Living a Creative Double Life

I am in an intimate relationship with two different muses. I never allow them to meet.

What do I mean by that? I’m referring to the two worlds in which I apply creative thinking as well as my writing experience and training. Readers of The Artist’s Road know me as the recent MFA graduate who is living an art-committed life and recently completed a memoir. Co-workers at my day job know me as the recent MFA graduate who is applying lessons learned in a quarter century of professional writing to craft speeches and promotional campaigns. Yet I haven’t even hinted about my “day job” here on this blog since first noting I was starting it, and perhaps only a half-dozen people in my professional circle know I’m seeking publication for a book.

I have found myself reflecting on this double life a bit more since reading a post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner titled “Your Artist Self and Your Business Self.” Rachelle notes that many creative writers have a difficult time separating their artist selves from their business selves, at times resisting artistic decisions that could increase commercial possibilities. I come to creative writing late in life after years of being paid to write to audiences, so I feel fairly comfortable producing work I feel has artistic value while also providing value to a large number of readers.

My day job has me in the thick of DC policy work. I know well that few in that circle have any interests in hearing my thoughts on the challenges and rewards of living an art-committed life.

My day job has me in the thick of DC policy work. I know well that few in that circle have any interest in hearing my thoughts on the challenges and rewards of living an art-committed life.

Where I see two selves is a place where I know most artists see them. When I drove across the country in 2010 interviewing artists, all of them had found sufficient professional success to have drawn my attention to be interviewed, but perhaps less than twenty percent of them were fully financially supported by their art. The artists who were self-sufficient via their art did have the ability to balance their artist and business selves, as Ms. Gardner advocates. But I saw that balance in many of the other artists as well, the ones who had day jobs. The jobs themselves were diverse–a special education teacher, an art gallery assistant, a landscaper, a heavy machinery salesman.

When William Least Heat-Moon finished the cross-country road trip depicted in Blue Highways and applied himself to writing–and then significantly cutting–his manuscript, he didn’t return to a teaching job. He found a day job doing manual labor, because he felt it kept his creative energy free to focus on the book. I have written and significantly cut my road-trip memoir while working a day job where I write and think creatively all day. Unlike Heat-Moon, I must manage my creative energy sufficient for both of my selves.

I believe I do. So why do I keep them so separated? Well, in the post I wrote shortly after starting my new job last year I vowed to maintain that separation. It is respectful to my employer not to talk about my work beyond its walls. As for my creative-writer self, I am permitted by my employer to do my own writing and social media, but I don’t see any reason to bring that world into my workplace when my workplace isn’t here on The Artist’s Road or in my personal essays.

So the double life continues. I know from my network of artists friends that it is hardly unusual to live a double life when a creative. And I am fortunate to have both. When giving thanks at the dinner table with my family on Thanksgiving last week, I voiced appreciation for both, and thanked my wife and children for supporting me in both.

Do you find a separation at times between your creative self and another self, perhaps that of employee or parent? What is involved for you in maintaining balance?

About Patrick Ross

I'm a writer chronicling his commitment to living an art-committed life, which included a cross-country road trip meeting with creatives of all stripes.

26 Responses to “Living a Creative Double Life”

  1. I like to joke that I have a secret identity.

  2. I’m retired from working for other folks, Patrick, but I’ve learned that the commitment to living a creative life is not bucolic, even when living in the woods, as I do. It’s muscular; high fiber. While writing essays, a memoir, and a novel, I’m also editor and promoter-in-chief for my husband’s first novel, step-grandparent to seven (and three great-grands), manager of our household, healthcare, tax prep (on my mind as year’s end approaches), and the mundane but necessary “what’s for dinner?” I have it as easy as a creative type could, and most of what I do feeds the muse. Nonetheless, I have to re-balance my creative self at least quarterly, to be sure I don’t wander off (too far for too long) on someone else’s path and let the weeds grow in my own.

    • My goodness, Beth! You definitely have your hands full, and are balancing a lot of creative-thinking projects. Kudos for making sure you reserve some of that for your own path.

      I have an artist friend who doesn’t have a conventional day job but has lots of other responsibilities outside of her art, like you do. Sometimes people will just see that she’s not going to a job every day and say, “Boy, it must be nice to sit around and paint all day,” and she’ll say, “I imagine it is, but that ain’t me!”

  3. I’ll invoke Stephen Dunn’s poem “A Secret Life”:
    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/06/24

    • Thanks for sharing that poem, Andrea. You know, it made me ponder how much has changed since he wrote it, particularly with social media. I mean, how much of ourselves is really “secret” now relative to just a decade ago.

  4. Your comment about William Least Heat-Moon really struck home – I completely understand why he chose to do manual labor instead of returning to teaching after Blue Highway was published. I write for a living and the work is often intense and draining, which makes it difficult to have the energy to do my “own” writing. On the other hand, time spent in the garden, painting the house, or on other physical work is almost always rewarded with a head full of ideas and insights.

    Wonder what my husband will say when I announce that for the good of my muse I must quit my job and garden more!

