Want to start producing creatively? Lose the safety net

By Caitlin Kelly

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”

— Johann Sebastian Bach (h/t Small Dog Syndrome)

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Te...
English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Teri Noel Towe seems to demonstrate that the portrait is probably not of Bach http://www.npj.com/thefaceofbach/09w624.html. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How badly do you really want to be a writer/composer/dancer/artist?

How much are you willing to give up attain that goal?

Sometimes having the choice to not create — i.e. a regular, reliable, steady income — means endlessly postponing the frightening leap into the void, of actually producing work you try to bring to market, to finding an audience, discovering that people are eager for your work — or not.

I started writing for a living when I was at the end of my sophomore year in college, as a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My parents were off traveling the world, long before the Internet, cellphones or Skype made regular contact easy and affordable. Neither gave me a penny.

I was on my own, living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, all I could afford on my monthly income of $350, money inherited from a grandmother.

That was all the money I had available. My rent was $160/month. Then there was food, phone, answering service, clothes…and oh, yeah, tuition and books; $4,200 a year isn’t much money to live on in a major city, even a few decades ago.

So I freelanced, a lot. I missed classes, (and my grades certainly showed it), to chase down paying assignments, both as a photographer and writer. I had a photograph published in Time at the age of 19.  I wrote for the country’s biggest magazines and, surprisingly perhaps, am still in touch with my very first editor who assigned me work when she was editor of Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

I had a weekly shopping column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in my junior year, paying me $125 a week, a fortune at the time.

But all this blazing ambition, fueled by real financial need, also carried costs, losses I will never be able to recoup.

I barely remember the people I attended college with as I spent much of my time in phone booths (remember those?) contacting editors to line up work or fight for (more) payment. I didn’t drink or party or pledge to a sorority or disappear on spring break to exotic locations. I was too busy working my ass off.

And so I went to the chair of the English department to suggest that, since I was already selling my writing to national publications, I receive class credit for it — given the choice between writing another paper on 16th century drama or paying my bills for another month or two, there was little choice for me.

The reaction was scathing and dismissive, one reason I’ve yet to darken the door of another university.

A highly effective way to make sure you’re actually producing — and not just talking about it all the time — is to actually rely on the income from your work.

I do realize this is impossible for many people — with children to support, and/or a partner; who, as Americans, simply cannot afford market-rate health insurance or have crushing amounts of student debt as well.

But if you never have to test the market, what will finally impel you?



14 thoughts on “Want to start producing creatively? Lose the safety net

  1. I can totally picture you making those phone calls from phone booths and talking to your professor. You meant business! This question of keeping it safe at the day job (or school) or making the leap into freelance hits to the core of what I’m going through these days. I’m preparing to make the leap early next year by writing, saving, networking, and re-editing my director’s reel now. I know that I can’t make the leap without risk, but I figure if I have some product under my belt and a solid plan (A, B and C), I’ll be in a better position. I also think one has to be very confident (which is not to say without fear), and have a firm grasp on how to self-market and promote in order to succeed without the safety net. Do you agree?

    1. 🙂

      I think it takes a lot of things, and developed skills are certainly key to financial success, although no guarantee of it. You REALLY have to know how to hustle hard (but with charm) and be ready to keep seeking out and then jumping into every possible opportunity. I’m still scared of all sorts of things — I had no idea if anyone would sign up for my webinars and coaching (thank heaven some have!) but I put it out there anyway…you simply will never ever know until or unless you try. What is the worst that can happen? You re-tool. You try something else.

      I also think that NO debt and six months’ savings for daily bills is a huge help…even three months’ worth. As you know, desperation can be smelled a mile off….and then no one wants you. You need a BIG smile and an aura of calm, no matter how scared you really feel inside. So much of it is inspiring others to believe in you and place their bets on you.


      1. Absolutely! I recently heard a speech about losing one’s desperation as an important step towards fulfilling one’s dreams… gonna blog about it this week. Inspiring others to believe in us is the key. Six months of savings can’t hurt either.

  2. steve

    Sounds to me like you paid your dues to become successful and became the better person for it. Because you faced struggles in your life AND overcame them you are today who you are. Have you ever thought who you would be today if your life wasn’t what it was? If it was good for you, why do we as a society insist on making everything easy for everybody? If we as a society refuse to allow our citizens to try and fail, how does that affect the society that we live in today? If there is no failure, how can there be success? And what reward is there for overcoming the adversities of life if government makes us all ‘equal’ without effort?

