When I was about 16, my hometown’s local college hosted Jonathan Safran Foer for a Q&A. At the time, I’d only read a few chapters of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but I knew what I needed to know: Foer was a successful, published author, and that’s also what I wanted to be.
Because I was an intensely pragmatic person, even as a teenager, my question wasn’t about where he got his inspiration, or if he had general advice for a hopeful author. No, I asked him what day job was best when I was still working on my breakout novel. I was in the process of finding and applying to colleges, and still hadn’t picked a course of study. Should I be a lawyer? A graphic designer? A journalist? What would be the best monetary/career compliment to my actual artistic ambitions?
Foer laughed at me a little, because it was a weird question for a teenager to ask, but then he told me that, in his opinion, writers should get dead end entry level jobs with little to no potential for advancement, because it would motivate them to write. If you got too distracted by upward momentum in a career other than writing, he argued, you’d never have time or need to write. You’d just focus on your non-writing career and that would be that.
At the time, this made sense to me, because he was a published author and I was not. Then I went to college, majored in writing, wrote a few novels, realized what I really wanted to do was write scripts, then moved to New York for an MFA in Writing and Producing for Television. In some ways, I still agree with Foer, because if your dream is to make a living writing or doing art, your life should be structured to best support that. In other ways, I think he’s full of crap.
First of all, though filmmaking is definitely worse in this regard, a substantial amount of your potential success as an artist relies on who you know. And you won’t know anyone if you’re working reception at a call center. You might, but it’s unlikely. Having a job or career related to the industry you’re trying to break into would be super useful to budding artists. For example, John Green was a publishing assistant and production editor for a book review journal while he worked on his first novel. Without the editing and publishing connections he made there, his route to success would not have been so simple, if it would have existed at all. Similarly, working your way up the ranks in film production increases your likelihood of meeting someone willing to give you a chance. These jobs aren’t dead end, and they definitely have opportunities for advancement, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
There’s also something to be said for wanting to live above the (poorly calculated because politics) poverty line, and how in most parts of the US, entry-level employment is not enough to have a decent quality of life. Maybe suffering is good for art, but I’d rather use my imagination and also have money to live alone in a big city and occasionally go out for beers. If my art suffers because I’m not suffering enough at my dead end job, then maybe art isn’t for me. And I’m kind of sick of people treating low income as noble for young artists. Being a starving artist isn’t noble, and it doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else. It just makes you starving.
Seven or eight years after that Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A, I was sitting in hour two of a three hour unpaid internship interview in New York City. It was the most bizarre interview I’ve ever been a part of, and I seemed to get rewarded for ragging on my generation and on creature comforts like “rent money.” Because I’m competitive, I got really into this intense back and forth with the owner of this production company, matching his outrageous expectations with outrageous confidence. He’d immigrated from China in the 60s or 70s and had spent about twelve years barely surviving on the streets of New York, dreaming of being a filmmaker. He lived in scary, disgusting apartments, worked his way up to graduating from NYU among classmates like Spike Lee, and now owns a multi-million dollar production company, doing commercials for cash and films for fun.
He was incredibly proud of his story, as he should be. But then I realized that he was using his prior poverty as an excuse to hire unpaid interns who he wanted to work three to four full days a week, indicating that if they worked longer hours or more days, they would be further rewarded. At the time, I was starting my second year of grad school, had just quit my coffee shop job, and was tens of thousands of dollars in debt. High on the intensity of the interrogation (it stopped being an interview after we passed hour one), I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I just wanted to impress this dude, who had worked up from nothing to become an incredibly successful filmmaker and who enjoyed the writing samples I’d sent in.
Then I left, ate dinner with my roommates, and realized that there was no way in hell I could afford to be an unpaid intern three days a week (who would only get ahead in the company if I worked four or five). I needed to continue paying rent and food. There’s nothing romantic about ruining your credit score to pursue a dream at a company that would only reward me the more I suffered. That’s not practical, nor fair. That just sucks. And I shouldn’t be seen as any less serious about my filmmaking or my writing if I decide to pursue jobs that pay better that I can get promoted from because, hey, money is super useful.
This got off track. But here’s my point: I don’t think there’s one particular type of job that’s better or worse for eventually getting your dream job. If you’re serious about your art and you stay disciplined in creating it even while “real life” demands more from you, then you’ll get there. And we as a culture need to stop pretending like the harder we make it to succeed, or even just get by, the better crop of creatives we’ll come out with.