Creatives: Can We Please Stop Shaming Ourselves for Working Traditional Jobs?

At the beginning of 2016, I read a Facebook post by Elizabeth Gilbert about the differences between a hobby, a job, a career, and a vocation. In it, she helps clarify the differences between the four, and how our creativity is impacted by our perceptions by what each of them mean.

That post came along at a critical time in my working life. My husband and I moved to Nashville 18 months prior, and I had been piecing together an income with part-time jobs: first as a maid, then as a maid and a content creator for a small marketing firm, then as a content creator and a florist. I’d been trying to pursue a non-traditional, free-spirited, flexible work-life for myself where my creativity was allowed to flourish and I didn’t have to adhere to a strict, 9-to-5 office job. But I was struggling. Hard.

I was struggling to make ends’ meet, with two part-time jobs with irregular hours and low wages.

I was struggling to balance my work with my personal life, allowing myself time to work AND be creative AND rest, because I was constantly worried about earning enough to live.

I was struggling to feel creative in my personal time, because I was giving so much of my creative energy to my jobs as a content creator and a florist, I had very little left over for writing and art.

I was struggling to prioritize things; I wanted to build my creative work independently so that it was separate and self-sustaining from my work income so that I could be financial stable, which required a lot of planning and odd side hustles (for instance, I set up an Etsy account and sold my baby clothes, of all things, to save money toward selling my art online (supplies + setup + packaging + shipping = $$$$) and buying a new laptop to replace my decrepit 2008 laptop. This was actually profitable; I earned close to $400 in 4 months…but out of desperation had to use that money to pay bills because my jobs weren’t paying me enough. Blergh. Back to square one.)

I was constantly sidetracked by the financial reality of what I was doing, but at the heart of my struggle was this other issue: I believed that my job had to directly relate to my vocation in order for it to have meaning. I believed that in order for my work to matter and to avoid being a “sell out” I had to have a super creative work life, I had to reject a traditional 9-to-5 job, I had to be independent.

But I didn’t feel independent. I felt trapped by fear. I was totally imprisoned by this notion of what my career and my vocation had to look like in order for it to be successful. I was running myself ragged trying to make my life fit this ideal. I was exhausted, broke, anxious, and at times straight up miserable. I was afraid that if my job and career didn’t ultimately support my vocation, then I wasn’t the kind of artist and writer that my peers and old college profs and publishers and twitter followers could respect. I agonized about whether I would ever fulfill my dreams to be a published author. I worried that working a traditional job wouldn’t allow me to be myself every day and that would deplete me creative energy. I stressed that I would never make enough money to pay my bills and put food on the table, let alone do things like pay off my student debt, or even buy a house and have kids someday.

Reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s post set me free, especially this part:

“My career is dependent upon others; my vocation is entirely my own. The entire publishing world could vanish, and books could become obsolete, and I would still be a writer — because that’s my vocation. That’s my deal with God. You do not need to make money from your vocation in order for it to have meaning. […] Vocation has nothing to do with money, with career, with status, with ambition. I often see people corrode their vocation by insisting that it become a career — and then making career decisions that destroy their vocation. […] The day that I feel my career is destroying my vocation, I will quit my career and go get a job, so that I can protect my vocation. But I will never quit my vocation.”

I needed to be told that whether or not I ever make money from it, my creativity still matters. And I needed to be reminded that being a diligent and capable employee in a 9-to-5 job is not an insult or a detraction from my work, it is not “selling out,” it is not wrong to make my financial needs and my family goals a priority.

“I believe there is great dignity and honor to be found in having a job. A job is how you look after yourself in the world. I always had a job, or several jobs, back when I was an unpublished, aspiring writer. Even after I’d already published three books, I still kept a regular job, because I never wanted to burden my creativity with the responsibility of paying for my life. Artists often resent having jobs, but I never resented it. Having a job always made me feel powerful and secure and free. It was good to know that I could support myself in the world, and that I would never starve, no matter what happened with my creativity.”

I am not less of an artist because I work a traditional 9-to-5 job.

I think I’m still recovering from all the junk posted by authors and bloggers that tell us that to “live a good story” and be a “real” artist, we have to quit our jobs and only “do what we love.” For a long time we’ve been told that in order to live fully into our creative gifts we have to put everything else at risk. Whether or not it is overtly said, the implication from these messages is clear, that our jobs have to be awesome and relate directly to our vocation and we have to change the world with it, otherwise we’re just another face in the crowd, another worker bee in the hive of capitalism.

