Hard (not necessarily sad, certainly not tragic) Truths
The Reality(s) of the Day Job.
“Day job.” One of the English language’s most richly implicit phrases. With those two words, one creates the assumptions that a.) more than one job is being worked, b.) one of those jobs is the one a person would rather be doing, and c.) the desired job isn’t producing enough money for one to survive. And it’s that last implication, that a desired job is known but isn’t sufficient, that offers the richest seam of supposition. It suggests all sorts of mysteries about a person’s life: thwarted ambition, delayed gratification, unrequited love, hubris, comedy, tragedy, self-abasement, the list is almost endless. What kind of person dedicates themselves to an activity that won’t supply basic physical needs? A selfish person? A passionate person? A mystical person? An immature person? Few phrases invite as much speculation as to a stranger’s background and context.
By my reckoning, I have worked day jobs1 for thirty-three years. In no particular order, I have been: a farm hand, a busboy, a library attendant, a landscaper, a secretary, a waiter, a sales clerk, a house painter, an assistant at a law firm, a grocery store clerk, a temp, a ghost writer, a delivery person, and a copy editor assistant. For twenty-seven of those years, I’ve known what I really wanted to be: a professional musician. That is, an arts worker who makes their living making (in my case performing) and teaching art. The long list of the former has supplied some (but not all) of my income. It has supplied some of the capital I’ve needed to buy food, pay rent, and own things. The latter has barely ever covered three month’s worth of food, never mind rent. For the most part, I’ve relied (in the past) on my parents and now on my wife for financial support. There have been a lot of bounced checks, about a decade of not enough food (one to two meals a day instead of three) and several decades of enforced insomnia. And while my physical circumstances have thankfully improved enormously, the same can not be said of my life in the arts.
This is not what I thought was going to happen in my life.
I thought that if I worked hard, stayed disciplined, stayed curious, stayed flexible, and stayed patient, I would build up a big enough, deep enough network of professional arts relationships that I would be paying my own way through the world as an artist. As each of the past ten years has gone by, I’ve found myself becoming more anxious, more upset, more desperate about the fact that my imagined goal was not manifesting.
This has led to a lot of shame and some share of bitterness, until recently. Because recently I’ve stepped away from all of…this. All of the hustling and fretting and self-recrimination and anxiety. I had to. And during the past ten months I’ve had time to contemplate what certain words mean (or don’t mean) to me. Familiar words like “support” and “career” and “success.” I’m certainly no closer to what I imagine happiness might feel like, but I am a lot calmer. And most importantly, I’m less angry and not taking on any additional bitterness2.
I used to think “support” referred to money. Money needed to pay musicians, to pay recording engineers, to pay for car rentals for tours, enough to pay rent so I wouldn’t have to work a day job anymore. It still means some of that, but only some. Nowadays, support means, “the things I need to be ok.” This is purposefully vague. Because on some days all I need is a small amount of affirmation, on other days I do need some money so I don’t have to work an extra shift at the retail job I’ve held down for the past twelve years. And I don’t necessarily need the break from the day job to pursue something artistic, sometimes I need the break so I don’t lose my mind. Because I had to come to the realization years ago that while I’m capable of much, working forty hours a week at a job I don’t like (much less love) is beyond me. I harangued myself for over a decade before I was made to realize that this part of me wasn’t going to change. And that, more importantly, this inability wasn’t a defect, wasn’t a flaw, no more so than having a mole on my neck or an unreasonable love for the music of Steely Dan. It’s just part of who I am. And like any personality trait, it was something that I would have to make adjustments for.
And so I did. For many years, I worked at least three part-time jobs simultaneously. I couldn’t stay at the same boring job every day from nine-to-five, but I definitely could do a few hours at one boring place, a few more hours at another, and some more hours at yet another. In fact, I liked and was comforted by the regular change of scene. It was my normal.
