Secrets of Starving Artists

Admit it. You're worried about money. You and just about everybody else, considering what's been going on of late. You're in particular worried about the future.

Welcome to the world of those who make their living in the arts, the chronically under- and un-employed writers and performers who share a bed with feast and famine. With little job security, those in this boat either move on to something less nerve-wracking (Stop-n-Rob stickups spring to mind) or learn to adapt with the cyclical nature of their career choice.

One way artists and writers manage to survive the lean times is by hanging onto a day job or working part-time in some field where they've had previous training or where their minds, at least, can run free. I know many novelists who get up obscenely early or stay up quite late to write before or after work and "give up" almost every weekend. A lot of them dream of the day they'll be able to give up this paycheck (or its benefits) and devote themselves to their art; others enjoy either the security or the work of their "other" job. But there's no shame attached to moonlighting, no admission of failure inherent in the act.

Those "starving" artists who keep at it long-term also tend to help each other. They talk up each other's work, band together to take advantage of opportunities, and introduce newcomers to the "rules of the community." Rather than jealously hoarding scraps of potentially-helpful information, they share tips with others who may benefit and develop a network of contacts that often helps them in the long haul. After all, if your buddy's career skyrockets, he may have the opportunity to offer you a hand up -- something which happens far more often that you might think.

One last thing I've noticed is those living on the poverty-prone fringes of the creative territories (which would include most of us) celebrate not only capital-S Success but every baby step in its direction. Get a halfway encouraging rejection? An invitation to submit your next work? A kind word from a mentor or an offer from a small press or a nice online review? Your buds are out there genuinely cheering for you, even when they're dying for some good news of their own.

You'll notice that a lot of this comes down to community, to finding others who share or at least support your goal. And it never hurts to have friends with whom to share recipes for inexpensive meals, tips on the best paper prices, and, oh, yes... that all important opportunity to laugh about the craziness of this life we're living.

So what are your "starving artist" secrets? How do you save or raise more money or plan for the lean times between contracts? And if you want to share or link to a great deal, we would love it!


Cindy Holby said…
Unfortunately I've got no words of encouragement. I'm right there with the starving part. The worst part about our job is that the payday is way off in the future someday and even though we're doing what we love we can never count on the paycheck.

I've been tempted several times lately to get a day job. Unfortunately, the very thing that inspires my writing, which is the lovely view of the mountains I have from my office window, also hampers me from getting a job. I can't afford gas to get to work, it would take every bit I make to put gas in my car.

So I'm stuck between a having lots of time to write and the anxiety of worrying over how to pay the bills. And also the worry over if and when my check comes in will it be enough to make up for the months when I didn't have one.
Allison Brennan said…
Great post Colleen.

I've been lucky in that I was able to quit my day job and support my family with my writing income, but I'm acutely aware that long-term job security is not guaranteed. Publishing is a wacky business in many respects. But in this economy, who IS guaranteed long-term job security? Few people, that's for sure!

In order to keep my financial sanity, I don't spend money frivolously to save for the leaner times. I avoid debt like the plague, and pay myself a "salary" in order to avoid spending binges when a check comes in . . . that means paying Uncle Same as well! No fancy vacations, no fancy cars, no fancy clothes. Now shoes, on the other hand . . .

But it wasn't so long ago when I was working full-time, writing late at night, and just managing to pay my bills every month . . . barely.
Kelly McClymer said…
One of the ways I keep myself going is to do side jobs that make me a little money and inspire my writing. For example, I am a reading tutor for children with dyslexia. This gets me out of my sweats and out of the house for several hours a week. The multi-sensory program requirements (lots of colored markers, foam letters and games I make up myself) also reminds me vividly that life is a series of challenges we can meet with a smile and a positive attitude!

