When the day job gets in the way of your art

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Todd A

, Inspiration

Last week, I could not get a column written in time to publish. This has happened only a handful of times in the last two years. Usually, it is a scheduling problem but last week was a problem we’ve all faced as part-time musicians: the day job. Part of this gig writing for SongCast about making music is turning my experience into “teachable moments,” mostly for myself. The lesson here seems to be: this sucks.

For all of my adult life, I’ve squeezed creative madness into the times around my day (or night) job. For years, I have stayed up late at night, crouched over a computer writing or recording or pacing around an apartment trying to finish a song. Those were the hours I had to do the thing that freed me so I trapped myself in them.

When you miss a deadline, or can’t get finished when you want, or a project goes off course in the few hours you can devote to it, it does feel like you’re losing a battle. I don’t know how others consider these moments but I often wonder if I’m left lower for not finishing a project than if I’d never started. In other words: is it worth the effort?

I’ve made peace with the fact that I have a compulsion to make things and I shouldn’t consider what if I didn’t start this next thing? I just make stuff as well as I can in the time I have.

The trade-off, as we all know, is that when we do one thing in our off-hours, we can’t do another. I asked Andrew W.K. about this once and he told me:

It’s the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure to sit and record music for 24 hours, to just play piano, to talk to you about this. It’s an honor to even get to talk about this. But for sure the only way that I’m able to have done anything was just from hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours spent doing this over something else.

When I asked him that, Andrew and I were 13 years younger than we are today. Now, at my current age, I can tell you an ugly truth: this compulsion to make your thing in your off hours? To choose to make your own thing instead of do another? It slows down. Age and priorities conspire to make it much less enjoyable or even possible to sit hunched over a computer all night when you’ve been hunched over it all day.

I say all this to say: of course the day job is going to get in the way of your art. That’s…probably the point of day jobs. But as this thought depresses you, perhaps the words of Teller (the smaller, quieter half of Penn & Teller) will push you onward:

Art is anything we do after the chores are done.

I don’t find this to be a particularly inspiring quote but I appreciate its levelheadedness. When we get attached to the idea that our art can be full-time, we suffer. Art is just what fills in the cracks between the chores. And what are jobs but big, time-consuming chores? Understanding our will to create art as merely the creative activity we do between the chores is the path to making peace with our compulsion.

That may be enlightenment but it doesn’t mean I won’t struggle with it each week.


Todd A thinks you should make art, not ask permission. Read his thoughts on making music (almost) every week in the SongCast Indie Artist Insider.

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