    1. I was also very fortunate in ways that people who need social services are not:

      1) I had excellent health (i.e. I was able to work); 2) I could afford to attend college because it was then very cheap; 3) I had the education and social confidence to sell my services to professionals, even when I was young; 4) I had no children to support (i.e. thanks to ready and affordable access to reproductive care; something many American women are today fighting hard for.)

      So, as we always do, you and I see this issue differently. I know for certain I succeeded through a ton of relentless hard work. But there are many people who do not (yet) have the physical or emotional health, or the education or the skills, to support themself fully. I don’t resent them. I get the feeling that you do…?

      1. steve

        I don’t resent them at all, I just think it is unfortunate that there isn’t any expectation for them to even try. I think it is a disgrace that we have created a system where people aren’t allowed to succeed because they refuse to fail. I can’t imagine doing that to any of my own children, why would I do it to someone else’s. This country was built by men who refused to quit. Guys like Edison, Franklin, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbuilt. They made a fortune because they refused to give up and continued on even after failure upon failure. Why do we deny that to our young people? My father was a poor farm boy, the son of a farmer with a fourth grade education. He worked two jobs while he went to school full time and took care of a wife and baby. What is wrong with that? I don’t think there is anything wrong with being poor, I think the problem is being content to stay poor.

      2. What do you say to people who cannot find any other employment beyond minimum-wage, part-time, no benefits? You cannot possibly ever “get ahead” when you cannot even pay the most basic bills without food stamps or other government aid — because fat cat corporations sitting on record profits just shrug and refuse to pay more. Corporate welfare annoys me much more — when my tax dollars go to subsidize Walmart for not even paying many of its workers a living wage. They have “a job.” They work hard. They are still poor!

  3. steve

    How did you do it? Believe me, if I could do it anybody can. I barely finished HS, but I also worked hard at minimum wage jobs until I learned a skill. I sometimes worked three different jobs. I never quit a job until I had a better one. I worked for years to get ahead. Never did I expect someone else to do things for me. I took responsibility for my actions and so did you. Why should everyone else be different? There is reward for personal fortitude that doesn’t come with a welfare check or food stamps. We have stolen people’s dignity and self worth by making life too easy. Success should be costly! How responsible is it to have five kids without a job and rely on someone else to foot the bill? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to finish school, get a job, get married and start a family? I don’t understand why that is such an awful plan and why that is punished and irresponsibility is rewarded. Can you please explain the logic in that to me because I just don’t seem to be able to get it? I tried to get my dog to pee outside by giving him a biscuit every time he went on the rug but for some reason he just kept peeing on the rug. Go figure!

    I agree about crony capitalism. Corporations should not be getting special privileges from the government. How is Walmart being subsidized? Tax breaks are NOT subsidies

    Why should ANY company pay more than minimum wage for an employee with no skills?

    1. How did I do it? Sheer will, probably. I assumed I could not have accessed student loans because my family (while wholly absent) had too much money. Since they were not helping me, who else would? No one. Me!

      The difference in our point of view is not as wide as it might appear. I have ZERO tolerance for laziness and cheating and, believe me, I saw a lot of both when I was a Big Sister. It hardened my perspective and woke me up. But I would rather see my tax dollars go to people who really need it (some of whom are lazy cheaters) than deny the truly desperate — and MILLIONS of Americans cannot find a well-paid job in this economy. I do not think it fair or just for them to starve because entire industries decided to boost profits (and stop domestic hiring) by using dirt-cheap labor in Bangladesh or China. I am utterly disgusted that 25 percent of American children now live in poverty and the government is cutting funding for food stamps. For shame!

      Steve…do you follow any of these issues? Goverment’s subsidies for cheap-o low-wage employers is NOT new. Here’s a link…

      “A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

      In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.”


      No skills? None? What worker brings NO skills to the table?

  4. Julia

    As usual, you have found an interesting topic for discussion. In Canada we can count on a certain safety net: universal health care, minimum wage laws, disability benefits, housing subsidy, daycare subsidy; we even government support i.e. tax dollars for artists, musicians, dancers. That’s a minimum.

  5. Your story is humbling at the same time as inspirational. You are/were a real go-getter. What an excellent rags-to-riches saga (in the sense of personal empowerment). I am considering signing up for your webinars. The topics are of great interest. I am waiting for the free moment to be able to join. Ciao, Tom

    1. Thanks. It wasn’t much fun to struggle that hard, but I certainly learned my craft quickly, as I needed to.

      I hope you’ll try one of the webinars…registration closes 48 hrs before they start; i.e. 4:00 ET the Friday before.

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