Wish I could offer some encouragement, Cindy. I have the same frustration about never knowing exactly when writing money will show up or how much it will cover. I supplement that income with a home-based business (tutoring, since I taught school for years), but fortunately, I live in a good spot for it. I envy you your view of the mountains (and dearth of hurricanes), and I hope you'll find a solution that works for you.

Great suggestions, esp. about paying yourself a salary. I've also learned to put aside a chunk of any paycheck for taxes so I don't end up facing a terrible reality on 4/15. And as much as possible, we try to pay as we go instead of accruing debt. Credit card debt is the worst, esp. those cards with high interest rates.
Vicky B said…
Part time jobs, side jobs, full time jobs - whatever it takes to keep food on the table. I've been lucky in that I haven't had to take back a full time job yet, but that time is coming to an end. The bills add up and the royalties don't.

So it's back to a work-a-day world and the writing will take a back seat - again. But at least we'll eat and be warm.
Angie Fox said…
Great post. I can't tell you the number of people who saw my book hit the NY Times bestseller list and said, "Oh. Now you're set." But the truth is writers don't see royalties for quite a while, and even then, saving for a rainy day is a must.

I'm a former advertising writer and I still take on freelance ad jobs when I'm not on a book deadline. The paychecks come a lot faster, and I enjoy the work.

Speaking of enjoyment: in my opinion, you don't start writing novels (even crazier) try to make at it unless you love what you do. It's our pure excitement for what we're writing that enables us to "give up" the security of a monthly paycheck, or nights and weekends doing other things.

When it's all said and done, I think most of us are extremely grateful to be doing what we're doing. I know I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Suzan Harden said…
Sometimes it's a question of sanity and survival. I've done the glitzy high paying job, and yes, the money's nice - to a point.

You know it's bad when your four-year-old drags your laptop case over to you and tells you to go to the coffee shop and write because you're grumpy. (Grumpy does not begin to cover my very poor behavior.) And it's even worse when your husband begs you to quit the glitzy high-paying job because the stress is wreaking havoc on your health and marriage.

Now, I work part-time at a retail store with a boss willing to set my hours so I can pack in the maximum amount of writing time. I use a lot of coupons, we dug out the rabbit ears for the TV, eating out is the occasional trip to Sonic, and no new cars. But my family and I are a hell of lot happier.
Christie Craig said…

Love the post. There have been times in my career as a writer that I would have made a lot more money asking, "Do you want fries with that burger?"

I found stretching myself to include all forms of writing, such as freelance, helped get me through some lean times. When I was working freelance full time, I tripled my income by learning to take pictures and submitting images with my articles.

Even now that I'm selling two books a year, I'm writing non-fiction books to help suppliment the income.

I also found teaching "writing" as another way of making ends meet.

And I agree, the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch mine," is a big help in this business. It also helps to work together with someone on promo and marketing. As in having a group blog. You save money and time.

Thanks for the post.

Abby Gaines said…
Interesting subject, Colleen! I came into this business with a vastly over-inflated idea of how much money I would make as a beginner novelist. I'm still hoping to make those dollars one day, but I've realized I'm not JK Rowling... (that was a big shock to my husband, who hoped I was going to rake in the dough...).

I edit a speedway magazine a few months each year as a sideline income. It's not the most obvious fit with romance writing, but it did actually enable me to start writing for the Harlequin NASCAR series, so you never know what opportunities your 'day job' might open up.

Faye Hughes said…
Great post, Colleen!

Years ago, I remember hearing a multi-published author say that she'd lied on her income tax form for several years in a row. She hadn't under-reported - she had overly inflated the amount of writing income she'd made that year. She'd done it for fear the IRS would label her writing a hobby.

Yep. It's a crazy business we're in.

