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)
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?
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