Feeding the Art Monster Inside: On Being an Artist with a Full-Time J-O-B
As a creative with a full-time job, I am obsessed with learning about the artist’s process. I will pore over interviews with authors, painters, and musicians, and selectively extract insights and rituals meant to reassure me that I am in fact fine, and it is not too late for me to become great. Leonard Cohen was 33 when he released his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen and he’s Leonard. Cohen. Same with Marina Abramovic, George Saunders and that guy who wrote Dr. Suess. These examples comfort me and act as a kind of barometer for my own creative path: three years to finish a manuscript? Doable. Spending long stretches of time ideating? Hi, yes, me. Writing every day even when I don’t feel like it? Must be nice, I think, but I’ve got a job, otherwise I definitely would because that sounds amazing and in no way terrifying or boring. Over the years, my job has become a catch-all excuse for so many other things, like working out: I have a job. Adult acne: stress, from my job. Going to a thing on a weekday: rude. I just told you about my job. It’s not that I’m lazy or not driven. I’ve just channeled most of my creative energy into my day job.
I’m not alone in this. Almost every creative with a day job feels this way at some point, especially if their job requires them to be creative. Our creative skills are coupled with the pressure to optimize our productivity by any means necessary, not to mention the dissolving boundaries between work and life. It's no surprise we're left tapped out, uninspired, and estranged from the art monster that lives inside us. We’re wrung out, we recover, we repeat. This cycle leaves little room for personal creativity, besides maybe the occasional desire to artfully Instagram a houseplant if the mood strikes.
Part of our creative energy gets expelled just by getting to the office: putting on pants, long commutes, or obstacle course-like transit routes. Then there’s all the talking in complete sentences, polite waving and head nodding, committing to a monk-like seated position at your desk–and this is all before any real work gets done. Anyone who does this day in and day out knows that it is exhausting. Especially for us introverted artist-types who have trouble with basic eye contact. Even though I’m lucky enough to have a creatively fulfilling day job, the desire to create for myself hasn’t waned. Like a phantom ringing in my ear, I’m convinced it’s gotten worse.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
I first heard the term “art monster” in Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation, where she says, “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” From the moment I read it, the concept of the art monster stuck with me. For me, an art monster is an attitude, a way of life, an all-consuming thing that lives inside of you and requires your complete attention. As work piled on and my responsibilities grew, I resented it. Like many creatives, I never imagined that I would have stumbled into, sorry, leaned in to corporate life. I thought I’d be an author, or some kind of art-type person that would reliably have me sitting in a cafe on a weekday afternoon thinking art thoughts and doing art things. Sometimes I worry that I’ve veered off course and all of my creative dreams are over and what’s the point, etc. I think the term for this is “spiraling.”
Ironically, a lot of my job requires me to work closely with full-time artists, which often just makes me feel worse. But after almost a decade of working with and around artists, I learned that my understanding of what it means to be an artist is too narrow for me, and probably too narrow for most people. The truth is, a lot of creatives still have to work a job that requires them to use one of those swipey cards to get into an overly air-conditioned building where they use up their creative reservoirs for someone else’s dream. It’s fine and sometimes it can even be awesome. But don’t convince yourself that it’s satiating you because it’s kind of creative or hey, better than nothing.
WHO GETS TO BE AN ARTIST?
I think there’s enough literature out there on pursuing your dream and becoming a full-time independent creative; I would know because I’ve written a lot of it myself. If you feel like it’s your calling, by all means, do it. Live your best life, no days off, etc. I’m more interested in the rest of us, the ones who for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to or did but now don’t. I think if we can get out of our own way and drop the punk rock all-or-nothing notion of what it means to be an artist, we can remind ourselves why we started making art in the first place: because our eighth grade boyfriends (Mario Mancuso!!!) broke up with us. Also, because it was fun and important and imbued our lives with meaning.
Think about the role art has played in your life; you owe it to your art practice to keep showing up. If you’re nervous about where to start, try hitting up art shows, seeing one of your favorite bands in concert, or spending some time every morning reading art blogs. My point is, there is a thing inside of you and it is pissed because you are not feeding it. By neglecting it, you stop growing as a creative and this will eventually affect every aspect of your life, including your job. You can’t afford to neglect your thing, and neither can I. Long live The Thing.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
I just googled “creative side hustle” and scrolled through countless articles about supplementing your income with creative work; then I got distracted reading about ASMR YouTubers. My point is, there’s a lot of literature on monetizing your creativity on the side and it’s awesome, but for the purposes of my point, it’s whatever. If you can do it, great. If you can’t, who cares. You already spend so much time thinking about and developing products designed for other people to buy. Throw out this thinking when making art for yourself: it won’t serve you. The best way to do this is to not try to make money off of your thing, or at least don’t make it your primary goal.
