6 Creatives Who Prove You Can Hold a Day Job and Still Make Awesome Art

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FSGA detail from the cover of Catherine Lacey's debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing.


By Kristen Felicetti and Mack Gelber

No one wants to be a starving artist these days. The allure of the leaky garret has faded, if it had any to begin with; how are you supposed to get anything done when you can barely afford a sandwich? Maybe it's a symptom of competition in creative disciplines rising to newfound levels of insanity--as far as success is concerned, this is a time for managed expectations and unsparing, brutal realism. Even if you think you're the next Junot Díaz, you're still going to have to pay your electric bill somehow, which means that sooner or later--probably sooner--you'll need to get a day job.

Of course, artists churning out creative work while they grind away at a 9-to-5 is almost as time-honored a tradition as moving to Paris and living on cigarettes: just look at Herman Melville (or Junot Díaz, for that matter). But when you spend the majority of your time answering emails, or preparing lattés, or writing listicles about adorable puppy videos, what becomes of that one, closely-held thing you took a job to support in the first place? That's the question we asked six talented creative folks who have found success while holding down day jobs of every ilk, and proved that it's possible to do great work while, well, working.

Danielle Lurie


1. Gillian Robespierre

Gillian Robespierre wrote and directed the 2014 film Obvious Child, described in the Washington Post as a "refreshingly new" take on the romantic comedy genre. Starring Jenny Slate as a woman staring down the worst Valentine's Day of her life, the movie evolved out of a short film Robespierre made in 2009.

What was your last day job?
Administrative Assistant at the Directors Guild of America.

How did you balance that day job with creating stuff (for example, when you had a day job at the DGA and were also making Obvious Child)? Did you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
My writing schedule consisted of nights and weekends with the rare and sacred bank holiday. I didn't go apple picking in the fall or take trips to beach in the summer. I neglected countless birthdays and housewarmings. I think I was averaging around five hours of sleep a night. It's funny how little sleep one needs when they are totally obsessed/possessed to make a movie. As we got closer to shooting I started waking up at 6 a.m. to write before my commute to Midtown. I actually grew very fond of those early morning sessions. A time of day I still find the most satisfying. Absolutely no one sends emails that early.

During actual production I was able to use the arsenal of vacation days I was hoarding. Which was great because there is no way I could have directed a feature film on my lunch breaks. But, I was back at my DGA desk two days after we wrapped principle photography. For post-production I shifted back to the nights and weekends schedule. We hired a wonderful editor who adapted to the crazy program and we were able to submit to Sundance (on time!) When we got into Sundance (yay!) I used my freshly accrued vacation days to attend the festival. When we sold the movie (double yay!) I made sure to schedule press interviews during lunch breaks or post work hours.

Only after selling the next movie idea was I finally able to leave my day job and make the jump into full time filmmaking. I loved my job at the DGA. I worked there for seven years. My co-workers became family and I was sad to say goodbye to them, and to my corner cubicle that had felt safe for so many years. Looking back I can't fathom where all that energy came from. Sure I sacrificed a solid eight hours of sleep, and a few other things, but it was all worth it, and I would do it again.

What did you look for in a day job?
I dipped my toe in the production game after I graduated from film school but found the hours too rigorous. I loved working at the DGA because my days were set from10am to 6pm sharp which allowed me a lot of free head space to get writing in. Sure the desk job lacked the excitement a film set or a production company could offer. But, it had its roots in the film business and allowed me the time and energy to get my business done.

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
Best job: Kim's Video. Worst job: Kim's Video. I had to handle a lot of sticky VHS tapes. The porn section at my location was very well stocked.

Now that you've left your day job, and are able to do your creative work full-time, what has changed?
Now, I'm writing full time, which is a really nice change! I still like to wake up early to write. But, having more time means I can take more time easing into the day. I no longer wake up in a panic.

Shane Jones

2. Shane Jones

Shane Jones is the author of the novels Light Boxes, Daniel Fights a Hurricane, and most recently Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio)--all surreal, hyper-imaginative works where the mythical collides with the everyday. His latest conjures a world in which survival is inextricably tied to "crystal count," a video game-like conceit Jones uses to explore questions of family, mortality, and how much brain-breakingly trippy imagery your fragile mind can take.

