Every writer dreams of making their art reality for all the world to see. They also dream that the art will be well-received and beloved.
And everyone, not just artists, dreams of getting paid to do what they love.
But to get paid, you need to work. To work, you need marketable skills which the job market wants.
…So…how can we put that Master’s Degree in English Literature and our five Dynasty Warriors fanfictions to work?
So, this is a little bit of real talk about the real world, as opposed to the usual nerd world this blog inhabits. As I mentioned, despite our wishes, at some point we need to work. Because eventually, whether we have supporters or not, we need to learn how to take care of ourselves. And to do that, we need to find an employer willing to pay us for something we can do. Pay us money which we use to buy food, pay for a place to live, for utilities, and yes, taxes.
And of course, while it’s not an ironclad rule, it’s a common enough stereotype and situation: Creative writing isn’t very easy to sell. After all, we’re not lawyers, engineers, scientists, or doctors. And how often do people need to have an analysis of 20th century sociopolitics in literature? How easy is it to land a job writing the next Spongebob Squarepants?
Yeah, doesn’t sound like there are a lot of opportunities, right? In theory, it’d need the same stuff as other jobs: Build up your resume, look as impressive as possible, apply. Trouble is, it’s harder to look for shows or publishing firms.
Yet here I am, five years after my Master’s Degree, doing my best to stay employed. How did I do it?
Short answer: I did stuff BEFORE working, looked for work which WASN’T creative writing, and yes, got lucky when they gave me a chance so that I could build experience.
What Opportunities Through Yonder Window Break
So, let me contrast what we WANT and what we GET when it comes to work.
What we WANT is a job in creative writing. Publish a best-selling novel, get taken on by the company that owns your favourite game/show. For the more ballsy of us, eventually end up as a celebrity guest star in your media of choice. Like that time JK Rowling showed up on The Simpsons.
What we GET are everyday jobs. The market isn’t full of studios looking for people to join their team or pitch the next Batman: The Animated Series. It’s full of whatever-is-in-your-area. There are the low-skill part-time things like manual labour or service (which is ironically VERY infuriating), and then there are the things which towns and cities ACTUALLY need: teachers for schools, plumbers, electricians, and engineers to keep things running, police officers to keep the peace. All the things we take for granted and enjoy each day, only to realise that most of them DON’T use creative writing.
Well, OK then, you say to yourself. If that’s the case, we’ll look for work. Look for something we can do with the skills we have. That’s how jobs SHOULD work: You find an opening, apply, they call you for an interview if they’re interested, and if they like you, they hire you. All you need are opportunities and skills, right? If I’m an artist, I’ll look for graphic design or commissions. If I’m a musician, I’ll look for businesses needing jingles. If I’m a writer, I’ll look for a place needing an editor.
Except that how jobs REALLY work is more complicated than that. When we apply, we need to PROVE THAT WE CAN DO THE WORK, usually by having some work BEFORE WE STARTED. These will be the candidates which CATCH THEIR ATTENTION…or are you going to pick the millennial who hasn’t worked a day over the guy with a three month internship?
And that’s just for the INTERVIEW stage, picking as many qualified people as possible as if they’re beta testers with a year of leveling up and farming loot. And even then, there’s STILL a final stage: How well they fit THEIR VISION OF THE COMPANY. Because all the programming expertise and marketing brilliance won’t get you anywhere in Apple if they know that you think their products are shitty and overpriced.
So to sum up, THIS is the harsh reality of looking for work:
- You should be developing WORK EXPERIENCE as early as possible so that you can stand out.
- You need to be able to present yourself well.
- You need to be able to convince them that you can fit in.
- And once you’re in there, you need to do your best to be a diligent employee, giving them what they paid for.
But wait! Some of you are thinking “I won’t have to work if I publish my super-awesome sure-hit trilogy sci-fi series!” and others are thinking “I’ll just get a brainless job that needs few skills so that I can focus on my writing!”
Well, to these smartasses, I have these to say:
Think your writing is going to be your meal ticket for life? Great! Now go write it. Hope you have a place to crash rent-free with meals provided for you.
Think you can escape having to care about work by coasting in a mindless day job? Here’s the thing: That’s still 9 to 5, and you STILL need to care about doing it well. Because even a fast food chain is going to fire you if you slack off, get orders wrong, and fail to learn how to use their machinery.
Yeah. It’s not that easy. In all things, you need to WORK, and you need to CARE. Even if you don’t care about work, you need to care about doing work WELL so that you STAY EMPLOYED.
If you’re lucky you will have connections you can use, or you’ll find someone willing to take you on despite your relative newness. Maybe a relative in the field introduces you to a firm, or you use an alumni network to start working fresh out of graduation. But even then, YOU STILL NEED TO CARE ABOUT DOING WELL.
