better mental health or a more secure income. It can be hard to admit that the thing you swore was your life’s passion is now something that you would happily resign to an occasional hobby – especially if you move in creative circles where people often define themselves by their roles – but there’s no shame in it. Live how you want to live, don’t worry about what other people think of it.
Not every door closes forever
There’s a tendency in the creative industries to think that if you slow down for a second, you’ll stop for good. Like Wile E. Coyote racing off the end of a cliff, the only thing that keeps us going is not looking down and realising we’ve run out of road. And yes, it can be hard to reinsert yourself in an industry when you’ve taken a break from it – you worry your contacts have dried up, people have forgotten your name, you are no longer au fait with what’s happening in your field – but it’s not impossible. You may even find yourself richer for the break. I returned to freelancing years after my initial stint with a set of valuable specialist skills, a better contacts book and more confidence – and have managed to keep myself in business for the last 9 years.
You may also find that stepping back allows you a fresh perspective – whether that is to leave the field completely, return to it reinvigorated, or tackle it a different way. I worried that moving back North would make me seem like a failure, someone who couldn’t hack it in the London big leagues – even if I was increasingly jaded by my life down south. Instead, I found a richer and more welcoming community than I could have hoped for, and my creative and cultural life has flourished in new and surprising ways. Am I earning my living writing theatre reviews and selling novels? No, I am most certainly not. But I’m finding that that matters less and less.
The truth is, if we want a diverse arts and theatre industry – one that welcomes all voices, not just those polished at Oxbridge – we have to start assessing success in different ways. We have to see that the 60-year-old playwright who writes her shows on her teaching teabreaks is every bit as valuable to the industry as the big-time producer who decides we need to see another David Hare adaptation. That the single mother who can only write one small-press book every couple of years is as essential as the hyped up bestseller. That the skint girl who will never make a living from her acting but finds time to do a couple of shows here and there still has something worthwhile to contribute. That the theatre blogger who does it for free might bring a perspective just as necessary – or even more so – than the full-time critic writing for a big name paper? The sooner we accept that not being able to do your thing full-time doesn’t equate to failure, the sooner we can create a more egalitarian and inclusive version of success.
*I mean, I’m pretty sure everyone has to fill in a tax return, but you don’t have to pay till you earn a certain limit? Don’t take your financial advice from me, is what I am saying. There’s a reason I pay an accountant.
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