Example: a few years ago, I got tired from writing listicles everyday about seven ways to totally whatever, and I needed an outlet for my own writing. I started writing short stories on weekends, kind of on a whim until I had enough to put together a zine. I printed 200 copies and sold a few but mostly gave them away, barely breaking even on the printing costs. I didn’t care because I was so proud of it. I did it again a couple years later and it ended up in a bunch of book stores and got press from a few art blogs. I even got a wholesale order from Nordstrom (I’m as confused as you are). I don’t think I ever followed up on getting paid. I still don’t make money from writing short stories, but I still do it because it is the only thing that gives me a sense of purpose and meaning and that shit is priceless. If I had done it with the intention of selling it to a publisher, I wouldn’t have done it the same way and it would’ve been way less fun for me to do. Writing on my own terms 100% helps me as a creative in my day job, even if it just gives me an outlet to be a weirdo.
Remember when you used to make stuff and you had no idea what you were doing and people were like, “wow!” and it gave you the confidence to make more stuff? How exhilarating was that? That part of you still exists, it just got buried under a giant pile of priorities you’re on the hook for. I mean, just look at your Asana! Those things are real and valid, but if you look closely, some of those things are just excuses.
The problem is your brain is a genius at coming up with excuses for not doing things. So your job is to design a fool-proof routine for cutting through your brain’s excuse-a-thon by literally forcing yourself to do it. Find ways to keep yourself accountable. I knew that I would never finish writing my stories unless other people bullied me into doing it, so I joined a creative writing group and was given assignments that I had to complete every month. I also paid for membership to an online writing group and got emails everyday from other writers sharing their published work. Then, I told all my very judgy friends what I was working on. Suddenly, writing became very high stakes. By creating an environment where I no longer had a choice, I was forced to participate or risk letting everyone down. I made it so that it would be too embarrassing not to finish it.
THE MYTH OF FREE TIME
When you work 40-50+ hours a week in an office, have a social life, a family, or even just a pet, you will very rarely find a long, uninterrupted stretch of afternoon calling for you to do your work. If you’re holding off on creative work until you have enough time to fully get in the zone, it’ll never happen. Knowing this, you have to block out time in your calendar and plan ahead. Identify when your peak creative hours are and take advantage of that time so you can get the most out of it. For most people, it’s the morning. What are you willing to sacrifice of your morning routine to devote fully to your art practice? Maybe it’s 10 minutes of stream of consciousness writing or maybe it’s listening to an inspiring podcast interview with an artist you really love. The only way to stick with it is if you feel there is momentum with your project. You need to be excited enough about something in order for it to compete with all of the other things calling for your attention, so planting the seeds for incremental progress is essential.
Expect it to feel bad and uncomfortable while doing this. You might even be a little anxious about what might emerge or wonder if you’ve still got it. Working in little bursts throughout the week does kind of suck and honestly, a lot of it won’t be all that good or usable. Keep slogging through it. When you’re in this stage, remind yourself that you’re not in the business of critiquing what is shit and what isn’t; you’re just doing the thing. Critiquing will be a job for future you, and future you has the clarity of hindsight you don’t currently have.
Art is hard. It’s hard whether you’re doing it full-time or not, but it’s also a big part of who you are and you’re lucky enough to be semi-good at it, enough that people will pay you to do it, so you’ve got to respect it. Shed your romantic ideas of who gets to be an artist, reconnect with why you started in the first place and bring that into your life in small, deliberate ways. Doing it for even just twenty minutes here and there every couple of days has helped me in so many ways. It’s given me perspective on reality when I’ve spent too long inside the Gmail matrix, it’s strengthened my writing skills significantly, and more than anything, it’s allowed me to prove to myself that I can be more than my day job and more than my art. I’m free to be both.
Nada Alic is an LA-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6, where she runs content partnerships and manages a robust freelancer network. Previously, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.