    • Perhaps your husband will say, “If you can grow some cash crops in the garden, go for it!”

      I totally get Heat-Moon’s decision as well, and speculate on that path when I come home from the day job creatively drained. That said, I have a daughter in college and a son almost there, and I can make a bit more money by writing than I can by lifting crates at a warehouse. (I also think I’d be terrible at the latter.)

      The type of writing day job you have can matter. The job I left in 2010 didn’t just consume my creative energy, it also essentially “owned” my creativity to the extent that I would not have been able to pursue the MFA or do personal writing on the side. I am in a much better place with my job now.

  5. Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply December 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Like you, Patrick, I have supported myself throughout the years with writing to audiences, but there is a HUGE difference (for me, at least) when it comes to switching gears from one type of writing to the other — the business writer vs the creative writer, especially during the same day. So, yes, there are two parts of me that I suppose I have to keep separated — the freelance me and the fiction me — if I want to be productive.

  6. Before I retired, I had a day job writing speeches and public relations materials. I was so focused on reflecting the tone and values of the organization I was working for that my personal work became flat and uninspired. After I retired, it took quite awhile to free myself of those constraints, like trying to wriggle out of handcuffs..

    • I understand that. I needed to reboot myself mentally after leaving my 2010 day job. I think I was helped with my current one in that I had been writing intensively in my MFA program for almost a year, so I already had a rhythm and pattern going. I was then able to build the day job writing around that.

  7. I think there is some separation. I am reminded in the days of magazines and writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman and a plethora of others, it seems to me they were writers, day night, morning, evening. today, given the multitasking necessary in our lives, we have to work, raise kids, you name it. I don’t think it’s necessary to have the term ‘wrfiter/author” hovering over one’s head as we have multiple selves, and to be fully human we have to embrace all of life, all aspects of living, of people. I’m vague tonight; worry, but it’s less of an ego thing not to feel the pressure of being a writer, and just being a human; words flow more easily; and creativity is an authentic process.

    • Let’s add Mark Twain to that list, and more recently Joan Didion. But we are not like them, for good or ill. I welcome your suggestion on how it’s good to let go of the pressure of being a “writer/author.” I think I’m feeling that pressure now. It’s why I’m up right now at midnight, when I’m usually asleep because I rise early to write. So be it.

  8. The trouble with writing is that many famous writers never made it until they were at the end of their lives. I don’t think many writers realize that a big part of being a successful writer is having the business skills to become economically independent. This can also be kind of a second job. However, the two go very much hand-in-hand. Knowing how promote yourself is a second job which ones needs to devote some time- just as one has to in order to become a good writer. The business side is definitely not glamorous but is very necessary. However, having the business side of things under control means that one can concentrate on the writing side without the stress of money over ones head. Working as a free lance teacher is very much similar to being a writer. You may be the best tutor but unless no-one knows about you there isn’t much money to be made.

    • Thanks for that perspective, Paul. I know from my study of the creative process that writers tend to “make it” later than, say, songwriters because the former’s success comes from years of labor in improving craft and the latter from creative, improvisational thinking often accomplished at a younger age (think of Einstein’s age when he developed the Theory of Relativity). I hadn’t put it in the perspective of one’s business skills, however. Your response tailors well with Rachelle Gardner’s post.

  9. I have always been woefully BAD at separating my artistic self from my ‘job’ self!

    In a previous job as a software technician I was required to keep a technical log of everything I did, so that others could track changes made to projects. I started off being a good girl, methodically recording fascinating gems like “still waiting for Server Admin Department to give me tier 1 access to the network, so I can upload the test database and check functionality…” But after a while I began to feel that, while all those lovely big words conveyed stuff like ‘the facts’ and everything, I could encompass the situation much more succinctly – and with added emotional impact – in pictorial form. So, ever so gradually and without really meaning it to happen, the cartoon drawings started creeping in. You know the kind of thing; statements like “server has been down for the past four days, so I have been unable to continue beta-testing the database” were replaced with a cartoon drawing of a skeleton covered in cobwebs clutching a phone, with the words “Good news – we’ve finally fixed the server! Hello… hello..?” coming out of the receiver.

    Yes, probably immature. And…umm… possibly unprofessional in the world of software engineering too. (I’ll hold my hand up – it was another of those careers I did that I wasn’t really suited to.) But I figured it wouldn’t matter THAT much, since, it was a personal technical log, and nobody ever actually LOOKED at those things – heck, I’d been there three years already and NOBODY had EVER looked at mine even ONCE in that time…

    …Until the day my boss did while I was away on a training course.

    Fortunately he was a top bloke with a sense of humour. Instead of bawling me out, he tactfully suggested that I keep a ‘proper’ log as well as ‘this alternative one’ – and eventually even used a couple of the cartoons in some of his training presentations (and credited me for them.) But it was very clear, from that moment on, that I was never going to be management material in that place… ;^)

    So to all of those out there who CAN do that artist/business balance thing, I salute you. Any tips and secrets warmly appreciated.