What is your current day job?
I work in state government as a writer/event planner/logistics person. It's a pretty standard desk job, I think. I answer phones and emails and print signs and banners. Sometimes I attend public hearings for Senators and help out.

How do you balance your job with creating stuff? Do you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
It depends what I'm working on, but for the past few years I was working on a novel. When I wasn't at work I would find any free time possible to work on the book. This meant coming into my day job early to use the computer, staying up late, using my lunch break to write, not sleeping, etc. In a sense my day job balances me out (the reality of the day job versus the imagination of the novel).

What do you look for in a day job?
I don't want to take my work home or work extra hours. I look for a day job that pays well and doesn't tax me mentally. If you want to produce creative work look for a job that doesn't burn you out mentally and allows you to daydream a little. Bookstore clerk, parking lot attendant, late night security patrol at a college, lifeguard at the YMCA, things like that are good.

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
Maybe this one because it gives me health insurance, a livable salary, and plenty of time off. I worked as a lifeguard twelve years ago and that was pretty great. My worst was working at Lowe's as a forklift operator in the lumber department. I felt like an alien there. I was very depressed and drank in my car.

What would change if you were able to do your creative work full-time?
Nothing really. I'd still be looking at a blank page or moving words around. I'd just be doing it for a longer duration each day.

Adam J. Kurtz
3. Adam J. Kurtz

Adam J. Kurtz is a graphic artist and media designer interested in the ephemera of daily life, small tokens, and messages that often get overlooked. His new daily journal 1 Page at a Time: A Daily Creative Companion is being published by Penguin Random House on October 7.

What is your current day job?
I'm currently the Studio Designer at an ad agency in New York. It's extremely fast-paced, and we do exciting, fun work. Calling it a "day job" is kind of ridiculous though. Advertising seems like a life job. I've worked over 60 hours this week, but was still up until 1am last night packing up orders from my online shop. And doing hand-drawn lettering for a project due this morning. Sometimes I don't even understand how I function as a human being. If I didn't like the people I work with so much, I'd probably have given up already. But I'm stubborn as hell, want to keep learning new things, and I like having health insurance.

Outside of my job I have a lot of personal projects, occasional collaborations and some freelance. My new daily journal, "1 Page at a Time: A Daily Creative Companion," is being published by Penguin Random House next month. The book is an optimistic, introspective, funny little thing -- a natural evolution from other work I've been creating online for years now. At 384 pages, it was a massive undertaking, and I'm so excited for it to finally be released. It's a dream come true but all the work and edits on the book, marketing and events, plus hand-lettering for several foreign translations has proven to be its own never-ending job. I also create a range of self-produced art products, through my "INTERNET GIFT SHOP," exploring ideas and moods in small batches of items which I pack and ship myself out of my tiny Brooklyn apartment.

How do you balance your job with creating stuff? Do you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
The balance is tough because my work schedule is often unpredictable. Since starting this job over a year ago, I've tried my best to focus and consolidate, simplifying my commitments to relieve pressure on myself. Then again, the book is a massive opportunity that I won't let slip by. It's a struggle. I feel myself burning out sometimes. Truthfully, I've slept 15 hours since Tuesday and I've got 40 online orders to pack and ship tonight, then a photographer coming to shoot me for a book feature in the morning. It is possible to be both blessed and stressed.

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
I used to work remotely for an internet marketing agency, 4 days a week. I would just wake up and do my work, was well-paid, and had plenty of free time. I put that money into my projects, fronting costs for printing or shipping supplies. It let me get everything started. The worst day job I've ever had was waiting tables for a few months. I liked the people and made really great tips, but I worked crazy shifts and never controlled my own free time. I remember walking home at 4am and just crying on the phone. It broke me down. I don't know how people work foodservice or retail. I've tried both and they were some of the most trying things I ever did. I am really grateful for my design education, and am privileged to be able to get a "day job" that informs and educates my personal practice.

What would change if you were able to do your creative work full-time?
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I do my creative work for a hobby. It's mine and I am in control of it. Sure, I could try and turn it into a full-time thing, and maybe one day I will, expanding my range of products, and not just retiring popular stuff because I'm "tired of it." But for now, the idea of my life depending on my personal work being perfect every time seems worse than the balancing act.

