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 ( 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