And because of messages like that, I’ve spent most of the past seven years since I graduated from college feeling like a failure, because I can’t afford to be that carefree with my career and my finances and just quit everything. I have $80K+ in student debt; I will probably have a day job until the day I die. Coming to terms with that reality made me realize just how classist and elitist that whole concept of “quit everything & do what you love” is, because very few people can afford to live like that. And I began to notice that all the people who were touting this as the The One True Way to Creative Success were making a hell of a lot of money off of people’s insecurity. I can’t be convinced that this kind of classism is a fulfillment of their vocation, #sorrynotsorry.

Which is why Elizabeth Gilbert’s post matters so much to me. Because here she is, a famous author who has achieved what most of us understand as “success” – she wrote a bestselling memoir and Julia Roberts portrayed her in the film adaptation, and she’s bffs with Oprah and she makes money writing books for a living. But she’s not guarding the gates of creativity, she’s opening them wider to welcome everyone in. She’s saying there are many ways to be faithful to our vocations, and her way is only one.

And thanks to her wisdom and generosity, I finally feel at peace with being a writer who works a 9-to-5. In fact, I just started a new job working for a corporate company and I feel really fucking proud of it. I’m earning a salary and I get health benefits and a 401k and I can see the light at the end of a long tunnel of financial distress HALLELUJAH PRAISE THE LORD. And I feel like I can be faithful to my job, and still be faithful to my vocation, rather than being forced to choose one or the other. Because lots of writers and artists like me have done it before, I am not the first nor the last. And I feel like the job I do still has value, even if it isn’t the same as publishing a book or being an award-winning journalist or a profitable artist.

I’m looking after myself in the world, and that gives me dignity and confidence and joy.

And for the other writers and creative people out there who are agonizing over what you’re doing with your lives:

Take pride in how hard you’ve worked – on your vocation, yes, but in your day-to-day jobs that pay your bills and sustain your life, no matter how monotonous or menial the tasks. Your vocation is not a thing that can be taken away from you. The gate is open for you to keep pursuing a full, creative life. Be faithful to your path. We believe in you.

A Return.

Dear Blog,

You’ve seen me through so many changes in the past six and a half years. I was barely a college graduate when I started writing here. I was working two part-time jobs, as a hostess at a brunch restaurant and as a copywriter at my alma mater. I was completely in the dark about How To Be A Real Writer. I had no idea what a career might look like. I was terrified, because I had graduated in the middle of a national recession and didn’t even have internship experience. I don’t know how, but I survived that first year as a post-grad newly wed, living with my in-laws, working multiple part time jobs but still completely broke. I think, maybe, writing here was that flashlight that kept me walking through the darkness. It was a thing I could hold onto, something to light my way for the next few steps, and then the next few steps, and then the next few, just to keep me moving forward as a writer.

And then the next few years, it became a point of connection, a small but growing community of encouragement. I kept writing because it helped me find my people – the word nerds and faith seekers and fledgling feminists and creative dreamers like me. I had found full time work as a staff writer in a communications office, but this blog was my outlet, my safe space, to spread my creative wings. I was learning to write about my life, and that turned out to be a good thing, because when the storms came this blog was a life-raft. I was drowning in the grief of my mother’s death, but my blog people beckoned me back with comfort and encouragement.

I kept blogging, and it paved the way for new opportunities to share my words with other online communities. And in the years that followed, as I learned to cope with my new normal and articulate new hope for my future, the blog remained my constant source of motivation. It had brought me so far.

And then, slowly, I stopped writing here. At first it was about giving myself a chance to plant roots and build a new life in a new city. And then it was about hustling as hard as I could to make ends’ meet; the blog took a backseat to paying bills and buying groceries. And then it was about the fact that my site crashed, and it took several months (and a lot of help from my dear Sarah Joslyn) to recover my 6+ years of content. But even after we brought this blog back to life, there was something else holding me back. My silence was about being lost in a deep spiritual wilderness, where formulating words for a blog post felt impossible.

After years of writing about my life and my faith online, I reached a point where blogging a couple times a week through a faith crisis felt dishonest. I’ve always been that person that kept going when life was hard. I blogged through much of my mother’s illness; I was back online writing about her death merely two weeks after the fact. I was articulating my grief right in the raw midst of it. But three years later, I decided to stop trying so hard. To let myself be wordless in it. To let myself feel the unknown – the ineffable, unpredictable, unarticulated mystery of faith after trauma.

Did I even believe in God? Yes. No. Maybe. Yes. But I’m not sure how, or why, or what, or who.

I have felt that. And I have just as quickly felt that yes, I am a Christian, albeit an imperfect, indefinitely unchurched, perpetually exhausted one. A sweary, mad, cynical one.

