Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How Starving Artists Can Support Their Work

From Jeff: This is a guest article by Joe Bunting. Joe is on a quest along with a few friends to discover the secrets of becoming a great writer. You can find him hunting at The Write Practice, a practical blog on the writing process.
Starving Artist

Photo credit: Chicago Art Department (Creative Commons)

I looked at her as she sat next to me and asked myself, what could I do to help her? I have to be able to do something.

Katie moved to Atlanta to intern with a young and growing film production company.

Things started out great. They assigned her a couple of shorts to edit and asked her to do some shooting on set.

She was living her dream, getting a ton of experience in the film industry.

There was a catch, though. The internship was unpaid. Despite the fact that she lived in a small house with about six roommates, she blew through her savings in months and had to find a part time job.

When that job didn’t meet her living expenses, she started shooting wedding videos and had to get another part time job.

Katie told me:

I came here to work [in film], but everything I’m doing to support myself is pulling me away from it.

If you dream about pursuing a creative vocation, chances are you will experience a battle between the work you love and the practicalities of life.

Of course, if your family has the money to set you up in a Greenwich Village apartment to break into the New York music scene or your last novel was called The Deathly Hallows then disregard the following four ideas to support both your art and your fragile existence.

You don’t have to starve. Here’s how:

1. Live cheap

“And then we would eat beans again,” said Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife when he would refuse to do paid readings.

You may not need to eat canned chili seven nights a week, but living poor has been a part of the creative lifestyle since the days of wandering bards.

Steven Pressfield lived in his van for years. Hemingway moved to a country with a favorable exchange rate (Paris in the 1920s). And I once lived in a three bedroom apartment with seven people.

It won’t be comfortable, but the real question is, is your art worth the pain?

2. Be more disciplined

When creatives have kids, they always say it’s easier to work. Why? Because they know they only have the hour of naptime to finish that chapter, painting, article. They get ruthlessly focused.

Twitter? Nope. Facebook? Not now. Zynga games? Yeah, right.

Spend the first couple of hours in the morning writing your book before work. Paint that landscape when you get home. Every successful artist works every day. If you’re not, you need to be.

3. Find a patron

If you’ve begun to prove yourself and need time to finish a big film/book/painting series/album, consider looking for a grant or a sponsor.

Kickstarter is a website devoted to funding your creative dreams. You offer rewards — signed copies of your novel, a shout out in your film, a private concert — and donors pledge money to meet your funding goal.

There are thousands of dollars in grants just waiting for talented creatives to grab them. Apply for a $100,000 grant to fund your opera through or a $25,000 fellowship to fund the completion of your book of poems (among many others) through the National Arts Council. Also, check out these grants: 19 Grants for Writers and Other Creative Types.

4. Give up your dream

Alternatively, you could quit. No more early mornings and late nights in the studio. Get a real job so you don’t have to penny pinch. In fact, in the practical sense, this is probably what you should do.

But, of course, you can’t, can you?

Further reading: The Starving Artist Solves the Problem

What are some other ways starving artists can support themselves? Share your thoughts in the comments.

*Photo credit: Chicago Art Department (Creative Commons)

About Joe Bunting

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  • With three children, I definitely had to get ruthlessly focused. I get up around 5-5:30 every day to write, and I just can’t quit. Great post!

    • Anonymous

      Nice Don! That’s really inspiring.

  • Every dream has a price, whether it’s being an artist, starting a business or running ministry non-profit. I love that you included living cheaply, because at the start, that usually is the reality of chasing your dream. Great post!

    • Anonymous

      Totally Jason. I used to live in California and pay $750 / month for a 1 bdrm apartment I shared with a roommate. You couldn’t live cheap there. The South, the Midwest, Detroit (!) they’re the places for artists who need to bootstrap these days.

      • I live in the Midwest and, while it is cheaper to live here than most places, it’s still tough to make it on $700-$800 a month (what I make at my pt job). I’ve definitely learned to live on less. Much less. It’s been very good for me though.

        • Anonymous

          Yeah, that’s serious scraping Jason. It teaches you something about yourself and what you can do. It’ll make $2000 month feel like your rich!

          • I have seriously been asking what I did with all my money when I was making $3,000 a month! Granted I had to drive further for work, so I paid more in gas, but still, if I made that now, I would have a LOT in the bank.