Making adjustments like this allowed me to creatively adjust to my limits, which in turn allowed me to come up with a healthier, more practical definition of “support.” Like all people, I have my idiosyncratic limits. And I need help from the people around me to make a life with those limits. So supporting myself has meant learning how to ask for help, how to work with other people, how to accept help. The best artists never did “it” by themselves. Not that I’ve seen or heard. They had support networks outside of the art they were making as well as collaborators who were essential to the realization of their visions. Our culture feeds us platitudes every day like, “only the strong survive,” “the cream rises to the top,” “take care of the music and it will take care of you,” or “a job well-done is its own reward.” None of these things are true in my experience. They all imply that you’re in this by yourself, that you can only succeed by using your individual power, by freeing yourself of the need to rely on others, that your human relationships are inconsequential to your creative life. Experience has taught me nothing could be further from the truth.
How do I get the support necessary to make art? With help. Lots of it. From my wife, my daughter, my therapist, my in-laws, my parents, my brothers, occasionally friends, from listeners, and as one of my heroes, Anthony Braxton, calls them, “friendly experiencers.” Much of that help I ask for. I try not to impulsively expect it. And I remind myself daily that asking for help isn’t weakness, nor is it strength. It’s just a dynamic activity that is performed regularly amongst human beings. In short, it is normal.
So no, making art doesn’t pay my bills. Not even close. My wife, in-laws and parents help with that. I also contribute bits of money from working retail and from a small amount of teaching. And I remind myself to be thankful every day. Often I don’t feel as thankful as I know I should be, but I’m working on this. And every day I wonder if I have a “career” if I’m not making money at it, if I’m a “success” when my vocation does not pay for my physical existence. And honestly, I don’t know. I know I don’t have the career I thought I’d have and that I’m not what I consider “successful.” But I know I’m ok. And that means I’m supported. And that means I can keep making art if I choose to. And I am learning to accept that that is enough.
The truth is, I don’t know how most of the artists I’ve met support themselves financially, at least not in any kind of definitive way. Some teach, some work as web designers, as chefs, as dog walkers, as movers. Many receive help from members of their support network: parents, significant others, in-laws, family members. Some have inherited money, some own real estate, some hardly eat, many hardly sleep. Everyone works multiple jobs, lives multiple lives. None of us like to discuss finances with one another. In part this is because our culture treats this topic as deeply personal (and therefore subject to ethical judgments) and in part because all of us live with the dream that if we just work hard enough, stay focused, and are talented enough, we can “make” it. And while I wish musicians were more communicative regarding income, I know that I would still have to work out my own personal route through this part of life. Because a life in the arts is a ghostly one in the world of capitalism, and that means there are few, if any, pre-determined career paths available to us. And rather than treating that as a hardship, I’ve begun to experience it as a small amount of additional room for me to make the life I want to live rather than have to live.
I am careful who I look to for career inspiration. And how I absorb that inspiration. There’s a fine, invisible line between respect and jealousy, and it’s best not to get complacent about where that line might be. We naturally turn to those we deem a success. And by the law of averages, most of us in the arts are not going to attain what we imagine to be “success.” So, when we obsess over the dream-lives of our heroes, we are not only engaged in a deep act of imaginary living, we are blinding ourselves from the larger picture of the real people who surround us every day. Living in your head for your art is one thing, but living in your head for your aspirations is quite another.
There is a hard (not necessarily sad, certainly not tragic) truth I am coming to terms with. I will probably be working day jobs until I am done here. There is neither shame nor judgement in that fact, just a tough, unflinching reality.
- I am being highly specific here when I use the term “day job.” I am referring to time-consuming, money-generating jobs that have little to nothing to do with one’s chosen vocation. I am not referring to the teaching of one’s vocation, not because I dismiss teaching, far from it, but in early 21st-Century New York City, teaching jobs are few and far between. As near as I can tell it’s another circumstantial issue of too many workers, not enough jobs, not enough value placed on the job. Getting a reasonably paying teaching job in New York is as hard (if not harder) than getting a chance to play music for people without having to pay for the privilege of it. I can only work one hustle at a time, so I chose performing.
- Bitterness to me is a bit like emotional barnacles. Just swimming through life a person will find bitterness attaching itself, it’s more or less inevitable. And while it’s not impossible to remove these barnacles, it takes a lot of painstaking, boring work to do it. And an equal amount of conscious attention to keep the suckers from reattaching themselves.