The Degrees! They Do Nothing!
These are the things that EVERYONE faces in work, not just writers and artists. However, where certain expert professions have a VERY CLEAR career path, creative arts aren’t as clean-cut. However, I can share my own experiences and lessons from the job hunt.
See, I was fortunate. I had opportunities to do some activities that worked like internships during my COLLEGE DAYS, when MY TIME WAS FREE and MY SCHEDULES WERE DECIDED FOR ME. This is when time is on our side and we usually still have a support network.
And from this time, I got work experience. I got things which made me look good. And most importantly, I gained KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge of HOW I COULD USE MY SKILLS FROM MY PASSIONS. I learned that it would be hard to find a place looking for CREATIVE writing…but because I was looking for chances EARLY ON, I could ask people who DID know what I could do. This was when I learned about ADVERTISING, and how they needed COPYWRITERS. Writers who not only needed A STRONG GRASP OF LANGUAGE, but also HOW TO HAVE IT MAKE SENSE. Kind of like how STORIES need to make sense.
So even at this early PRE-WORK stage, I can give you this advice:
- START. LOOKING. Internships, volunteer programs, anything which will look GOOD when an employer looks at your profile. Bonus points if it’s a thing which is RELATED to your field. And DO IT WHILE YOU’RE FREE. You don’t wanna start without a clue when you’re fending for yourself.
- DISSECT YOUR DEGREES. Don’t just stick up your degree and hope it’s the neon light that will get an employer’s attention, as if the market has someone looking for “Culinary Arts”. Look at what the degrees mean: What skills do you have? What does it say about you? What did it have you do? Like my English Lit degree: It meant that I had GREAT GRAMMAR, that I knew how to WRITE THINGS THAT MADE SENSE. Dissect your degrees for WHAT THEY GAVE YOU, then FIND SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO BUY THOSE THINGS.
- LEARN ABOUT WORK. Not just what work is like, but what are the opportunities for you. Use basic logic and the experience of others, and decide what you CAN do and what you WOULD do. If you’re an actor without a theater gig, look for jobs involving public speaking and events. If you’re a writer, look for things that need a constant stream of sensible writing and good editing. Use these to set the parameters, then DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH and ASK PEOPLE. That was how I discovered advertising, and I imagine it’s how some writers discovered teaching. THE SOONER YOU START THINKING OF IT, THE SOONER YOU DISCOVER ALTERNATIVES.
- Finally, learn HOW TO CONDUCT AN INTERVIEW. The quick notes on that are that you need to dress well, be on time (by going early to make sure), get your notes in order (so that you don’t stumble over them), and prepare for some typical questions (like what do you have to offer, where do you see yourself in five years, or why do you want to work here).
I know this can seem like a bitter pill to swallow. I’m essentially telling you “START WORK EARLY” and “DO HOMEWORK ABOUT IT” and “DO SOMETHING OTHER THAN YOUR DREAMS”. Which is a little inaccurate: If you DO find a dream job, do your best to go for it! However, I AM saying that YOU SHOULD PREPARE FOR THE WORST.
And the sooner you prepare, the sooner you can start TRAINING YOUR MIND FOR WORK. You train yourself with work experiences to learn what it’s like to be an employee. You learn through the job hunt what it’s like to look for work and go for interviews. And in the process, you learn what it’s like to look for places needing your skills, and so you learn what fields you can go into.
And that last one is VITAL. Because sure, it may be hard to sell your degree in Performance Arts. But using that degree, it’s FAR easier to get a job as an event emcee or public speaker than it would be to get a job as an engineer.
But in order to get to that stage, YOUR MIND needs to SWITCH GEARS and recognise events as a POSSIBILITY in the first place.
We Got In! …Now What?
So that’s as much as can be done with our prep-time of job hunting, all the things we can do to look as attractive as possible. Either we get work, or we don’t and try elsewhere. So what happens when we get it?
All of this, the work experience, the work skills, the knowledge of what jobs used writing, built up between my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree. And when I went to do my Master’s Degree, I enjoyed time when all I had to focus on was my studies. Then I graduated, and it was back into the fray.
But I had everything I gained: My achievements, my experience, and my knowledge. I KNEW advertising was a thing I could do and could live with, so I applied to places looking for newbies good at English.
And I got lucky: I found a place. And from there, I gained JUST enough experience to make it to the NEXT place. And THERE, I got TWO YEARS OF EXPERIENCE. Two years where I DID THINGS, adding EXAMPLES which I could use to PROVE I COULD DO THINGS to new employers.
