I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. It’s a nuts-and-bolts sort of post, the kind of thing that’s more utilitarian than it is artistic. Every few days, I get an email from someone I don’t know, who found me through my writing. Usually, they say something nice, and then they ask me how I got started in doing what I do. Then they ask me how they, too, can be a journalist, or worse yet, a music critic. My first instinct is to scream “Run! It’s a sinking ship!” Generally, though, I try to be encouraging.
I am a realist, of course. I make a pittance, but I know how to survive on a pittance. Meanwhile, most of my old college buddies from MIT are pulling in six figures, or close to it, at companies like Google. I won’t comment on how much I make, but let’s just say it’s a whole lot less than that. But I have one thing they don’t have: I have freedom. I travel around the world constantly. I make my own schedule; if I want to spend all of next month in Berlin, I can do it. And I don’t work in some cubicle hellhole; I work from a comfy chair in my apartment, a cafe, a library, or anywhere else that’s humane, with good lighting. I get credit for my ideas (usually) — my byline is under my work. That isn’t the case with most jobs. And that is why doing what I do totally rocks, despite all the sacrifices I’ve had to make.
I was also inspired to write this post because I’ve lived with a lot of artists over the years — I currently live in an artist collective, of sorts — and I’m friends with a lot of other journalists and critics. A lot of us, especially in the past few years when the economy has been tight, are having a hard time. Here are a few tips I’ve put together on how to survive as a struggling artist or freelance writer.
A Ten-Step Guide for Freelance Writers and Artist Types
1. Learn how to cook. You may think I’m joking. This is the most important piece of advice of them all. I would be not be an arts critic right now if I didn’t know how to cook. The fastest way to decimate your income is to go out to eat all the time. Especially in a city like New York. I’m not saying don’t go out to eat; I love restaurants. But make going out to eat an event. Spend a lot every once in a while on a really amazing meal. I was lucky; I grew up with a grandmother who made amazing Indian food and had her own vegetable garden in the backyard. From her, I learned a whole arsenal of DIY cooking techniques. I also taught myself a lot, from cookbooks.
Also: Shop at farmers’ markets whenever possible. Or join a CSA. The produce there is better and cheaper than the neatly arranged, creepily perfect produce at Whole Foods (the overpriced, idealized landscape that Michael Pollan once referred to as “supermarket pastoral.”) Plus, you get to know the people who work at the farms, and make connections with them. A lot of them are really cool. I’ve had long conversations with people who work at farmers’ markets about ambient music and gardening, for instance. One of them even fixed my bicycle when it was broken, for free. Supermarkets depress me, frankly.
2. Don’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent. If you can’t afford New York, leave New York. Be honest with yourself. I was always appalled to see how much some of my friends in New York were spending on rent. Sometimes, when I lived there, I’d be spending up to 50 percent of my income on rent. That is no way to live. Figure out ways to collectivize. If you can’t afford to live alone, then don’t. Live with other people — people you like, preferably. Your goal in life should not be to make your landlord rich.
Also, cut down your monthly bills as much as you can. Ride a bicycle instead of driving a car, if at all possible. Eschew cable and watch TV on the Internet instead. (I haven’t owned a TV in ten years, and I don’t miss it.) Think of all the recurring bills you have to pay each month, and try to minimize them. For me, I pay a student loan bill, an Internet bill, a health insurance bill, a cell phone bill, and a gas and electric bill each month. That, in and of itself, is too much, but it would be so much worse if I also had to pay for cable TV, car insurance, and who knows what else.
3. View pitching as a sport. Don’t feel dejected when you get turned down. Who cares? Fix up the pitch and pitch again. Have a thick skin. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this business. Also, don’t be afraid to aim high. When I had a pitch rejected by the Village Voice five years ago, I re-pitched it to the New York Times; the editors there loved the story and ran it as a front-page feature in the arts section. For artists: If you get rejected by a foundation or an artist residency program, then whatever. Don’t cry. Try again. And again. And again. Keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks.
