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This week Marci Alboher (One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success) published an interesting article in the New York Times called ‘Why leisure matters in a busy world’. In the article Alboher interviews Alison Link, an expert on leisure patterns whose academic work focuses on the ways in which leisure decisions can impact on incarcerated and at-risk people. It’s interesting reading, and it made me think about the place of leisure in the lives of artists and creative entrepreneurs.

I’ve already talked a bit about work/work balance as a model for managing a creative career, and how it can get in the way of work/life balance. The work/work balance is usually pretty easy to define – maybe you wait tables a few days a week and while you develop your acting career, or work in publishing full-time while you write your novel, or teach throughout the year and spend school holidays building your painting folio for exhibition. Or maybe work/work balance isn’t an issue for you because you already do what you love full-time. That’s where it gets complicated – if you’re doing what you love, is it work or leisure? And how do you know when to switch on or off?

Wherever you are in your career, chances are that whatever creative endeavour you now define as your ‘work’ made its debut in your life as a hobby. Chances are also pretty good that you love what you do so much, you would do it for free. In fact, no matter how much you earn from your creativity, you probably already do it for free to some extent, whether it’s working on your own projects, working for friends or donating your skills to organisations. If there was no money in what you do, you would probably do it anyway.

At the same time, transitioning from a hobby to a career attaches many new stresses to what was once an enjoyable activity. Where once you could do what you liked and in your own time, now you must meet deadlines and the expectations of others. Before you could while away the hours following tangents and playing; now you need to keep one eye on the clock to ensure that the pay you receive reflects the time you have spent.

Meanwhile, I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been struggling to enjoy leisure activities I once loved. Books, movies, television are all narratives that bring me back to thinking about my own skills as a writer. And any other activity I do or experience I have is something I could potentially write about. Does anyone else have this problem?

Creative work exists on a sliding scale of work and leisure. Where each activity you pursue fits on the scale depends on your own definitions and goals. I know many creative workers who fill their leisure time with more work-related activities. Sometimes it’s because it’s the only time they have to complete the work, and sometimes it’s because they are genuinely wrapped up in the task and there’s nothing else they’d rather do with their time. The creative community considers this type of behaviour normal. It’s ‘passion’. It’s also a sign of workaholism. Check out this quiz from the American Workaholics Anonymous website. The twenty questions listed – Do you turn your hobbies into money-making ventures? Do you believe that it is okay to work long hours if you love what you are doing? – are designed to give you an indication of whether you might be addicted to work. If you answer ‘yes’ to three or more questions you might have a problem. I answered ‘yes’ to fifteen of the questions. Uh oh. But I reckon most creative workers out there would have a similar result.

Is it okay to be a workaholic? In this field it seems like it’s almost compulsory.

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This week is going to be really exciting because I am chairing a panel as part of Vibewire’s e-Festival of Ideas. For those of you not familiar with Vibewire, it’s an Australian youth media and arts organisation. Its flagship project is Vibewire.net, an online media portal for people under 30 featuring articles, blogs and forums. Other projects have included ElectionTracker, which sent young journalists around Australia on the campaign buses during the 2004 Federal Election; Interface, an anthology of critical thinking and ideas; sQuareOne, a Sydney community project incubator; and the Reelife Short Film Festival.

This week, though, it’s all about the e-Festival. The panel I’m chairing is called ‘The Creative Entrepreneur’s Toolkit: A How-To Guide for Young Artists’. Here’s the blurb:

Picasso once said “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” For many young artists the problem is not simply how to nurture one’s talent or to find inspiration, but also how to fund the process. Vibewire is collaborating with talented people in the know to bring you The Creative Entrepreneur’s Toolkit, providing advice for young creatives on how to support one’s self in their industry of choice without burning out creatively or going bust financially. We’ll be looking at how to secure grants, how to reconcile your creative vision with a commercial reality, and what to do in those tough moments where inspiration is lacking and the bills are piling up. It will be an opportunity for you to learn from the mistakes and successes of people who have been there and done that.

Guests include musicians Laura Imbruglia and Gotye; Sonja Basic, General Manager of Propelarts, Western Australia’s peak body for youth arts; Leigh Mangin, manager of Carclew Youth Arts Centre‘s Arts and Education Program; fashion designer Natalie Wood; video installation artist Sam Smith; Alice Angus, artist and Co-Director of UK artist studio Proboscis; Alvin Tan, Artistic Director of Singaporean theatre company, The Necessary Stage; Melinda Bufton, careers consultant specialising in creative conundrums; and fashion blogger Gala Darling.

I will be talking to the panellists about how they stay motivated and avoid burnout, how they manage the business side of their work, sources of funding for artists and other Art of Work-type topics.

There will also be five other panels:

  • e-Participation: Fad or future?
  • 2018: New frontiers in digital arts
  • Reworking Feminism: What does gender equality mean in the 21st century?
  • Reaching Off the Screen: Film, audiences and social change
  • Are You Being Heard? Youth voices in local government

If you’ve got a burning question for one of the panellists, all you have to do to join the conversation is sign up for Vibewire.net membership here and hit the forums. Because it’s an online festival you can participate wherever you are in the world. I’d love to hear what you have to say, so sign up now!

