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.

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.

Inspired By.

It’s late and I’m exhausted. I am soul tired and bone tired and trying hard to grasp onto the good things and face reality, such as it is. Mom sleeps next to me, here in our own quiet room of a fifth floor oncology wing. For a few hours this evening she was coherent, ate a small bowl of soup and her headache was gone, her fever was down, her levels looked good. A glimmer of hope.

I don’t know what to think about anything. I don’t have a lot of words to say. And for the first time in a month, I don’t have a paintbrush in my hand.

I have memories, good ones. I have prayers. I have a whole host of angels that call, text, tweet, message, and show up live and in person to love on us and ease the pain. And I have these little links of happiness that have made hard days a little brighter. I hope you enjoy them as I have. If you found a good link this week, do share.




Lovers see like artists do.

Unearth your story.

And a random comfy chair I’d love to curl up in right about now.

The Age Issue.

It’s funny. I don’t feel 24. And perhaps that’s because I’ve never been 24 and the feeling of it will settle into my skin as the next 365 days wear on. Sometimes, I feel older. The kind of older that comes with experiencing life at a faster pace than a lot of people my age. Sometimes, I feel way too young for the things I’m doing, especially when people have the habit of telling me so. Sometimes I feel far removed from the younger me, the adolescent me that felt quiet and sensitive and frizzy-haired. Sometimes I am her again, and the present feels like an alternate universe I stepped into, unknowingly, as I opened my closet to get dressed for school.
So what advice can I give myself as I step into a new year?
I think,
given the unpredictability of the present,
given the patience required in this stage of waiting and growing,
given the fact that I am now officially 24 years old and I do not have things figured out as 14-year-old me might have expected,
the thing I must do is learn.
I don’t want to have things figured out. I want to stay curious and hungry and restless enough to want to learn. I want to read and reflect and write and ask questions and search and pray so that the ideas and the answers and the possibilities keep coming. I want to begin each day with anticipation for what I will discover that day, understanding that whatever it is will not be the whole puzzle, but merely one more piece.
Learning is my motivation to live.
Here are a few posts that taught me something this week:
“I wonder if I’m still a writer or a content creator.” And 4 other things that I wish I didn’t have in common with every other writer/blogger on the planet.
Remember this post? Here’s another beautiful essay about the Fading Art of Letter Writing.
We’ve sheared the textile of our own lives. And it’s time to put down the scissors.
[Thanks Tyler for the great links yesterday!]
[Image via]

I’m Not the Story Weaver.

I am a writer. Consequently, my general outlook on life is a series of archetypes, themes, plots, summaries, critiques… there’s a lot of pre-writing and re-writing going on in my head, and there’s no switch to turn it off. All the world is a stage, you know.

But it’s the endings I’m not good at. I’m a total sap when it comes to endings. Mostly, I envision that the story actually comes to an end, a resolution. I often realize much further on in my writing and reading that this is a false assumption.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder about our fascination with the fairy-tale ending. We began by expecting it, and now we’ve become disillusioned with it, naturally.

But where does the fallacy lie in “happily ever after”?

Is there no such thing as happiness?

Or have we made a bad habit of ending the story at the wrong part?

So the prince and the princess get married… and???  What comes after that? What exactly constitutes the “happily ever after”? A fairy-tale prince or princess would never be unfaithful to one another. The prince would never be a deadbeat dad. The princess would never become a bitter, self-conscious old woman that drives her prince and her children crazy. They would never lose the castle, the talking livestock, and the pumpkin carriage in a faulty investment. They would never bicker or become alcoholics or abuse their kids. They would never die of terminal illnesses.

And yet, here we are. We live in a dichotomy of pure joy and pure tragedy. We find love and we find hate. We can’t get rid of the evil stepsisters and the villains; quite often we are our own worst enemy. We make the best decisions we’ve ever made, and then we screw it up.

Maybe it’s the ambiguity of it, the elusive “happiness” that leaves us confused and frustrated and empty when we try to live in the “ever after.” The brokenness wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did, and we can’t see how it could ever be right again. We have no pre-text for what to do when we screw up, so the “happily ever after” plan is eradicated.

Or maybe it’s that we’ve totally abandoned the possibility of redemption.

I yearn for the easy answer, the redemptive ending. I wish I could tie the strings of all our loose ends together so that our lives would never unravel as they so often do. I keep finding myself trying to weave it all together, tightly, to make it mean something, to make our stories and our selves whole again.

I think it’s better if I just stop trying to rewrite the thing. Life is beautiful and gripping and horrific and triumphant and tragic enough on its own.

I’m not the Story-Weaver. I need to just keep reading.