            • Anonymous

              It’s crazy, isn’t it?

  • Or just don’t take the unpaid internship… Aren’t those illegal, anyway?

    It’s a lot easier to chase your dream when you put your foot down and make sure you’re at least not being COMPLETELY taken for a ride first.

    • Anonymous

      Ha very true Rachel. I don’t believe it’s illegal to “volunteer,” most of this company’s staff is unpaid, doing it “for the love of it.” And for experience. Katie’s a serious girl and I don’t think she would have come if it weren’t a good opportunity.

      The film industry is especially tricky, too. You need a lot of experience, and even more luck, to break in, from what I understand.

  • I would add that a lot of the battle is not in your pocket book but in your head. It’s key to regularly remind yourself why you’re sacrificing. You can’t sugar coat the amount of hard work that it will take and you can’t begin to think that you’re entitled to anything. I’ve seen a lot of people become jaded or begin to feel resentful that the world isn’t giving them everything they think they owe.
    You need to blend the right amount of positive thinking with the right amount of realism.

    • Anonymous

      I really like this Loren. The joy must be in the work, not in how it’s received. Geez that’s hard. Good reminder.

  • Good challenge. The most practical advice for my situation is “live cheap.” You remind me that I don’t need to have cable and watch football in order to create. In fact, I would do better without it. Thanks, Tom

    • Anonymous

      Right, Tom. My wife and I have done away with cable and even a TV (we sometimes watch movies on a little portable DVD player). You miss it at first, and then you don’t and are more focused. It’s a good thing.

      • I know that Ellen and I watch a few shows together and sometimes we watch them through the Internet. She and I will talk about this issue over lunch today. But you’re right. You miss things at first. Then you don’t even think about them.

        • Anonymous

          Confession: instead of writing, we watched 3 episodes of Castle on the internet last night. On the plus side, watching on the computer means you have to snuggle closer together.

          • Even starving artists need to factor in snuggling to their daily equation. Thanks for a bit of good medicine this morning.

            • Anonymous

              Can you please tweet that so I can retweet it. Unbelievable.

              • Joe, you’re motivating me to get a Twitter account. Sorry that I took so long to respond to your query. In the meantime, you can twitter away with this. I appreciate the encouragement.–Tom

          • yuck. terrible show! now Bones is another issue.

  • Excellent points and who wouldn’t appreciate the practical suggestions?
    Describes the all-too-familiar dilemma any artist faces: I want to do this but how can I and not ruin my life and everybody else’s while I’m at it?

    Nicely done, Joe.


    • Anonymous

      It’s a great question, probably THE question. My wife got concerned when she first read this post because she thought I was going to take us to live in a slum somewhere. I don’t want to ruin her life, I’m looking for ways to add value to both our lives while still pursuing my (and now our) dream.

      • Seth Barnes

        Don’t be fooled by that first response. She’s as rough and ready as they come. We raised her on salaries of under $20k. Jesus hangs out in the slums – one reason she loves him is that we took her to so many she’s comfortable there.

        • love the fatherly-in-law advice here.

    • This is a good question, but not THE question. THE question is: “How can I NOT do this?”

      • I like that concept – the how can I not? I talk with people a lot about writing and even though there’s a lot of other things “infused” into my day-to-day, the love of writing still persists. It seems like even when I just briefly talk about writing, people who seem to ‘get it,’ will say “why are you not writing more?” This continues to perplex me, but I think it relates to what you are talking about with continuing with your craft in a more disciplined way  versus the practicalities of living. Thanks for the post….meshing the two and being brave to go out on some limbs with the creative life have been on my mind for awhile now.

  • Jeff, my wife and I lived in a two room (not two bedroom) apartment for a while trying to save some cash. It was smaller than your average one care garage. But it was very humbling and looking back, I’m glad we did it. Now its mac n’ cheese!

    • Anonymous

      Have you ever read Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller? He tells this story about a family who lived in the garage while their house was being remodeled. Two parents and three teenagers (if I remember it right). They said those months were some of the best in their lives.

      • Believe it or not, I have not read Million Miles… yet. I’ve got to find some time to do that! Appreciate it Joe!

        • it’s good. in my opinion, not his best work. but a great concept.