Honestly, in my time away from blogging I have been a version of myself that I didn’t want to share online. Angry. Sad. Desperate. Defiant. Broke broke broke. Fresh out of fucks to give. Lonely. Depressed. Anxious. All the things I thought I was safe from becoming, when I was writing about grief three weeks after my mother’s death. Ashamed. I was ashamed. And then, eventually, I was relieved. Maybe even proud, for finally letting go. And I decided I didn’t owe anyone anything, so I could slip quietly offline, without having to explain.

I’m glad I did that. It felt like I finally gave up the illusion of being The Strong One, the Philosophical One, the Always Has Words to Say One.

My Aunt Beverly, the family therapist, always says, “You can be angry, just don’t build your house there.”

And she’s right. Of course, she’s right. I want to let myself feel all the real things, all the unbloggable things. But that’s not my home. I don’t need to dwell there forever. This blog, this is my home. My safe space. My flashlight, my way forward.

So I’m picking it up again. And while a lot of things have changed, it’s also true what they say: wherever you go, there you are. Six-almost-seven years later, I’m working two part time jobs. I’m still not sure How To Be A Real Writer. I’m still pretty broke. I make no promises to write consistently, or to write without the swears and scars and biting cynicism that are pretty characteristic of who I am.

But I’m home.

Hi, I’ve missed you.

The Miracles & The Mess.

thrifted desk - messy miraclesA few months ago, on an unseasonably cool Saturday in September, I bought a desk at a thrift store for $30. One drawer doesn’t quite close, and it bows slightly in the middle, signs that its previous owner weighed it down with too much junk. But it was sitting there on the thrift store sidewalk, full of potential, and I had just enough cash to take it home with me. It sat in the basement for weeks, holding several unpacked boxes while we worked out a rental agreement, an all-too-accurate reflection of the utter chaos of the last several months.

By some haphazard, messy miracle, we find ourselves living in a sweet little brick house in east Nashville. The rent is affordable, we have a wonderful twitter-friend-turned-housemate, and we get to have an office/guest room, a basement where my husband can host weekly band practices, and a yard for gardening. It’s everything we wanted but thought we couldn’t have right now. This miracle was born of several months of messy, unpredictable circumstances, including a brief (48 hour) stint in a cockroach-infested apartment, six weeks of crashing with generous friends, and moving all of our worldly possessions three times in four months. Oh, and my car broke down. Oh, and my blog, this very one that you are reading right now, broke down too, thanks to some shoddy coding and wonky, outdated plugins. (God bless my dear friend Sarah Joslyn for getting it up and running again.)

I’ve not been my best self through all of this, to put it mildly. During move #4, in which we transported approximately 672 boxes full of stuff that I could no longer remember owning into a house that we hadn’t yet signed a lease for – in the pouring rain, of course – I picked a fight with my husband and collapsed onto the floor in tears. He continued carrying boxes to the car while I scrolled through my Instagram feed, torturing myself with photos of other people who had houses to live in and furniture to sit on.

When we finally signed the lease and had permission to settle into our new space, my husband asked if we could move my thrifted desk into the office. I refused. I didn’t want to set it up before I’d made it perfect with a new finish and fancy desk chair, which at that point we couldn’t afford. When I finally sat down to my desk, I wanted it to be a clean slate. I wanted it to be freshly painted and bathed in sunlight, inviting me to sit down and crank out the next Great American Novel, or at least finish that memoir proposal I started almost two years ago. And so for weeks our office was a random pile of boxes, a waiting room of unresolved chaos while I held on desperately to my vision of perfect circumstances in which I’d finally be allowed to have the workspace I longed for.

I’m not sure what prompted it, but one day I finally let go. We moved the desk upstairs, sans new finish, with a chair we borrowed from a friend.

It’s not perfect.

Neither is my in-transition blog from which I write to you. Neither is my life right now.

But I believe in owning my circumstances, the miracles and the mess.

It’s who I am: bent, but not broken. Unfinished, but full of potential. A work in progress bathed in light.

Prodigal : Owning Failures on My Résumé

This article originally appeared on

10 a.m. and I’m just rolling out of bed. It’s my morning off. I work this afternoon at my part-time office job, and I’m blissfully happy that I don’t work at the restaurant again until tomorrow.

Until the phone rings.

It’s my restaurant manager. I don’t trust her any farther than I can throw her, and apparently the feeling is mutual. She’s called to tell me that I’m fired.

I’ve never been fired before, and it’s a feeling worse than (God forbid) getting a failing grade on an English paper, because I’ve just flunked real life. I’ve lost out on an entire paycheck, maybe even several paychecks.

