Ctein mentioned the other day that his work for his best and steadiest client was what helped him buy a house years ago. That happens to be what I've been trying to do lately. For the likes of us, it's not easy.
My house is inexpensive in most markets, in the U.S. at least. And a mortgage will actually save money over the rent I'm paying. I've been saving up a down payment for three years. I've finally got two successive tax returns that will reassure a lender that I can afford the monthly mortgage payment. So my financial position is sufficient.
I hit a snag this spring, though. A bunch of old medical bills (several for less than $100, several completely unidentified) and almost no borrowing on my credit report gave me a low credit score. That mortgage was still out of reach.
My elusive mortgage underscores a constant in "the artistic life": if that's the path you choose, you're most likely not going to be prosperous. Most of us go through "lean times" periodically when assets and equity leak away like water from a rusty bucket. Forward planning is tough. And the Masters of the Universe—the financial people who actually own the country and the world—take a dim view of one's prospects as a dutiful sharecropping citizen. Until last month, when Capital One magnanimously gave me a $300 line of credit on a special type of card designed for the credit-impaired, I hadn't had a credit card since 1986. People without W-2s* look suspicious to the Monopoly Bankers and Henry F. Potters of the world.
You've heard that before, right? Trying to make it in the arts is tough.
Plus, you're constantly scrambling, extemporizing, making do. Performing triage after financial implosions of one sort and another. Needing help from relatives or spouses or friends. And enduring risk—even those with the most conventional sorts of jobs can suffer the very substantial blow of unemployment, and I certainly don't mean to downplay that; I sympathize sincerely. But "artistic" types also typically suffer chronic underemployment. We do well, but too rarely. If only we could just reproduce our best successes more often.
I don't know what I'd have been like if I'd lived a parallel life as a wealthy professional—maybe I'd have expensive habits. But I don't. I don't travel. I'm not a clothes-horse—I'm fond of saying I went through the entire eight years of the G.W. Bush Administration wearing the same four pairs of black jeans (true**). I'm not a foodie—if anything, I don't spend enough on food. I don't drink, or smoke, or use drugs (all costly habits), or go to strip clubs or worse. I don't have cable. I need enough money to pay the rent and the household bills, and then I like to have a few things on top of that: a few thousand dollars a year to waste on photography, which has been consistent since about 1987 (except during the aforementioned lean times), money for books, money for music. That's really about it.
And I have all that. What more could a guy want?
If ever you come across anyone in any sort of artsy-craftsy seat-of-the-pants scrabble-it-out-of-the-dirt job who's actually making it, you're probably in the presence of a pretty contented person.
If you're a regular reader of TOP you hear me complain every now and then. But don't let me mislead you: I have the best job in the Universe. It's an incredible privilege to do nothing but write and edit this site and—this still surprises me—make enough to live on. I love that. I love the work, I am incredibly fortunate in my readers, I love being able to "dick around on the Internet all day for food," in the words of a recent New Yorker cartoon. Not everybody could do what I do—not everybody would want to—but it seems to suit my talents, such as they are, to the proverbial T. It might not last forever, but I hope to ride this horse until I get bucked into the mud.
And that's probably the best thing about the artistic life. After you struggle for enough years, modest success feels like winning the lottery! It's the contrast that does it. Once you figure out how to keep the bills paid and finagle a little security, it's like you've died and gone to heaven. I mean, I am livin' the life of Riley here***—I've got a fine kid, and he's got a nice girl, and we've got a good dog; we have a house to live in, I've got not one but two cars (okay, that really is profligate); I work when I want to, I can listen to music out loud all day at my desk, I have no boss (no offense to you bosses out there, but that's huge for me), and my commute is about fifteen feet—the distance from the bed to the computer in the next room. And I get to chat about my hobby all day with people from all over the world. I might piss and moan here and there, but—dead earnest now—the day almost never goes by when I don't feel like I'm just one of the most improbably lucky guys there are.
The life of the artist/artisan/photographer/writer/whatever? It can be hard, but it's the life. I am one happy guy.
And just think—by this time next year I might even have a mortgage, just like a real person. My cup runneth over!
* For you non-Americans, a W-2 is the report of your wages or salary that an employer gives you to give to the government at the end of the tax year.
**I've come up in the world now that Obama's President—now I get custom-sized, 100% American-made jeans from Diamond Gusset in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The best money can buy. I might be a simple guy, but once a connoisseur....