4. Get regular exercise. Do yoga. Ride a bicycle. Studies show that exercise improves mood as much as drugs like Prozac. Plus it gets you out of the house. If you can afford it, go for a gym membership, but my personal opinion is that gym memberships cost a lot of dough and most people I know tend to not go enough to justify the cost. On top of that, many gyms usually make you sign shady binding contracts for one or sometimes two years, which often automatically renew, and can really screw you over if you’re not careful. (If you want a gym, check out your local YMCA, which are often much better gyms than most people are led to believe.) I do a ton of yoga and I ride my bicycle like a maniac. Yoga really helped me to be more focused, more self-aware, more giving, more mindful. It may sound hackneyed and New Age-y, but it’s true. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Yoga also helped me connect back to my own culture; I first learned about sun salutations when I was eight years old. The fact that it keeps you fit is a happy side effect. I know that yoga classes can be expensive. But after learning the moves and going for a while, you can work from DVDs or from free podcasts on the Web.
5. Set up a savings account. Also look into setting up a Roth IRA. Chances are, if you’re a freelancer or a struggling artist, that you don’t have a 401(k) plan. That’s okay. But you need to save. Your money should not all be concentrated in one checking account. I don’t care if you’re saving five bucks a week; save something. Set up a penny jar, for chrissakes. I set up my account to automatically debit money out of my checking each week. It goes straight to a savings account; I don’t see it, so I can’t spend it. I know that if I get screwed and I can’t get work for a while, I’ll be covered — at least for a while — by my emergency slush fund.
6. Sort out health insurance. Echinacea is not health insurance! My friends in Germany are always appalled when I tell them about our travails in the US with health insurance. When I lived in New York, I got health coverage through the Freelancers Union, which was expensive. (It’s not really a union; it’s more like a group health insurance plan with some ancillary benefits.) But it got me through, and I was glad it was there. Believe me, one emergency room bill is enough to justify the cost of insurance. An ambulance ride alone can easily cost several thousand dollars. Don’t put yourself in that position. In Massachusetts, which passed a lot of progressive health insurance legislation in recent years, there are several good, affordable plans for average citizens to choose from. I can only hope that the rest of the country will follow suit.
7. Travel. Traveling opens up your brain. If you live in NYC all the time, and you don’t leave, you’re running head to head with the most competitive group of journalists in the most competitive market on the planet. The media business is centered there; it’s the belly of the beast. It’s likely that a lot of you are coming up with the same pitches, and pitching them to the same editors. This makes everything harder for everyone. Look, I know New York is great. I lived there for six years, and I’m moving back. (It’s like the bad relationship that you keep coming back to.) But often, you uncover a lot of interesting stories when you’re on the road. It opens you up to new inspirations, new ideas, new people. If you must stay in New York, at least take the subway to a different borough than the one you normally go to. Go far uptown. Go to the Bronx. Go somewhere else.
8. Apply for fellowships and teaching positions. Look for additional sources of income. These can be a lifesaver, at a time when publications — even prestigious ones — apparently find it justifiable to pay you beer money for an extensively researched 3000-word feature.
9. Keep a regular schedule, and remember to relax. We forget how to relax, because as freelancers, we’re basically on call all the time. I work on Saturdays; I work on Sundays. I work at strange hours; 2 AM is often when I find inspiration. But try and wake up at around the same hour each day – preferably, you know, in the morning. Try to go to bed at a halfway decent hour. You need sunlight to synthesize Vitamin D and be a happy person.
10. If you suspect you have deeper issues to contend with – like depression – seek help as soon as possible. This loops back to the health insurance thing. If you don’t have insurance, look at options in your town for sliding-scale therapy and psychiatrists or clinics who see patients at a discount. If you’re struggling emotionally, be vocal about it. Call your friends. Talk to people. I’m really serious on this one. For years, I worked as a volunteer counselor for a mental health hotline. It was a really rough job, but it also gave me a lot of good training on how to cope with difficult situations. Friends are great, but don’t feel like you must rely on your friends for help. There are people out there whose job it is to help you. Do not be afraid to use them.