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How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills


Q:  “What advice would you give to millennials trying to pursue a creative passion in the arts who also need to pay their rent. I’m having a life-crisis trying to figure it out and I think I’m not alone. I expect my passion to become my career but what do I do in the meantime so I’m not racking up debt?” Olive B. Persimmon, @Olivebpersimmon

A:  I love this question because it’s the story of my twenties.

I wanted to be a fiction writer so I worked extremely hard toward that goal. (The Grand Tally:  10 years; 2 writing groups that met monthly for years on end; 5 week-long writing conferences; 4 weekend writing conference; purchase of enough writing books to currently inhabit 1/10th of a 10 x 20 storage unit; more rejections than I can count; lots of tears; many extraordinary moments of insight).

Following all of THAT, here’s my totally subjective advice on making life work when our passion simply won’t pay the bills.

1.  Do Not Rack Up Debt

The sentimental image of the starving artist isn’t a life I’d suggest. I’ve known people in this boat; instead of being creatively free, they’re too overwhelmed by day-to-day realities to create much of anything.

Instead I used the following formula:

  1. Limit expenses to the bone (monthly budgeting and daily use of cash worked best for me)
  2. Take a job that covers said minimal expenses in the fewest hours necessary (and if it happens to be fulfilling in some way, all the better! Number one consideration:  it must not drain your creative brain)
  3. Use every single free moment to pursue your art. (My typical day:  mornings to create; breakfast and lunch reading or watching artist interviews for inspiration and knowledge; evenings reading masterworks of fiction and/or researching contests and/or putting submission packets together)

I spent years rich on creativity but poor on money, yet without carrying a hair of consumer debt. The stability of work freed me to be fully present for my art.

2.  Learn To Love the Morning

Not a morning person? It may be time to change.

Sure, we can create in the evenings. Late nights work for many people.

That said, I’m a big believer in the age-old advice that if you want to prioritize an activity high, you should do it first thing. When my coaching clients re-order their day in this way, their prized activities suddenly get done. Consistently.

By the evening it’s too easy to make excuses. The drag of the day often overpowers the weak willpower that’s fighting to get us to sit down in front of the computer or go into the studio. That’s human nature, not a character flaw.

So I spent three years diligently waking up at 5am to write fiction. 5am. (Then I got “lazy” and started waking at 6am instead.) Sometimes I felt angry that I “had to” wake up so early, until one day it dawned on me that getting to pursue art in any measure was a genuine luxury. And also that it was my choice to do so.

During my “early rising” period I remarked to a friend:

“By the time I walk in the door of my office, I feel like I’ve already lived a worthwhile day. Whatever else happens – good or bad – it doesn’t matter because I’ve already had the sort of day I wanted.”

Powerful stuff.

3. Treat Your Passion Like Exercise

That said, hard work with no reward can be grating. With a few curse words thrown in.

For all my Grand Tally of fiction work, how many pieces were published?


Do I find this discouraging? I did then. Often. So my uber-athletic husband encouraged a reframe. His questions went something like this:

  • Q:  Do you enjoy the experience of making your art?
    • [A:  Absolutely. The insights I gain into myself and others while creating are second to no experience in the world]
  • Q:  Do you think what you’re gaining from doing the work itself is worthwhile?
    • [A:  Yes, it makes me more open to experiences, much happier on a daily basis, more alive, and more authentic]
  • Q:  Then if you never, ever make a dime off of it, or never have anyone read it, wasn’t it worth it in and of itself?
    • [A: <begrudging sigh> Yes.]
  • Reframe:  None of us will ever make money nor have an “audience” from exercising yet many of us do it. It’s for the experience of it, not the outcome. You get to decide if this is enough. If it isn’t, then stop writing. And don’t complain about your choice.

He was darn right.

I do not – in the least – regret spending years developing my creative writing skills with no readily-observable “output.” Those were some of my most well-lived years of my existence to date. Rich, full, genuine years.

Besides, I have a LOT of short stories my daughter may get a kick out of when she’s grown (imagine being able to read what your mom wrote as a twentysomething?!)

Bottomline:  If you don’t like something about the act of creating art – not every day, mind you, because sometimes it’s a slog! but on many days – then is it really your passion?

4. Think Hard about Convergence

There comes a point, though, when creating without an audience feels a whole heck of a lot like navel gazing.

That’s when it’s time to consider what Chris Guillebeau calls “convergence” in his book The $100 Startup.

I detail this concept – and how to find it, step by step – in my guest post on a A Young Pro Does Passion Matter? How to Find Your Dream Job, but in short:

Convergence is “the intersection between something you especially like to do or are good at doing (preferably both) and what other people are also interested in…Not everything that you are passionate about or skilled in is interesting to the rest of the world, and not everything is marketable.” – Chris Guillebeau

If we truly need an audience – and their dollars – to continue our pursuits, then we simply have to consider what the world wants and needs. Not what we wish they would want and need.

5. Get Acquainted with Creative Entrepreneurship

Along those lines, the field of creative entrepreneurship has a ton to say about creating financially sustainable art.

My favorite blog on this topic is The Thriving Creative by actor Steven Sparling (who is now studying for his doctorate in the field!).

6. Don’t Kick Yourself If Your Art Changes

As  we move from #3 (“I’m creating art for the act of itself”) into #4 and #5 (“I need an audience”), our art tends to change. Drastically.