Chuck said…
When I decided in 2003 to move to the Houston area from El Paso, a large part of that decision was based on the lack of a commercial fiction writing community in El Paso. The only one had dwindled from a huge 12 folks down to 3. Now 5.5 years later, I am surrounded by more moral support than I ever imagined, especially from the RWA chapters where the members have a polite yet firm "never say quit" attitude. With all that support pouring forth, I'm anything but starving.
Donna Maloy said…
True words, Colleen, about the incredible amount of help starving artists can give each other. And there's no better example than RWA, Romance Writers of America, for leading by example in this. From scores of specialized loops on the Internet, to online classes and local conference workshops, to critique groups and mentors, RWA encourages sharing the journey.
As Angie said, you have to love what you do to in order to last in this business. Celebrating all the baby steps with your writer friends across the world helps keep you lovin' it. And when things fall apart, those thousands of other writers out there have advice, contacts, networking, and humor to help you through it. I don't think rocket scientists, congressmen and women, doctors, or lawyers have anywhere near the support system we Starving Artists have!
Susan Lyons said…
My biggest tip is to figure out your priorities. Is your writing career at the top of the list, or does it come below shoes and lattes? For me, it's been at or near the top for a long time.

I was lucky to discover Romance Writers of America fairly early in my writing career, which meant that I got a pretty realistic idea of what it was like to be published - i.e., it's extremely hard to make a good living as a romance writer. So I planned, and always remembered my priorities. Before I made my first book sale, I'd paid off the mortgage. Whew! I'd eliminated a huge monthly expense. I stopped driving a car and cut way back on the clothes, fancy coffees, and other non-essentials (I didn't cut back so much on the social times with other writers, because those are essential for my sanity!). The cutting back let me put money into that mortgage, and also got me used to living on a small income. Besides, if I'm writing, I'm happy and don't need a ton of frills in my life. Now, I can do a bit of part-time work and focus most of my time on building my writing career.

This past weekend I attended the Emerald City Writers Conference and I saw a lot of writers who are very serious about their careers. Economic times are tough and few of these people are wealthy, but they prioritized, budgeted, and organized their lives so they could attend a professional conference. I'm guessing that a fair proportion of the people at that conference will do well in their writing careers. Much better than their writer friends who stayed back home enjoying their cute new shoes, and their daily caramel macchiatos!
Bonnie Vanak said…
I still have the day job and ironically, it's a job that helps the poor, which I would be if I were writing FT!

Fortunately, the day job is very fulfilling. Unfortunately, it does tax me and cuts into writing time.

For me, I had started writing romance as an emotional escape from seeing so much suffering in my travels for the day job. Now that I'm writing for two houses,sometimes the day job offers an escape from the romance writing. Go figure.

So you might not say I'm a starving artist when it comes to income, but I am a starving artist when it comes to time. Time, as I've found out these past two years, is a commodity I can't buy.

One thing I have found useful in budgeting romance writing income, is to keep a separate account so I can keep track of bills and income. Or "outgo." In these trying times, seems like a lot of us have too much "outgo" than "income!"
secrets of starving artists? Two words:
Ramen noodles.
And yeah, contemplating doing what my teens did this summer (and earned more money than I do as a writer because of it): petsitting and babysitting...It's that or doling out smiley face stickers at WalMart, though I suspect they're no longer hiring for that position in this economy...
American Title III winner, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver
Amie Stuart said…
Funny I just blogged about a similar subject. I do think it helps that my writer friends are pretty much in the same boat I am.

As a single mom I'm no stranger to lean times, but I can already see it's going to be a difficult adjustment for the kids--they don't remember when they were little like I do. I'm seriously considering taking my small retirement account and paying off the credit cards AND the car. But a part of me hates to because this is the first year I haven't had to "borrow" from it to pay for dental work or catch up on bills--thanks to my writing.

I guess, in a way, I'm lucky because my day job is what keeps the roof over our head--not the writing, but right now, my number one goal is to get as far out of debt as possible!
Bonnie Vanak said…
One more thing. Coupons. Whether you're a starving artist or just a hungry one, saving money during these lean times helps.

