That’s the question posed by a recent opinion piece penned by Katy Waldman for The New York Times. In the article, Waldman reflects on how the day jobs of artists both classic and contemporary serve to ground them, and nourish their work.
Most would agree that an artist disconnected from the world will struggle, if not fail entirely, to make great art, and day jobs are a logical way of ensuring the bond remains strong. Yet I feel that, by contrasting the humble artist working a trade from 9-5 with the image of the creative genius effortlessly conjuring art from mystical plains, Waldman is overlooking the crucial point every artist makes when discussing their creative process: what works for some won’t necessarily work for all.
For every poet like Wallace Stevens – the Pulizter Prize winner spent 40 years as an insurance executive – there’s a James Dickey who, while admitting he enjoyed working with a team, famously lamented “I was selling my soul to the devil all day and trying to buy it back at night”, in regards to his work as an ad man for Coca-Cola.
Stevens appreciated the opportunities the lifestyle offered him. Every day, he would walk the 2.4 miles between his house and the office, crafting his next poem as he went. He’d been in the insurance business for decades, and after becoming Vice President of the company, he could shape his days however he wanted. Easy.
Dickey didn’t have that luxury. His job meant he had to work at a “man-killing pace”, and eventually he wasn’t even waiting until night to buy back his soul; instead, he started using company time to do his own work. Eventually, he was fired.
What these examples demonstrate isn’t a difference in attitude or commitment to their job – Dickey actually said he’d return to advertising if he had a second lifetime to spare – but in how the structure of their day impacted each artist’s ability to work on their craft.
The brain has two modes: focus mode, and diffuse mode. Focus mode keeps our thoughts directed on the task at hand, but it’s the diffuse mode that relaxes our minds and allows for creative exploration. Artists have various ways in which they tap into their diffused mode. Some, like Stevens, take a walk. Some nap. Some read. Some take the kind of day job that doesn’t require great focus; something that allows them to think about their art while paying the bills.
It’s on that last point that this discussion shifts away from what’s best for an artist, and towards what artists need.
Philip Glass is one of the greatest composers of our time, and yet for some years after finding great success with Einstein on the Beach, he went back to driving a taxi. It was easy work. He enjoyed it. And it paid for him to continue creating.
Over the next two decades, 40% of all jobs will be phased out. Most will be routine jobs; the kind of jobs Glass and others relied on. What’s left will predominantly be the kind of fast-paced, demanding, and taxing roles that Dickey knew he couldn’t commit to forever if he hoped to make something of himself as an artist.
Today, artists are getting paid less than ever. Before long, many will have to rely on this kind of work in order to survive. Then what? Will the artist have to choose between creation and career, lest they risk breaking down and burning out?
I don’t think so.
Ultimately, I agree with Waldman that having a day job can improve an artist’s work. But it won’t work for every artist, nor should it. Discovering what does work should be the goal of any artist committed to creating great work, as should its prioritisation over most everything else. It won’t be easy, but the act of creation never is.
Don’t forget to read the article that inspired this one,
Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?