    • Oh my gosh, Wendy, I love that! It’s good you had a boss who saw the humor in it. But where you needed to be was a Silicon Valley startup, where that sort of creative thinking would be celebrated. (I’d love to meet the person who came up with the Twitter fail whale.)

      • Oh Patrick, I wish I knew back then that places like that even existed! I’ve seen the way the Google workplace is set up – it looks like they have a blast working there. (Although I wonder if I’d have guilt issues about work being too much fun..!)

        I worked for a big avionics/ defence company, where it was all old-school hard-coding and suchlike. They had policies that even sucked the creativity out of doing internal websites (another of my duties there.) I had to maintain an Excel spreadsheet that listed every single: file attachment, stylesheet, coded function, active item (such as clickable buttons in web forms, for example) image, icon, logo and even FONT used in or with EVERY SINGLE PAGE of EVERY SINGLE WEBSITE I managed. Oh – and update and re-submit that spreadsheet to the Network Managers for approval EVERY TIME I added or changed ANYTHING on ANY of them. I managed five websites in total, and that Excel file was almost 5mb in size by the time I left that job (i.e. ginormous for an Excel doc.)

        And that task would’ve been a stroll in the park for me compared to the poor sod who had to spend his days regularly checking and approving my spreadsheet – along with the spreadsheets of the other twenty web managers on site!

  10. Thanks for this, Patrick, and everyone who commented. It helps to be reminded that this double-face is more common than we might think. We’re not all crazy!

    There used to be a woman who worked at my office as a secretary and she had that theory about not using up her writing/creativeness for “work,” but saved it for her own endeavors at night. I write and edit our magazine and I didn’t understand that back then. Although the writing I do in the day is so different I don’t even think of the two things as the same animal, it does suck some life out of my own writing, I now think. Some days I just want to go run a cash register and be done with it. Thanks again for this great post. It has lightened the pressure I have put on myself.

    • Thank you for joining in, Suzanne. Your last sentence made my day. I’m so glad to have had that effect; on some level I think I wrote this post to reduce the pressure I’m placing on myself.

  11. I think I had better and more prolific creative output when I had a more physical job. Now that I work on line, I find it does drain what I used to store up for writing. The mix of the two isn’t as helpful as I hoped it would be, unfortunately, but it works (in the midst of running a household). I completely agree with Suzanne. When I had a job that kept my frontal lobe occupied, and the rest of my brain free, I could barely wait to get done with my job and go write. I miss that. Thanks for the article, Patrick. :)

    • Thank you, Robyn! Let me add another layer to the physical vs. desk job debate. You probably have heard of the “shower” effect, where brainstorms come in the shower, or while driving a routine route, or while doing homework. Those are the times your subconscious is able to reach you because your brain isn’t otherwise occupied. If you’re doing familiar and routine physical labor, there’s more possibility for those moments of creative insight, and then you’re going to be eager to finish your shift and get back to the keyboard.

  12. Like many of the other commentators, I find that writing as my day job (PR/marketing material for clients) really dries out the well of fiction-writing. Funnily enough, I didn’t find it so challenging when I worked full-time as a news journalist. I guess that I’m having to use too much of the same part of my brain as I dream up copy for my clients, whereas news reporting doesn’t need the same type of creative input (well. only with the WORDS rather than the ideas!).

    • That’s interesting. You know, back when I was a journalist I dabbled in fiction, but my writing now is creative nonfiction, which actually is very similar to PR (what I do now). I wonder if I’d struggle more with fiction now; I could see that possibility.

  13. I do lead a double life and consider my personal blog part of my creative self that draws upon photography, art and writing –that is, non-business writing.

    I am by formal training, a librarian. Geeky sounding, but I actually consider my career a great opportunity to learn broadly and think creatively across multiple disciplines (and lexicons) to solve clients’ information problems. I worked in engineering, law, accounting and management for private and public sectors.

    A lot of librarians do have their own blogs and websites –it is evidence that one has additional skills of social media for information creation, sharing and information management. However we get into far more complex, enterprise wide systems…long before blogging…which is child’s play in the world of content management.

    Librarians also discuss information management matters on their blogs. I don’t. I choose not to because it would completely change the nature and look of my personal blog. For certain, it would not be as visually arresting and attractive to look at.

    I have published in several professional journals but nowhere do you see those references. I’d like to keep it separate. I doubt my regular readers care at all about my professional accomplishments.

    I have no problems with all this: I’m a decade away from retirement. I have also changed my career and left the world of libraries. I have no regrets career-wise –in fact, I feel immensely blessed by my job experiences and this probably gives me confidence to stride out in my personal blog in a differernt, non-career way.

    I’m not convinced I have a ton of new perspectives to add to the pile of professional content that my colleagues are churning out.

    • Thanks for this comment, Jean. I like how you approach your blog, and how you keep that separation. In a way you’re honoring your blog readers, who you know aren’t drawn to your blog because you are a trained librarian. And for other bloggers out there, note that Jean took a poll of her readers once to see what posts worked for them: http://cyclewriteblog.wordpress.com/about/ I did something similar about a year ago.

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