You don’t HAVE to make that move, mind you. You can forever pursue your art on the side of a paying job and live a wonderfully full, meaningful, purposeful life.

By 30, though, I was ready to move on. That meant getting 100% clear on the IMPACT I wanted to make through my writing, rather than being hung up on the TYPE of creating I was doing. I came to recognize that my long-standing goal was to enlighten people’s understanding of human development and meaningful living.

Fiction is one way to reach that goal. Writing non-fiction magazine and online articles is another.

I suspect you know what path I chose.

This did not occur altogether consciously nor in an instant. It was a subtle shift – mornings spent on fiction some days, on non-fiction others – until I accepted that the reason none of my fiction was being published was because, quite frankly, I didn’t want it to be . It stunk and I knew it, so I shot myself in the foot at every turn.

Non-fiction is my forte. In part because of the decade spent developing the craft of writing. Regardless of genre.

Lo and behold, when we accept our strengths – not what we wish our strengths would be – deep satisfaction…and the money…begins to follow.

A parting mantra:  it’s not selling out if you’re led by what’s inside you.

With best wishes to you in pursuing your art, whatever its end,


Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me (Rebecca@WorkingSelf.com) or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

Rebecca Fraser-Thill About the author: A career coach, college instructor, blogger, and speaker, Rebecca Fraser-Thill empowers young adults to lead the lives they imagined they’d have. Drawing on psychology research, a decade of work with twentysomethings, and her own quarterlife frustrations, Rebecca encourages millennials to transcend the platitudes and pursue meaningful, fulfilling lives.

What do you think?

14 comments… add one

  • What a great post. It’s hard to be creative without falling into a cycle of debt. You hit the nail on the head: Get a job that pays the bills, and leave room for creativity during your most productive time. Thanks for the enlightening material!

  • Excellent advice Rebecca. I especially agree with your statements about avoiding the acquisition of debt. I’ve seen many people go down that road and it typically leads to a financial burden that forces them to work more hours at their “day job” to pay off the debt. It’s a bad cycle that ends up leaving even less time to practice one’s art.

    I’m in my thirties and took the corporate route while writing “on the side.” My novel is now with my editor for some final polish and then…..we’ll see!

    Thank you for your authenticity and transparency in this piece…..I think you’ve truly found convergence!

    • Wow, that’s exciting about your novel! You are a terrific example of sticking with the creative acts while making money. Please keep me posted as your novel moves through the publication process. Kudos to you on the perseverance!

  • Ashley says:

    What a fantastic post. “I spent years rich on creativity but poor on money, yet without carrying a hair of consumer debt. The stability of work freed me to be fully present for my art.” It can be difficult to balance both paying the bills and pursuing art, but if it is a passion, you will create the time to do both. This is where I have found myself recently, and my life feels more rich and full as a result.

  • jefmiles says:

    Yet again an awesome post Bec,

    Number 2 and 3 are big ones for me.. Have been struggling a bit with the mornings recently (questioning about how I am making an impact with what I am doing from 9 to 5 or more like 9 to 7 ha)..

    I am enjoying it but suppose as an “overachiever” it is tough to accept that it takes time or I need to pursue something else..

    Practicing your passion is a great tip, that’s why I love checking out blogs and growing my own.. Looking forward to helping/watching your site grow too Bec


    • If you can make friends with the mornings, productivity sky rockets, in my experience. It’s still my favorite time of day, bred from the 5am fiction-writing days that now feel so long ago. I hope you can strike a balance between feeling like you need to achieve and simply enjoying the process!

  • Jan Koch says:

    What a great write-up Rebecca!
    In fact, when I was starting, I had similar questions. I knew that I had to quit my job, because I couldn’t stand it anymore.

    I started blogging about my learning progress in building my online business and soon I saw that people resonate with my story and now I’m running my own training program on building a business on the side – just like I started my own entrepreneurial journey.

    Being creative and making money with it isn’t easy, but it’s one of the best ways to live life :-)


  • Hi Rebecca, what a great article and thank you for the mention. This is all great advice. I have a couple more thoughts to add to this discussion:

    1. Get clear about money and its relationship to art. So often creative people hold beliefs that making money from their art somehow cheapens their art. So they go out of their way to produce work that either no one else would ever be interested in paying for, or they hide their work away and never let it see the light of day in order to keep it sacred and pure. In order for creative passions to ever have a hope of paying your bills you need to share them with the world and be okay about putting a price on them.

    2. Think niche. So often we as creative people want to do/make everything! We want to embrace so many different expressions of our creative impulses and we bristle at the idea of limiting them down. This is a great strategy for exploring creativity and a lousy strategy for making any money out of art. As a young actor I wanted to do everything: television, films, theatre, musical theatre, comedy, drama etc. What I didn’t know was that over a lifetime it’s possible to do all of these things – but very difficult (and not very lucrative) to try and do them all at once. In every art form the best way to earn a living is to develop a reputation and an expertise in one specific niche. Once you have established yourself in one niche it is possible to add another. And once you are established in that second, you can probably add a third. But to try and do all at once is just setting yourself up for failure.

    I could go on! But I’ll stop there. It’s a fascinating discussion and I wish your readers all the very best luck on their journeys.

  • I’m so grateful for this post and that you took the time to answer my question! THANK YOU!

  • […] most directly in Money and Happiness: What’s the Right Balance? and less so in the recent How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills – but I don’t write about money often because I honestly don’t think about money often. […]