"Open Mike," consisting of rambling ruminations by yrs. trly., is usually off-topic, but not always entirely.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Robert: "You realize that you've written the perfect post for readers to link to when you do piss and moan, right?"
Featured Comment by Hugh: One of the best things you can do for Zander is get him a credit card now, and get him to make regular small purchases and repay regularly on time. Also a few small bank loans for things, which get paid back on time. Work the credit rating system from the earliest possible age."
Featured Comment by Steve Jacob: "I guess I am in a similar position. Not as an artisan but as a director of my own company. I never borrow money if I can help it. I still spend most of my time plying the same trade I have been in since 1985. No complaints—it pays the bills and it's nice to be good at something. Still have a lousy credit rating though. But think on this—barely a day goes by that I don't wish I was doing something different. Bet you don't have that problem :-)"
Mike replies: I don't any more...but I did twelve years ago, when I had the highest-paying job I'd ever had from the biggest and best corporation I'd ever worked for. Hated every day, if not every minute. Getting fired from that job turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me...I might honestly still be there otherwise.
Doesn't sound like that's parallel to your situation, though.
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "While it would be nice to make a little bit of money from my (cough, choke) 'art' and I've been happy enough when I've been self-employed, I certainly can't imagine that I would enjoy living the life of an artist very much. After dipping my toe into those waters briefly, I got cold feet and decided I would keep photography strictly as a hobby. As the saying goes, once your hobby becomes your profession, it's time to find yourself a new hobby, and as costly as photography has become these days, one can wreak quite a bit more havoc upon one's budget by choosing poorly among the alternatives! I know this to be true firsthand, because I have been there and done that...."
Featured Comment by Riley: "You should try being Riley!"
Featured Comment by Stephen F Faust: "As a guy with a 'real' job making a depndable salary, reading paragraphs 3–6 made me feel incredibly sorry for you. Then reading the rest of the article made me feel incredibly jealous of you! Bravo for having the guts to believe in the power of 'dicking around on the internet all day'! The world would be a better place if more people would quit their jobs and follow their dreams."
Mike replies: I can't actually take credit for any dream-chasing. In my case it was more like desperation, after an increasingly futile 2-3 year job search to which I was increasingly more resistant as I went along. Things got pretty dire. The operative principle was probably more like, "gotta do something." But the sweet irony is that where I ended up is better than any place I could have gotten to any other way."
Featured Comment by Patrick: "I actually don't think I could function without a credit card; don't know how you do it."
Mike replies: Again, something I can't take credit for. It was simple self-defense—from my own immaturity. When I got my first credit card out of art school while working my first salaried job, I ran it up to the limit buying classical music CDs (CDs were new at the time). It took me two years to pay it off (during which time I did not have a working credit card) and when I toted up the damage, I found I'd paid $700 for the privilege of using the bank's money for that time. While not by any stretch a financial genius, even I was able to see that this would not make a good pattern for my life.
Featured [partial] Comment by John Camp: "'Contented'? That's not been my experience. Actually making it means that the guy is a small businessman, just like the insurance agent down the block, and making it as a small businessman takes quite a bit of drive and ambition, even if that ambition is somewhat hidden.
"In my experience, those people want more. Not necessarily Porsches or homes in La Jolla, but they want more time, so they can do what they do better. They don't want to mess around with the troublesome part of their business, so they'd like to be able to hire people to do that (agents, accountants). Even artists find it nice if they can have somebody come in for a couple hours a week to keep the house clean and do the wash, and they often want a certain kind of good reliable car so they don't have the hassles of driving a wreck...and so on. And on.
"It's always seemed to me that the better people do in their chosen field, the better they want to do. For the kind of person who thinks and works that way, I'm not sure that contentment is within reach."
Featured Comment by David: "Speaking as someone who works in the arts and makes a very good living at what I do, I can assure you I do not feel 'contented.' I feel fortunate (as someone who lived hand to mouth for years I know how lucky I am not to have to worry about money anymore), but I am constantly frustrated by the restrictions imposed on me by the very business that pays me so well. I would gladly trade some prosperity for a little more creative satisfaction, and I know a lot of people who make vastly more than I do who feel the same way."
Featured Comment by Maryna Ozuna: "This blog really cuts close to the bone. Lived on the edge of the wave my whole life, but now as I'm getting older, I find little shreds of fear creeping in. Ten years under a mesquite tree in Mexico, getting paid in cheese and squash did not build a 401(k)...oh well it was a good run...hopefully to continue."