The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 14: On Creative Sovereignty

One of my favorite pieces of writing about the creative life (and making a living at it) is Hugh MacLeod’s How to Be Creative. Written in 2004 and downloaded over 5 million times, this “meditation on creativity and finding meaning,”  is full of so many great insights, I could spend the next month just talking about the lessons contained within, forget all the other things I planned to write about during this 30 day project.

But I won’t do that. Instead I’ll just tell you to go download it yourself here (it’s free), if you haven’t already.

What I will share is one of my favorite brilliant insights from the piece – the idea that as creatives, we often have two kinds of jobs.

This is an excerpt from item #7 in MacLeod’s manifesto, something he calls “The Sex and Cash Theory”:

[BEGIN QUOTE]

Keep your day job. Iʼm not just saying that for the usual reason i.e., because I think your idea will fail. Iʼm saying it because to suddenly quit oneʼs job in a big olʼ creative drama-queen moment is always, always, always in direct conflict with what I call “The Sex & Cash Theory.”

THE SEX & CASH THEORY: The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs. One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.

A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines—it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then heʼll go off and shoot some catalogs for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.

Itʼs balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining oneʼs creative sovereignty. My M.O. is gapingvoid (“Sex”), coupled with my day job (“Cash”).

Iʼm thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines…who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly.

Well, over time the “harshly” bit might go away, but not the “divided.” This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.

As soon as you accept this, I mean really accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I donʼt know why this happens. Itʼs the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way—who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy day job and moving straight on over to best-selling author…well, they never make it.

Anyway, itʼs called “The Sex & Cash Theory.” Keep it under your pillow.

[END QUOTE]

Although I’m experiencing the “tense duality” Mac­Leod speaks of in my work right now (and trying to find a way to make peace with it), I don’t happen to believe it will always be this way, that it can never be transcended.

But I take his point about “maintaining oneʼs creative sovereignty.” I’m a firm believer in the idea that there needs to be space in your life where you can create whatever you want with no limitations, where the creative work you do doesn’t have to be twisted to fit someone else’s definition of what’s acceptable, sellable, or worthwhile.

Which reminds me of someone I once met years ago when I lived in New York. My boyfriend at the time was getting his MFA in creative writing at Columbia, and his circle of friends included a few people who later went on to achieve a fair amount of success in the writing world.

Once such person was a guy who got a story published in The New YorkerThe New Yorker, fer cryin’ out loud! – yet still had to deliver pizzas for some time afterward to earn money to pay the bills.  This person now has several published books to his name.

Of course we all know people like this – a damn good writer who teaches to pay the bills, a talented artist who holds down a job at the local coffee shop to make ends meet, an excellent musician who repairs computers in the daytime so she can play in a band at night, and so on.

It’s the price we’re willing to pay as creatives to be able to do our true, true thing.

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