It may be creative, but, hell yes, it’s still work!

By Caitlin Kelly

Time to let go, at last

Did any of you catch this recent interesting piece in The New York Times?

The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.

On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…

This is something I think about a lot.

My father, still alive at 85, was a respected maker of films and network television, as was my stepmother. My mother worked as a journalist.

It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!

This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.

More, from the Times’ piece:

Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.

I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.

malled cover LOW

Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ’em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.

The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.


Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.

Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.

One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.

In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.

And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.

Jose and I recently saw this terrific 1987 play, The Substance of Fire, about a New York City family-run publishing house and its internal battle over this issue.


Here’s a post I wrote about this in 2011, which was chosen for Freshly Pressed.

I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

Do you work full-time in a creative field?

How’s it going?

How do you measure your success?



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13 thoughts on “It may be creative, but, hell yes, it’s still work!

  1. All authors (and artists of all kinds) deserve to be paid for their work. And paid properly. I run my writing as a business for that reason, though sometimes it doesn’t work. There was the occasion I had to put 40 or more unbudgeted hours into fixing a botched proof editing job. The publishers refused to throw it out and start again (the new face of big corporate publishing I suspect) which left me the option of pulling the book and getting likely caught up in litigation over the advance. Or putting in a lot of time to fix the problems. I The easiest option was the latter. But it wrecked my calculated returns. Sigh.

    1. I’m losing a lot of time this week, as I did last week, running to meet insatiable demands — for pennies. The search for a reasonable set of expectations for a reasonable fee is now more of a challenge than anything intellectual.

  2. I could pick so many holes into your reasoning and that of those you quote, Caitlin, we’d end up with a lovely piece of lace. I won’t. Have to do the washing up before the day’s work begins.

    As to your commentator Matthew Wright’s assertion that “ALL authors (and artists…) DESERVE to be paid …” Afraid not so. Like in any market place: Where there is no demand you won’t sell. And throwing a pot of paint at a canvas does not make a Jackson Pollock.


    1. “I could pick so many holes into your reasoning and that of those you quote, Caitlin, we’d end up with a lovely piece of lace.”

      Make your argument, then. Leaving a snitty comment like this adds nothing to the conversation.

  3. Deficio

    A few months ago, Harper’s Magazine published an editorial explaining that they keep – and have always kept – their content behind a paywall, in the belief that journalists should be paid for their work:

    As publisher of a magazine that specializes in substantive, complex, and occasionally lengthy journalism and literature, and that also lives off advertising, I’ve long objected to Google’s systematic campaign to steal everything that isn’t welded to the floor by copyright — while playing nice with its idiotic slogan “Don’t be evil.”

    You can imagine the response…

    Distributors of content, like any business, want their material free or very cheap and there is a huge supply, isn’t there? I imagine that creators of content feel the powerful tug to give away their work to “just get it out there” in the hope of future reward or recognition.

    1. “Distributors of content, like any business, want their material free or very cheap and there is a huge supply, isn’t there?”

      Yes, some are very greedy/cheap, but no, not really to your second point.

      There are hundreds, possibly thousands of freelance writers (and painters, musicians, etc) but we’ll stick to this example. Now…are there 100s who are consistently excellent (i.e. you won’t waste hours directing/explaining/revising/editing — that is a cost as well, staff time) and who get it RIGHT? It’s a smaller pool. And who write beautifully? And who can do smart, serious reporting on complex issues? Now you may also want a specialist in an area (medicine, design, science, business) who can dig deeply and not produce shite…The pool gets smaller.

      I don’t lie in bed quivering in fear that I will have to sell my skills cheaply; (I have choices and quickly fire clients who are too demanding for too little $$$ after the work is done) nor that I am competing against a gazillion others for the same work. At a certain level (sorry if that sounds snotty), you’re known and recognized for what you do and you build relationships with people who know they can count on you every time. A newer writer can screw up — and no one has the time or bandwidth to take that chance.

      “I imagine that creators of content feel the powerful tug to give away their work to “just get it out there” in the hope of future reward or recognition.”

      Some, yes. But that argument is basic bullshit. No one goes to the grocery store and fills their cart and offers the check-out clerk “exposure” for $150 worth of food. We pay cash for it. So anyone who wishes to live within the cash economy is going to have to get paid for their skills. There is no “free to artists” pump at any gas station out there.

  4. “Terrifying” is aptly put. How do you moodle, filling your creative tanks, when you realize moodling is not a paid pursuit? How to shut off the screaming meanies in your brain who are obsessed with paying the gas bill. This is why artists used to have patrons, right? 🙂

    1. The lucky ones still do! Some are fortunate enough to get $$$$ grants and/or fellowships and many take on teaching gigs as well; I’m lucky enough this year to be teaching at two NYC colleges and that will help somewhat.

  5. i think it must always be a balance, between finding your work in the creative side of life and trying to make enough money to live in the manner you wish to live. this is not to say you need huge sums, but enough to not have to spend time and energy worrying about it. i think about you, and the others like you, who must depend on the income from these pursuits, and i know it must be very hard at times. as for my creative, you know i used to work in advertising, where i was well rewarded economically, but found something lacking. now, i get my creative fix working with little ones, sharing the creative process, as well as using my art as an outlet for expression and gifts. this has helped me to find an easy balance. as always, i enjoy your informative and thought-provoking articles, caitlin.

    1. Thanks…

      I think it’s becoming a tougher question for many people as “art doesn’t pay the bills.” Yet we are a much poorer culture and society without great (and sometimes experimental/new) music, art, design, writing…It is a sad time when people who push $$$$ across tables get the most in pay, and those whose immortal words are quoted at weddings and funerals, and whose images sear our hearts get pennies, in relative terms.

  6. I love this post and relate to it very much. I agree that being creative is work, and we should be as disciplined about it as we are with our actual $$-making gigs (if we’re not yet making money from our art). And yes, it’s also terrifying to spend lots of time on creative pursuits which we have no way of knowing will be fruitful in the long run. But if we don’t invest that time and energy then we’re not giving ourselves a fighting chance to escape the “day job” either. Sometimes it feels hopeless – or at the very least discouraging – but I think it’s important that we don’t give up. I recently read an article that listed artists and authors who found success later in life, some after having families or changing fields altogether. Very inspiring!

    1. Thanks!

      I am appalled at how market-driven everything is. I find it ironic that a 21-yr-old with a COOL idea can get $$$$$ from VCs in Silicon Valley while an artist, dancer or writer is stuck in penury, even with great ideas…

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