While I was living in New York in my early 20s — still a few years before Facebook and Twitter and Meetup — I’d sometimes browse the Craigslist activity-partner listings hoping to connect with other aspiring writers. The interactions that followed essentially amounted to platonic first dates, which could feel a little awkward when meeting up with straight men. The most memorable of these was Remy, who sent me a link to another Craigslist ad he’d posted advertising a corpse under “free stuff.” Ideal for anatomical research, he wrote. Please arrange for pick-up as soon as possible. I laughed, uneasily. It was only a joke, and anyway I was definitely going to be meeting him in a public place.
Remy lived in a studio apartment in the East Village. He told me he’d quit his job to focus on his writing, and in the meantime he was living off his credit cards. We chatted amiably over drinks, but inwardly I was shrieking I’m sorry if this sounds judgmental but quitting your job was a TERRIBLE IDEA. My God, the rent he must have been paying living solo in Manhattan! I never did say what I was thinking, but there isn’t a doubt in my head that the older, wiser version of Remy would agree with me.
I eventually left my job as an editorial assistant to go for an M.A. in Writing at NUI Galway, and I didn’t quit my day job after I sold my first novel because I didn’t have a day job to quit. After graduation I came home from Ireland, got a part-time job at Jo-Ann Fabrics, and told myself I’d take a few months to figure out what to do next.
An ad for a travel writer appeared on Craigslist — the writer would be putting together a brand-new Ireland guidebook, singlehandedly — and suddenly the way forward seemed clear again, or at least the way forward for the next nine months or so. I assembled a 67-page proposal when the ad asked for twenty. I got the gig, headed back to Ireland in January of 2006, and took the happy phone call about my debut novel at a hostel in Connemara. Even after I repaid my student loan, the money was enough to keep me for a while, two years or more. I figured I could afford to “focus on my writing.”
Since then there have been flush times and the-very-opposite-of-flush times, and I often regret that I didn’t go back to school for something more practical when the guidebook gig ended. I could have gotten my teacher’s license, or a degree in library science, or a master’s in social work. I still can, of course, and I haven’t ruled it out. But if this article’s first takeaway is don’t live on your credit cards, for Pete’s sake, not even for a month, the second is don’t paint yourself into a corner. With a B.A. in art history and a one-year master’s in creative writing, admin work is pretty much the only work I am qualified to do, and these days my experience is that it’s next to impossible to get an admin job unless you go through a temp agency.
If I’d wanted to teach creative writing at an American university I ought to have gone for a two-year degree here, not abroad; the connections I’d have made might have warranted a much heftier student loan. When I’m feeling particularly annoyed with my 25-year-old self I’ll creep the faculty bios at the universities I’ve applied to, and none of the creative writing instructors have published anywhere near as much as I have (usually they’ve published short stories and are working on their first novel); but why give the job to the writer who’s proven they can do the thing for which they’re meant to be preparing their students? That’s not how the system works. Not that I can complain, of course: these are middle-class white-girl problems and I’m very, very lucky to have them.
People often ask me if I write full time, and my reply is “Yes, but I shouldn’t be.” Over the years I’ve had a series of side gigs—at a bookstore, a boarding school for ESL students, a yoga studio, a yarn shop, a vegan café—and in 2017 I moved to a smaller city (for the lower cost of living) not realizing how tough it would be to get another part-time job here. I’ve gotten by with inheritance money from my grandparents, and I’ve lost track of how much money I owe my mother (again: a massive privilege to have a financial safety net, not to mention the emotional support). Until a few years ago I did not have health insurance, and I am well aware of what a stupid risk it was to go so long without it. I have a grand total of sixty-two dollars in my savings account.
You see where I’m going with this, right? Being able to pay the rent (or mortgage) is important. Saving for emergencies and retirement and such is important. Comprehensive health insurance is vital. Take it from the jolly bohemian who hasn’t had a “real” job since the day she left New York City: day jobs are underrated. Nobody turns onto the road less traveled knowing (truly knowing) what a cliché it is; that realization comes later.
There’s a clear implication in millennial startup culture that anyone who works for someone else isn’t clever or ambitious enough to get what they really want in life, but that’s baloney; creative people like me get what they really want by working a job they can leave behind at 5pm. This isn’t a choice between fulfilling my artistic potential and not having to worry that I won’t be able to make my rent next month, because if I can’t pay my bills then my best creative life is most certainly out of reach. So I take temporary office gigs when I can get them, and I feel grateful for my recruiter: thanks to her, I’m not wasting writing time applying for admin jobs for which I won’t even get a “thanks but no thanks.”
Whenever someone tells me their day job is getting in the way of their art, I direct them to Charles Bukowski’s poem “air and light and time and space.” If you’re going to create, Bukowski says, you’ll do it even after sixteen hours in a coal mine, or while raising three kids on public assistance. It is extremely cheeky for a poet who has not been a solo parent or labored in a coal mine (six days a week for thirty years) to make such a pronouncement, but the financial uncertainty of the full-time artist’s life can be just as stressful in its own way. Even if you try it for a year or two — no credit cards, please no credit cards! — you may very well decide that creative stability is an act worth juggling.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation. If you liked this post, you can join the comet party.