Enter in your zip code and you can print out coupons to take to the store. In some regions (in NJ they used to have this) some stores have double coupon day and you get double the value.

My mom, who grew up during the Great Depression, was a huge coupon clipper and always cut them out of the paper and magazines. These days the internet offers even more choice!
EmilyBryan said…
When my debut title came out, NY Times Best Seller Bobbi Smith told me the first secret to sucess as a writer was to "Stay published."

The second secret was to have a spouse with a job that provided health insurance.

Whenever I'm tempted to go back to a day job, invariably an email from a reader will come in raving about how much one of my books meant to them. That's enough to keep me writing until the financial rewards catch up with those kind of intangibles.

Great post, Colleen!
Judi Fennell said…
I joined RWA four years ago and at the time had two part time jobs - one during the day, one at night. After two years, the day job offered me enough hours to cover the night job, plus it paid better AND let me be flexible around my kids' schedules. Not to mention, at both of these jobs, I could do research and other writing-oriented things (obviously we aren't talking management positions, but the money was good and the flexibility was perfect) while there. Sadly, I just got laid off from this perfect day job (housing industry, gee, go figure...). What'd I do? First call was to my night job boss. I'm waiting to hear, but my husband says if it's not available, no worries. In his words, I've handled more than my share of our "lifework" and with my first three books coming out next summer, it's time to focus on my next career.

At one point, before writing for publication, when we had small children and only his income, I became the Coupon Queen, doing those incredible $200 grocery shopping for $50. That, alone, was a job in and of itself.

-Judi Fennell
In Over Her Head, 6/09
Whale of a Tail, 8/09
Catch of a Lifetime, 10/09
TJ Bennett said…
I recently gave up my full-time day job to go back to school to earn a living that will be more stable and financially lucrative while I pursue my writing career. I'm not giving up the dream!

I'm lucky in that my husband has a full time job with benefits, but we depended on my income as well. So we've one thing that helps us keep to a budget is just that. A budget--one I write down, and stick to. We use the envelope method--put what you budgeted for the month for each major purchase category (groceries, gas, clothing, etc) in an envelope labeled for that purpose--and when the envelope is empty, stop spending. Things are tight, but it keeps us from spiraling into unrecoverable debt, especially now that we've sliced our income way down. :-)
Heidi Betts said…
Look on the bright side, Colleen--being a starving artist is one of the best diets going. Living on Ramen noodles, mac & cheese, & having to walk everywhere rather than drive...all great ways to lose weight. LOL

Seriously, being a writer isn't one of the greatest careers for guaranteed income & you have to do what you can to supplement. And the art of living on paychecks you get only every 6mos without knowing what amount they'll be is *true* financial planning. I guess I've always been a fan of saving for a rainy day & living frugally, but I also believe that the Lord will provide. Sometimes not until the very last minute, but He does come through. :-p

Ironically, when I first started writing, I knit on the side & sold items at local craft shops. Now I'm getting paid to write romance novels about knitting! I never expected things to turn out this way, but I'm definitely loving it! :-D
So many wonderful comments and suggestions. There's a lot of wisdom out there in the writing community.

Love the envelope idea, TJ, and I need to get back into the coupon habit. Also, several have touched on the fact that their day jobs enrich their writing. If nothing else, they offer contact with a variety of non-writers.

Also, different people have different tolerances for risk. Or we might be able to tolerate poverty all right, but we can't stand the idea of inflicting instability on our family. I think it's important to know your own (and your family's) tolerance. Most kids can adapt quite well to not having the latest and greatest of every electronic doodads. But living without adequate food, decent health care, and a safe environment is another story.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone!
Ciara Gold said…
Great post! I'm a starving artists three times over. Eh? I'm holding three jobs right now and yes, running myself ragged doing it, but without the day job, I couldn't support myself or my family enough to enough my two writing jobs. So, what's the day job? I teach art. Ha ha. So, yes, I know what it means to be a starving artist.

