On Day Jobs and the Artist

I’ve always prided myself on being able to balance many complicated parts of my life without a single part falling out of balance. My singing/artistic career, managing a small non-profit (i.e. my day job, which I’ve held for many years), my volunteer work, my personal life. I mean, isn’t that what this whole “movement” of the “musician as entrepreneur” is supposed to be about? This is the “new norm,” right? (Another blog entry altogether…)

But, I recently got what felt like a slap-on-the-wrist from a colleague for keeping up with my day job during a singing project. Sure, I had a demanding project going on with the non-profit at the time. Yet, I was fully present for all rehearsals, was well-prepared, and felt satisfied with my performance during the project. So, it came as a surprise that he felt this way, and his scolding bothered me.

And I actually thought to myself: does having a day job make me less of an artist? Do “real” artists somehow manage to *not* have day jobs? Are they just doing their artistic thing, damn the world, caution to the wind?

I (usually) love my day job. It doesn’t pay particularly well, but it is steady income, interesting work, and puts me in contact with interesting people. It also has to do with music, history, literature, and education—all of which interest me—so I am lucky in that way. But, it does get complicated at points, and sometimes very demanding of my full attention so that the whole ship of the non-profit stays afloat. And there is really very little that I can do when a moment like that happens, since I’m the only employee—somebody’s got to take care of business, and that person is me.

While I’m loathe to give up the job, I do wonder what my life would be like if my full concentration could be devoted to my life as an artist: preparing my music, researching it more deeply, working more carefully on diction, unearthing more layers, curating projects and concerts that I am just passionate about, and writing. I’ve never really had that chance—even during my undergraduate and graduate studies—since I always worked 1-3 outside jobs and studied other subjects besides singing (like languages and literature). Would it be amazing, would my artistry soar because all of my time would be devoted to my art? Or would I be…bored without stimulation from other areas of work and life? Do I have my fingers in several pots just because of financial reasons and pressure to be “entrepreneurial”? Can I only realize my true potential if I am a full-time singer/poet/artist? Or am I not deep enough as an artist to take the leap to abandon everything else on my plate and dive into my art, no matter what the consequences?

And, sidenote: is that even possible anymore? Artists who receive awards or grants for residencies, where they should, theoretically, be able to do nothing with their time but their artistic work, still have to deal with the inner-workings of modern life, right? No one is immune to email-receiving, and emails don’t answer themselves. (Oh, man, how I wish they would.) Applications—for the next residency, award, grant, or chunk of money to pay the bills—don’t fill themselves out (even if you have an assistant). There is no perfect vacuum where an artist can just…work and not have to deal with other aspects of the business of being an artist. (Or is there? Tell me!)

And any job where you receive a full-time, livable salary for being an artist has some strings attached. You’re either in a chorus, an orchestra, part of an institution, etc. It’s never 100% your time, for your artistic development, in the projects of your choosing.

I’d love for someone to prove me wrong on any of the above points.

I am always thinking to myself: I should try for one of those grants, or residencies, or some way to test the water of focusing being an “artist,” with no distractions. I’ve always been too busy to give it a shot, not wanting to give up things on my plate. But, what would that look like if I did get it? At the most, several months on my own, working on just my artistic work, possibly in a remote location. It can’t go on forever. Then, I’d have to either be lucky enough to get another grant or residency, or try to get my old job back (or find a new one) because… bills will come a knockin’. And I also have, you know, a personal and family life that I like very much and would miss a lot.

Maybe I just don’t care enough, and I’m too much of a generalist to want to just “be an artist.” Maybe I feel too guilty about my student loans to give up a steady income. Maybe I’m too selfish to sacrifice “it all” for art. Maybe I’m scared of having so much time on my hands, just for myself, and what to do with it (first and foremost I’d be smothered under the stacks of books I’d read, that’s for sure). Maybe all of the above. If having all of my time to myself became my “new norm,” and I got used to devoting myself to singing, then how would I get back into the “real world” after that?

See, there it is: the real problem with me is that I am, above all, a pragmatist. My brain is a creative, cow-sucking whir of a tornado, but I’m always looking for the practical way to do things, even if I have to devise that way myself. It’s hard for me to put on the blinders, think only about my art, and not find ways to collide my art and passion with everyday life (on the other hand, it’s easy for me to mix my metaphors). I want to be self-sufficient and grounded. As much as a tornado can be those things. I see those things as virtues, although they are partially contrary to my nature.

Ives, Stevens, and Williams all had very demanding day jobs (insurance, insurance, doctor), and all produced important work for the development of music and literature. Could they have been more productive, better artists if they had only focused on their artistic work? Or would it have actually inhibited their unique artistic outputs? I tend to think the later.

And then there’s Frank O’Hara, whose biography I just finished reading. Frank O’Hara did it. But, Frank O’Hara died at the age of 40. Not my goal either. And if he had stopped working at the Museum of Modern Art, would his poetry have “improved”? There would certainly be more of it. Or would there? He was fed, artistically, by his day job.

Well, for now and for whatever reason, the day job stays. But the curiosity for applying to “artist-me-time” also stays. And I’ll keep letting the tornado suck up whatever it wants–in art and in life–and see where it takes me.