No Starving Artists

A little while back, I was having an email conversation with my friend Paul. Now, I’ve known Paul since the time we shared a tent at a cabin on Mayne Island during our younger days, but in the past few years, I have become very proud of his accomplishments.

Paul, a former Registered Massage Therapist, started a business where he sells well-researched and written articles to folks who are trying to take more responsibility for their health. His business is called SaveYourself.ca, and it’s doing pretty well. So well, in fact, that Paul retired from the massage business as of January 1, 2010, and now writes for a living.

Our discussion was around getting paid to write. After all, if we are writers, don’t we get intrinsic value from writing? So should we always be getting paid for it?

Paul’s response stopped me in my tracks:

“Cold hard cash” value has been waaaay more satisfying for me than the “intrinsic” value thing (which I did in an impoverished way for 15 years). I’m particularly fond of the cash-generating approach since it’s now inevitable that I will soon be able to turn my attention to full-time creative writing.

Plus I found subject matter that I find personally interesting AND profitable to write about. 😉 That’s probably the real win: I wouldn’t be happy just writing anything I could sell. The challenge is to focus the writing on something that is both relevant to your bottom line AND your heart.

I asked him if we could continue the conversation for you, on my blog, and he said yes.

RC: For me, this whole debate we’ve been having is about values. The value of money versus the value of artistic expression/creativity. We live, as artists, in a world that believes that choosing the artistic or creative lifestyle means also choosing a life of poverty. Even more so, if you do become successful as an artist, you are often branded as a “sell out.” However, I would like to believe that I can be artistically fulfilled, and not have to live in a hovel and eat Kraft Dinner every day. Call me crazy. What are your thoughts on this?

PI: Life’s a tough place. A lot of humans don’t have clean water or a life expectancy much better than a poodle’s. I really believe that the idealistic artist lifestyle — both rewarding and remunerated — is a fantasy. It’s a healthy fantasy, but just an impossible goal for most people, even in rich nations.

It’s not just “the world” that believes that doing art means surviving on Kraft dinner: a whole lot of impoverished artists believe it too. I know dozens of impoverished artists, and many who quit because of it. And of the few successful artists I know, most are successful in large part because they had some major economic advantage to start with. It’s a hell of a lot easier to write a great book when you don’t have to worry about paying the rent!

It’s not impossible to make art pay, of course, just terribly difficult. Any individual artist has the potential to pull it off. But the pie is just not large enough for all of us, and most will fail to get more than a nibble. The few who start poor but get a satisfying bite in the end have got some serious game: not just craft, but exceptional perseverance and business savvy. And nearly all of them compromise.

In short, nearly all rags-to-riches artist success stories are achieved by diluting the purity of a dream with smart compromises and entrepreneurship. That’s certainly my story.

RC: Okay, I’ll bite. What’s your story?

PI: I guess I have a “success” story, which I’m starting to enjoy and still getting used to.

I started out as a creative writer, but I got weary of poverty and decided to get more entrepreneurial and started picking projects with some profit potential. About six years later, I write almost exclusively about health science (in a creative way), and I publish online and make a decent living selling e-book guides for patients about common pain problems. But the amount of money is not the best part. What really makes it a success story is the residuals. I have an stable and unusually passive income — my ebooks sell automatically, with basically no day-to-day work required. I’m not in a high tax bracket, but I have more income security than a Hollywood divorce lawyer, and more holidays. With a little updating now and then, my books will pay my rent for the rest of my life.

So I’m not yet 40, but I actually don’t really have to work any more. Sure, I’m still pounding away at my business, but mainly because I like it and I want to buy a few more toys, and maybe a house someday.

RC: Is what I’m hearing you say is, find a way to make your art business profitable, commercial? And then do the “fine” art, whatever that is, for yourself?

PI: I don’t really want to do “fine” art and creative writing “for me” — I want to do it for an audience. I want to succeed as an idealistic artist just as much as I did when I was 18, gunning for commercial success and critical acclaim. The difference is that now I can afford to pour myself into writing novels and short stories, thanks to the compromises I’ve made for the last ten years — which just don’t feel much like compromises now that they’ve paid off!

Should every artist do it this way? Probably not. There’s wiggle room depending on your goals and how much Kraft dinner you can stand eating. If you can you live with the odds being seriously stacked against you, then great, take that “high” road.

But few artists are really up for that. Most want to eat better and have a robust career. If that’s what you want, find the common ground between idealistic goals and what’s actually marketable and practical. Do that vend diagram! And then get to work in the overlap. Most artists won’t do it because entrepreneurship is too alien, because the compromises seem too extreme, and the pay-off is too distant. But that’s just what it takes … and the alternative is to NEVER have the time or resources to do what you really want to do.

RC: Thanks, Paul!

Both Paul and I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Go!

Paul Ingraham blogs sassily about pain and injury science at SaveYourself.ca (twitter, facebook). A former Registered Massage Therapist, he now calls himself a science journalist. Most of his passive income comes from a pair of best-selling ebooks, one about muscle knots (trigger points), and the other about a nasty knee problem that runners get, iliotibial band syndrome. It’s worth visiting those pages just to see an example of a profitable ebook presentation. Paul works in a downtown Vancouver home office with his wife and an editor cat.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 5

  1. great interview.

    one thing I will add – and use a friend as an example. He’s a visual artist with decent following. He treats painting as his job – creates his own work, commissions work, does murals for restaurants etc. It is his employment.

    He gets up every day and paints for hours, creating work. For sale.
    He has regular showings and he is one of the best artist marketers I know with two blogs, a facebook group, twice monthly newsletters, contests etc. He treats his art as his business.
    Let me now if I can post his blog?

  2. Thus far I feel pretty great with how far I’ve come in only three years. There is still so much for me to learn and accomplish but I’m definitely finding my own way and enjoying the journey along the way 🙂

    Keep up the good work with all the helpful tips and interviews 🙂

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