Now, what your workplace requires from you varies depending on your position and the company. But generally, I can tell you: PAY ATTENTION to your surroundings, LISTEN AND LEARN about what you’re meant to do, and BE DILIGENT in your job.
But all of THAT is just maintenance to stay IN your job. And yes, you CARE about your job. You care about it as your source of income. And if you’re lucky, you care about it because they have won your loyalty by caring for their employees (like, for real, not just “caring” like corporations “care” about making sure that “team spirit is compulsory”).
But the most important thing those early jobs can give you is: EXPERIENCE. The stuff which takes you from “fresh graduate with zero experience” to “worked in this company for a year”.
This experience didn’t GUARANTEE that I would get a job. The stuff I did might not impress other companies with different tastes or standards. But from having NOTHING in the field of advertising, I took my opportunities and turned them into experience which ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING.
I had gone from “some newbie with nothing but English skills” to “a writer WHO HAS DONE THIS BEFORE AND CAN PROVE IT”, a level which actually makes me seem like a NORMAL, FUNCTIONING ADULT!
And this made it EASIER for me to look for employment elsewhere. And the more experience you get, the more likely it is that your potential employers will see it as a positive. Sure, I was in and out of companies. Sure, it’s no guarantee that you’ll end up in a good place.
But the EXPERIENCE was vital. It let me know what working life was REALLY like. It made job hunting go from next-to-impossible to competitive. It won’t guarantee that things will be smooth sailing from then on, but at least it’ll possibly even the odds with a fighting chance.
The Long War
And so it went. Since my early internship days building up experience, I graduated and found work. I did my best where I was, and eventually got enough experience that my resume looked valuable. And in order to do all that, I had to look outside “creative writing in TV shows and comics” to find “writing with good grammar and communication in advertising”.
That was my journey, and it’s one I’m still on as I strive to be a good employee where I am now. And it’s the same journey all graduates go through. This advice applies to EVERYONE, but I feel that it’s something that graduates of the arts need ESPECIALLY.
But in all this talk of PRACTICAL WORK, let’s not forget that teeny tiny thing in all of us: What about that writing stuff?
This is an important question to ask. Because if you’re going to be doing similar work for most of your life, you NEED TO FIGURE OUT WHERE YOUR WRITING FITS INTO IT.
If you’re lucky, the job won’t demand your whole being, heart and soul, and you’ll have after work and the weekends to pursue your own creative goals and projects. Heck, you might even have a job which INSPIRES you to write more. Ehhhh, but I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s fluffy, wishful thinking said by rich success stories who are the exception rather than the rule.
But if your luck is merely average, all that EFFORT will take its toll on you. You have to mentally focus at work. Mentally focus ON work. Stress about being a good employee, keeping up with work stuff, all of which occupies your thoughts. And you need to KEEP caring about it, which you will very likely carry home as a burden. When that happens, there is LESS ROOM FOR HOBBIES. Oh sure, you have your free time. But that free time will need to be set aside to RECHARGE.
I struggled with creative writing in all those things, of course. I tried looking for free time to write. And even when I had it, I struggled to have to willpower and discipline to ACTUALLY write. And trust me, once you enter a full-time job, WILLPOWER is something that you will struggle to hold onto. There were months at a time where I did NO writing, and even today I still struggle with my own personal projects.
Yet here I am, writing a weekly blog as an exercise in discipline. Here I am, and I’m STILL writing. It takes a lot commitment and effort, and there’s no shame in taking time to just relax and unwind. But it CAN be done.
Ultimately, as you learn what it’s like to really work, you will face the biggest choice of your life as an artist: Do I still want to hold onto my dreams, working hard on them WHILE ALSO WORKING? Or do I let go of them and just be a spectator, only consuming media for my own enjoyment while I concentrate on continuing to earn money so that I can keep on living?
Sounds like there’s an obvious romantic answer (“Never give up! Don’t lose your dreams! Only losers quit!”) but that’s not the case. There’s no shame in accepting your limits and only keeping it as a hobby you enjoy, because life is HARD. If you are striving to be a responsible adult, that is ALREADY A HEROIC STRUGGLE and good job making it this far.
And believe it or not: You can ask yourself this question AGAIN at any point. If after years of stabilising your work you decide you want to try writing again, that’s fine, too. What you choose NOW is not always set in stone: put it on hold, pick it up again, retire and enjoy your time, then return to writing for pleasure, it’s up to YOU what you do with your opportunities and circumstances.
Just remember: It always takes effort. It always takes commitment. There is always a price to pay in time and energy.
We learn to do it with ADULT things. And once we’re there, we learn to do it with PASSION things.