Angry, hot tears well in my eyes as my mind scrolls the rolodex of handy excuses. My boss played favorites, as did the other waitresses. I was the outsider, the one that didn’t come from their hoity-toity, upper-middle class neighborhood. I was the college student working three jobs and trying to earn my degree. Once I graduated, I was the girl working three jobs and trying to plan my wedding. And then I was the newly-wed commuting 45 minutes for each 4-hour shift, just so that I could get paid to have screaming mothers and their toddlers berate me because they wanted booths instead of tables, soy milk instead of half-in-half.

I was book smart, not restaurant smart.

I was the artsy type, the type that wasn’t great with mental math or memorizing daily specials.

I roll over and look at my husband. He stands at the small mirror tacked to his wall, adjusting his shirt collar before he leaves for work. He’s been working in music retail for two months, and every day before work he gets shaky and nervous, his blood pressure skyrocketing as he faces another day working on commission. All he wants is to provide for us, but if he doesn’t sell a $3,000 keyboard today, he will earn less than minimum wage. We’re working these hard, ridiculous jobs, and it’s getting us nowhere.

I feel it, this overwhelming pressure :

Make money. Pay your bills. Figure out your career. Find a full-time job. Be a good wife. Write a book. (And don’t get pregnant.)

It took me six months and another waitressing job, but I finally got the point :

If I had just owned my mistakes, if I had just taken a moment to be embarrassed by my own behavior, if I had just admitted that I made waitressing harder than it needed to be by believing that the work was beneath me, I might have kept the job.

One thing is for sure, we’ll never hear God say that our behavior is contingent on how much slack other people give us.

Thus, I can’t erase those waitressing jobs from my résumé; they keep me humble. Those jobs are a bigger part of my career than I ever planned. It’s like my mom always used to tell me,

“In order to earn the big things, you have to be faithful in the small things.”

Whether it was schoolwork or house chores or even in my relationships, the wisdom in that has never failed me. Our overall grades depend on our faithfulness and consistency in our everyday effort. We may hate jobs like retail, food services, manual labor, or nannying, but those stages of our lives are what God has provided in the meantime.

It’s a chapter in a bigger story. It’s the work that God has given you today.

It is your daily bread.

Be thankful. Steward it well.

I’ve known for a long time that God made me a writer. Maybe not for my whole life, but for a good portion of I’ve known that it’s what I do best. Eventually it dawned on me: working is a necessity, but working a job we love is a privilege. We are not entitled.

God will provide the right work at the right time if I just begin.

This is why I started blogging. In the past three years it has helped me exercise my writing muscles and hone my skills. I started by venting about my sucky job situation and all my dreams of being a celebrated writer.

Becoming a writer didn’t start with a best-selling book. It started with writing.

Through blogging I’ve realized that in small increments, my blog is my writing at work. This has transformed my writing life. It connected me with Ally and Darrel, and now Prodigal Magazine. I couldn’t have predicted that. I certainly didn’t have the confidence to believe that it could happen, but here we are.

It makes me wonder :

What experiences do each of us need to own up to in order to live a better story? What moments in your life stand out to you, the ones that you wish you could erase from your résumé? Where do we need to demonstrate faithfulness in order to be the people God has called us to be?

More than likely, those moments feel scary because they hold a significant amount of truth and freedom for us, but we have to humble ourselves enough to admit it.

A Little Announcement…

A friend sent me this photo of Anne Sexton after this bookish post I shared a few months ago. There’s something about it that I find quite arresting. Her surroundings, typewriter sitting at her elbow waiting for words and books slanting against one another, waiting to be rifled through. Her outfit, sleeves rolled up on her button down, with comfortable slacks and black flats. Her position, chair tipped back with her feet on the desk. She props her hand in the air and her lips part – she’s about to say something good, something worth writing down.
This is the life of a writer at its best.
At times I find myself fantasizing about this life, and I have to stop and remember that writing is hard. It’s bleeding and weeping and prying your hands from perfection in order to grasp hold of the truth. It’s nothing like leaning back and propping up your feet; or at least not very often, and certainly not when there’s a camera in the room to document it. Sexton knew this all too well.
But just now, today, I feel very much ready to take it on, this life of writing – the bleeding and the crying, and then, in scarce and blessed moments, with the afternoon light gleaming through the window, the happy relief of having said something good, something worth writing down.
So here is my little announcement : Ally and Darrell of Prodigal Magazine asked me to be a staff writer for their newly refurbished online mag. My first article will be published later this week or next, but you’ll see my words over there a couple of times each month. I’m excited, scared, thankful.
But most of all, I’m ready.