Sujay Dave

4. Kimberly Palmer

Kimberly Palmer is the author of The Economy of You and senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. She runs an Etsy shop called Palmer's Planners, where she creates planners that help people navigate major life events and goals.

What is your current day job? What is the creative work you do outside your day job?
My "day job" is being a senior editor of money at US News & World Report - I love it and it is creative in itself, since it involves writing articles and editing other people's articles. Outside my day job, my creative work mostly revolves around creating my money planners for my Etsy shop and writing books.

How do you balance your job with creating stuff? Do you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
I just do my creative outside work during my kids' nap times on the weekends mostly. Or I take a vacation day every now and then to really dig in and focus. Otherwise, I have a pretty typical routine -- I'm in the office from 9-5 and hang out with my family in the evenings! (I have 2 young kids.)

What do you look for in a day job?
I've always loved journalism, so I want my primary job to involve reporting and writing. I got a lot of career satisfaction from that.

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
I love jobs that allow me to be creative and independent -- so pretty much any journalism job is ideal. My least favorite jobs in the past are when someone else is controlling your time and actions -- being a softball ump, one of my first jobs, was absolutely terrible in this way and I hated it!

What would change if you were able to do your creative work full-time?
Well, I do get to do my creative work full time -- my reporting and editing is creative, just in a different way than my Etsy planners. I really love my Etsy planners as a side-gig and wouldn't ever want to give up my full time job! I love it, too.

Goodreads, Catherine Lacey

5. Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey's debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing (FSG) has been praised by the New York Times as the arrival of a major talent, full of "languid sentences that push into the night like headlights." A mordant character study of a woman whose flight from family and stability takes her on a long, strange trip across New Zealand, it's one of the must-read debuts of 2014.

What is your current day job? What is the creative work you do outside your day job?
My current day job is multitudinous. I'm teaching creative writing at a medical school, mentoring high school writers and writing articles freelance.

How do you balance your job with creating stuff? Do you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
With my last job I had a pretty regular schedule and I wrote the bulk of my first novel on a schedule. I wrote every morning except Sunday, when I ran a cooperative bed & breakfast I founded with 6 others in 2010. Schedule-wise, that was ideal for writing a novel but didn't leave time or headspace for freelance work or teaching, which is why I moved on. That said, even the most religiously followed schedules have to be able to adapt and change.

What do you look for in a day job?
The most important aspect of a day job for me is having most of my mornings free, which is when it's easiest for me to write fiction.

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
I've had a lot of jobs. I used to work for a family as a cook/assistant when I was in grad school and that was amazing. I went in at 3 or so and left by 8 usually, leaving plenty of time for class and writing and readings at night. The worst environment for me is an office, I've found. It's soul crushing and your soul needs to be intact to write.

What would change if you were able to do your creative work full-time?
I'd have more time to read. I would love that.

Summer Pierre
6. Summer Pierre

Summer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, and writer whose work has appeared in the Rumpus, Hobart, and the Nashville Review. Her book The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week explores the challenges of balancing (and maybe blurring) one's creative and professional lives. While she now primarily works freelance, Pierre still had plenty of insights to offer on the topic of day jobs.

What is your current day job?
Freelance illustrator, stay at home mom, part-time teacher.

How do you balance your job with creating stuff? Do you keep any kind of schedule or routine?
It's absolute chaos all the time! I have regular working hours while my son is in school, and then work nights when he is not. Among that I try to do a little of my own work in the cracks of time--which I find here and there. I am lucky that I work quickly and love deadlines--even if they are self-imposed.

What do you look for in a day job?
Right now, paying! Previously, I looked for a non demanding job--one that I can leave the work at work and where I don't have to be "on call."

What's the best day job you've ever had? The worst?
The best day job I've ever had was at a foundation. I had a lot of freedom to do my own creative work, it was part-time, and I loved my co-workers. The worst was a job assisting a professor, who was so demanding that I had anxiety attacks and who called me at home.

What would change if you were able to do your creative work full-time?
Not much. I love deadlines, company, health insurance, solvency. All of those things would need to be in place if I could do my creative work full-time, otherwise I would get nothing done. Jobs and kids give artists a LIFE, something so essential and yet underestimated for artists.


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