The Vibewire e-Festival of Ideas will run from Tuesday 8 April to Saturday 12 April, Eastern Australian time.

Read any career resource and there’s bound to be something in there about work/life balance, reminding us that no matter how busy and important we become in our jobs, we still need to make time for ourselves, our families, our health, relaxation, exercise, hobbies, holidays, etc.

Ambitious people sometimes need to be reminded that these things are important. As I said in my last post, it’s easy to forget to have downtime when you’ve got goals to reach and dreams to make real. But for many people trying to form careers in the creative sector, the ideal of work/life balance is overshadowed by a bigger hurdle – finding some work/work balance.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Until recently I was working in your typical, full-time, 9-5 job at the boring end of a creative industry (publishing). At the end of each day I would come home and switch on my laptop, aiming to produce some writing but ultimately playing games because I was too tired to think. The weekends would fill up with life stuff – shopping, laundry, family, friends – and come Monday it would be back to the grind, no close to ‘being a writer’ and disheartened by how little I had achieved outside of work over the past week.

Work/work balance is about one thing – finding a balance between earning a living and having time and energy for your ‘real’ work. Personally, I find full-time work too draining to allow me to make any serious progress on my writing. So, a couple of months ago I approached my boss about changing the terms of my employment to a four days a week instead of five. Naturally this came with a pay cut, but I now have a full day each week to devote to my writing goals – and I no longer have any excuses.

In that example, I had to trade in some money in order to gain time to work on my own projects. But I’ve also experienced the opposite problem – too much time and not enough money. For a few months in 2006 I was unemployed with no savings, trying desperately to stay afloat with temping jobs. But at least I had time to write – right? Wrong. Without a stable income I found I was too stressed to create anything. I needed a job in order to achieve that balance.

Maybe you are lucky enough to earn a living doing exactly what you want to do, but for most of us our creative careers are a process of juggling paying and non-paying roles. Stay tuned for more discussion of work/work balance and different approaches to the traditional ‘day job’.

What better way to start a new blog project than to talk about quitting?

This topic was inspired by a post by Nadia Cornier at agentobvious (formerly known as agentobscura) in which she attempts to answer the double-barrelled question, ‘How do you know if you’re good? When do you stop?’

Nadia is an American literary agent who blogs about the publishing industry, and her post is directed mainly at people who want to become agents and writers who plug away at the keyboard, waiting for a publishing deal. However, the advice applies to anyone with a creative dream (you can expect me to say that a lot during the life of this blog).

So how do you know when to quit? To Nadia, it’s a simple question: if you can even conceive of abandoning your creative dream, you probably should – right now.

It’s such a romantic notion, isn’t it – that us creative types are only real artists if we’re positively compelled to keep writing, dancing, acting, painting, or basketweaving. But as Nadia points out, it’s also good business sense: ‘Let’s put it this way. If they say, Ok, I’m giving myself three years… Within three years, that person will be G.O.N.E.. I spend a lot of time with the people who respond, “What do you mean? Why the hell would I want another job?”‘ If Nadia is out networking, or looking to hire someone, she wants to know that they’re going to stick around. Not many people these days are loyal to a particular job or company, but you could at least show some commitment to your field in general.

That said, sticking around can be really hard to do. Living off your savings while you write a novel might be a bold and thrilling gesture, but ultimately it probably isn’t going to last. Even creative fields that boast actual, stable nine-to-five jobs – say, publishing – typically aren’t that lucrative. At the National Young Writers Festival earlier this year, panellist Jeff Sparrow (editor of Overland) kept bringing up the wave of Australian grunge-lit writers of the early- to mid-nineties, noting how few of them are still writing today. Why did the others give up? Because the average annual income for Australian writers is $11,000, and they wanted to buy houses, support their families, and generally have normal lives.

So there will be times when, no matter how compelled you are to create, you think about giving up. You will wonder why you didn’t become an investment banker instead, and if it’s too late to retrain. Or maybe your thoughts of quitting stem from the fatigue of rejection and overwork. In any case, if we follow Nadia’s definition and assume that ‘real artists’ have no choice (and I do agree with that idea), then quitting isn’t an option and we should probably start talking about some other strategies.

  • If you’re experiencing burn out, then for pete’s sake, have a holiday. Creative work is still work, and you’re entitled to time off. Wrap up any projects you’re working on for clients and then take a weekend, month or more to yourself. Or take a leaf out of the Bible and choose one day of rest. (I’m not a Christian, but my best friend is, and I borrowed this strategy while we were at university.) Building a creative career is hard, but you don’t have to work on it (or even think about it) every single spare minute.
  • If the problem is financial – if you’re behind on mortgage repayments, have no food or are about to lose your kneecaps at the hands of crowbar-wielding debt collectors – you need to do something about your income. You might have tons of time, but it’s difficult to create when you’re under that kind of stress. Can you take on more hours in your day job? Move from part-time to full-time? If your creative career is your full-time gig, what about taking on a short-term contract through a temping agency for some fast cash? Then get back in the creative saddle once you’re in the black.

The thing is, us creative types tend to be a bit obsessive, and thinking about quitting is standard either/or thinking when it’s really a question of finding some balance. Your creative work might need to take a backseat for a while – maybe even long while – but that’s okay. It’s all about finding a way to make it work on whatever scale you can.