6 Paths Creative People Take to Earn Money

So back in my Day Job Basics Guide I wrote about the difference between Day Jobs and Real Jobs, but in real life the spectrum’s a bit more complicated.  I’m a big fan of being honest with yourself about how your job fulfills your goals and passions, since knowing one way or the other helps you organize your goals and make positive changes.

Ways that creative people keep the bills paid and carve out a living for themselves can basically be divided into six categories depending on how the money they earn relates to what they really want to be doing.  Here’s the rundown:



1. Independent Wealth

It seems wrong not to include this, since some people have enough money so they don’t have to worry about most of the things I write about in this blog.  This makes them pretty fortunate, since not having to expend time and energy doing work you don’t want to do frees you to develop what you do want to do.  You also don’t have to worry about making rent, since there’s a pretty clear correlation between being in financial debt and experiencing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

This category isn’t just for the one-percenters though: I’ll also include retired people (since being retired really just means that you don’t have to work if you don’t want to), or people who own the kind of businesses that provide a steady stream of cash without having to do much.  Personal finance blogger Paula Plant was able to buy up a huge number of rental properties and pay other people to run them for her, which is pretty awesome but probably outside the realm of most people reading.

The rest of us, though, need other plans.


2. Unrelated Day Job

This is where most of my money comes from, since, like most creative people just starting out, my writing doesn’t exactly pay a living wage yet.  The Day Job philosophy means viewing your Day Job solely as a means of income rather than personal fulfillment, which then allows you to focus on other goals.

Day Jobs work great for people like me because there’s a lot of them out there, and a lot of them are easy to get.  Since retail gigs usually don’t pay very much, think about other jobs you’re qualified for (or can slip into!) that supply a bit more cash: for example, my old summer job checking boats later got me a paid internship with the same nonprofit group, and a family contact got me a gig painting houses, both of which were exactly what I needed at the time.

None of my Day Jobs needed any special schooling other than my English degrees, but if you’re looking for a longer-term Day Job plan, you might consider a short and/or cheap degree program that can set you up with a better gig.  High-demand fields like health care, anything with software, and surprisingly, driving trucks are good places to start, since there’s a lot of these pretty well-paying jobs everywhere that can get you set up more easily.

I also just read this article recommending that writers specifically take non-English classes to develop marketable skills to get better-paying work, a smart investment as long as you plan ahead and stay focused on your creative goals (which isn’t always easy when you’re in a room full of nursing majors…..)



3. Academia

I list teaching jobs separately because teaching as a paid job is only marginally related to a person’s creative work.  Sure, the subject matter should be old hat if you’re a lecturer in art or music or writing, but teaching also means handling classroom management, speaking in front of people, planning lectures, writing assignments, grading, answering student questions, learning pedagogy, and disciplining (yeah, disciplining is still a thing in college).  That’s a lot of stuff to keep track of.

When I was in grad school, I met a lot of people who loved teaching and were there primarily because they wanted to work with students, but I also met people with eyes on the big-money professor salaries, people who just plain needed the meager paychecks that adjunct teachers get, and people who saw teaching as simply a way of buying more time to write. I found out right away that teaching college could be a Day Job, a passion, or some combination of both depending on your goals, even though on the surface everybody taught the same lessons.

The main takeaways are that academic jobs require a lot of time and investment in graduate degrees and job-searching, and the market for full-time humanities and arts teaching jobs isn’t very good right now, important factors to take in before jumping into a grad degree.


4. Semi-Related Day Job

Jobs that sort of relate to what you want to do can feel frustrating sometimes.  I’m talking about the musician who works in a recording studio, the guy editing that reality TV show who really wants to direct, or the main character in Michael Cho’s graphic novel Shoplifter who wants to be a writer but only writes copy for an advertising agency.

The plus sides of these jobs is that they can sharpen skills that come in handy in your creative work, and get you contacts that can help you out in the long run.  They can also show you the more business-y end of the business and give you an edge over people who don’t know what your industry’s about.  That’s good.

The cons, though, are that these jobs can take up a lot of your time and energy, offer fewer creative opportunities than you think, and trick you into feeling like you’re getting somewhere when in reality you’re moving in the wrong direction.  That’s bad.

If you’re not sure whether you have a Semi-Related Day Job, ask yourself a question: is this job really what I want to be doing, or is it just a means to an end?



5. Creative Work That’s Fun and Stimulating, But Not Your Ideal

A step up from the Semi-Related Day Job work is the stuff you like doing, and maybe even like doing a lot, but isn’t quite your ultimate goal.  I’m talking about the jewelrymakers who churn out two hundred of the same necklace that they know will sell, or illustrators who take commissions where they have a lot of freedom, but still have to draw what somebody else tells them to.

Creative work that falls into this category can be hard to pin down, but a good rule of thumb is that you know it when you see it.  It feels good to do, but not as good as some other things would.

Paid work exists because there’s demand for it, and it’s often best to follow that demand as a way of building up a name for yourself and staying afloat.  A lot of people are perfectly fine stopping here (no shame there!), but there’s another leap involved that other people really want to make, and that’s…


6. Earning Money from Your Own Creative Projects

This is the holy grail, the crème de la crème.  Creative work sells on a lot of levels, big and small, and there’s a certain kind of fulfilment that comes from being paid to do something you’re really proud of.  Sharing your creative work with others who appreciate it is an amazing feeling and one that I live for, but there’s another kind of fulfilment that comes from knowing the world respects that work enough to pay you for it just like any other job.

The ideal creative life isn’t all champagne and pizza, though—there’s always going to be compromise involved with the person doing the selling (even if that person is you) and aspects of the creative life that don’t appeal to you but have to be done anyway.  Musicians need to run merch tables, screenwriters have to hold pitch meetings, and everybody has to talk business.  The writer Kingsley Amis gave a lot of interviews to publicize his books, but supposedly he absolutely hated giving interviews—and he had a knighthood.

To sum up, nothing’s as cut and dry as I make it out to be here—some jobs can move from one category to another depending on how you’re feeling.  The point is to think carefully about the work you do and what it brings you—then take action to get where you want to be.

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