But, with teaching I have summers off to devote to writing, and I can usually finish a novel or come close by the end of summer. My second job is editing for a local magazine. So -- I am managing to feed my creative muse if a lot of ways even if I'm barely getting by. I'm happy, tired -- but happy.
Kimberly Frost said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jo Anne said…
Great post, Colleen. Nice to know we’re all in it together. I'm a 61-year-old single gal and no one is funding my health insurance or my retirement but me. I need the security of my bookkeeping service, which brings me enough income to allow me to lose 30% in my retirement accounts this year. :-)

But, I still have the dream of a second career. My best friends still come from this writing community. And I have found a generosity of spirit within our community that feeds something a bank account will not.

I'm mercenary. I never in my life thought I'd work this hard for this long - for no income. But I have discovered the creative channel, and that, plus this lovely community, has been my payoff. So, I get up at 5:30 in the morning and write a couple of hours before my two employees get to my home office and the 'day job' business phone starts ringing. I also have fun and interesting clients, which helps – definitely grist for my writing mill.

My house and car are paid for - and credit cards are paid in full each month. I am "penny wise and pound foolish," but can survive fine on the pennies if need be. (Bonnie, thanks for

We each must find our balance.
Carolyn said…
For most of us, novel writing is not the get rich quick scheme non-writers think it is. Half of all the money I do make goes right back to Uncle Sam. So, I continue in my full time job (as most writers do).

One irony is that as I've successfully gotten contracted (4 books in two years) I've reached the point where it's a challengeto meet my deadlines while raising my son and working full time, and yet I haven't even seen a royalty statement for the first book, let alone the other three.

Secrets? Networking. Writer friends will keep you sane. No TV. No vacations (unless it's to finish a book) Make time for your family. They need you and you need them. That, alas, means the you-time disappears -- because you're writing during it. (At lunch, after dinner, during sports practices...)

That's just the way it is. I don't want to imagine a life without writing.
Great post, Colleen. Boy, does this topic ever speak to me. I have three relatively flexible part time jobs that I rotate around, trying to squeak by while having some time to write. But squeaking by is all, I'm not able right now to put anything away in savings. But since I'm at the beginning of my professional writing career, I really want to make a push in having a lot of 'product' to put out into the world and stay on top of my deadlines. But I came from the theatre world and shifted into publishing, so the 'starving artist' life is all I've ever known. I just look forward to the day when I'm the 'adequately fed' artist.
Jane said…
I never figured this out--I always had to work. Because I was a teacher, I wrote on weekend and during vacations. The best thing I ever did for my career was finally get old enough to retire!!!

Jane Myers Perrine
Michele Dunaway said…
I wish I could be a starving artist. Basically I work two full time jobs: writing and teaching high school.

I can't see giving up the day job as my teaching funds my health insurance and my retirement account. I have at least 15 years before I can be a full time writer. While I make a nice chunk from writing, my day job still pays more and it offers more security.

This year I actually restructured so that I didn't have to worry about my writing paycheck, which is dependent on when my editor reads my book, or when my editor buys something new, etc.

I could live off of writing, but I like my house too much. :)

Michele Dunaway
Tailspin, Harlequin NASCAR (9/08)
Twins for the Teacher, Harlequin American (Michele's 20th book! 3/09)
Thanks so much for all the great comments. It's amazing to me how much we're all willing to sacrifice to go after our dreams. As Stella Cameron once said, everything of value costs something. And I can think of few things more valuable than the chance to connect with a readership and to do the work we feel called to do.
Bonnie Vanak said…
Ok, I have one last tip to share. I just got back from my MD's office and she put me on a prescription and told me that Walmart had it for only $4. They have about 600 meds you can get very very cheap because they have been on the market so long that they've gone down in price.

This is $4 without a health insurance prescription plan.

It's a good idea to ask your local grocery store as well if they sell your prescription meds at a reduced amount.

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