      • loved that story

  • Jamirogers

    Great advice! I am all for following your dreams, I dream of being a writer, but the kids need to eat and the bills have to be paid first. I think I can be responsible and follow my dreams. But my dreams might take longer to come true.

    • Anonymous

      I’m glad you’re being responsible and feeding your kids! I hope following your dream and feeding your kids will never be mutually exclusive.

    • can they happen simultaneously?

  • Evan

    To answer your post’s final question, Joe: No. No, I can’t.

  • Keith Jennings

    Really enjoyed this piece, Joe.  Lots of good advice.

    I’ve never felt compelled to do the “starving artist” gig.  I have learned more about the creative life through business and parenting, than I’ve ever learned while doing my creative work (which is primarily poetry and narrative nonfiction essays).

    So, being a professional writer with an organization, even a corporation, can be a productive alternative to #3 – finding a patron.

    Thanks to Jeff!  I’m adding your blog to my feed right now!

    • Anonymous

      Absolutely true Keith. Hemingway, Steinback, and Twain all got a start writing by doing journalism. It’s harder for writers today to do with newspapers failing, but there are other ways to make it happen. A lot of great art has been made by people who made art at one point commercially.

      • like blogging?

      • George Pond

        I may never produce “great art”, but after 30 years of tech writing, a few paragraphs per day becomes pretty easy.

  • Seth Barnes

    Great blog post, Joe. This is it. I like that you’re living it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Seth! Trying.

  • 7 people in a three bedroom sounds downright cushy. my sister lived in a one room loft with eight;)

  • Surely there are also aspiring lawyers and accountants who must resort to acting or painting to make ends meet. 

  • Ironically…I found this through Twitter. (cringe)

    Thanks for that. I’m currently going through the same thing–working my arse off as a ghostwriter, and not having enough time to devote to my own, personal work. My problem is the focus thing, I get too easily distracted and I also have 4 kids. We do, indeed, live cheap, very few frills. I’m checking out the grants and such, thanks for the helpful info and the kick in the pants!

    • That’s awesome. I’m a ghostwriter, too. Do you do nonfiction or fiction?

  • The idea that pursuing your dream need be a full-time occupation has always confused me. While I don’t have a 9-5 job anymore, what’s wrong with getting up at 5, working out, having breakfast with your spouse or kids, heading to work, getting home at 6ish for dinner, then working from 8 or 9 at night until midnight or one? 

    Wouldn’t that provide plenty of time to get something substantial done?

    And on the weekends you could flip flop that and treat your art as your 9-5. 

    Maybe I’ve been poor for so long that eating that same thing for lunch and dinner every day doesn’t bother me, but this doesn’t seem like it would be too complicated.

    And for those claiming their children take up too much time, please remember that A) you had them on purpose and B) they are not an obligation, they are just as much a creation of yours as any painting/book/whatever you could make.

    • eden0718

      I agree balance can be achieved.

  • I try not to buy into the Starving Artist concept or romanticisation. I don’t see the appeal. If you’re at the point where you’re actually starving, then your art becomes irrelevant to that as you have to find means to have a basic subsistence. If your art doesn’t provide that means then you’re undervalued and selling your art either short or not selling your art and creative worth at all.

    The difference I think as well is that if you have creative drive, then it’s something you feel a need to fulfil and you make life choices based on that creative need then. Fulfilling your creative motivation and having the ability to make a living doing so, are not mutually exclusive and incompatible with each other (I’m still working on that though!).

  • Thanks for posting the links to the grant opportunities above.  Will definitely be looking into those.

  • Tisa L.

    Kickstarter denied my book project. They did not see it as a work of art. I dubbed it philosophical translation … they said it was self help, and I was devastated. I am unemployed and not receiving unemployment ;everyday is a ruthless battle between writing and money. People think the unemployed have all this time on their hands. Ha. I would like to see KS tell Alain De Button his work is ‘ self help’. I applied for an awesome foundation grant to no avail. I put hours int my KS project just to try for $2000 to self publish. I should have been writing.

    • Clara M

      I feel for you I really do! It’s so blooming tough

  • Tisa L.

    Sorry that last post sounded so drab! My point was that I have wasted a lot of time trying to facilitate my writing when I could have been writing. I have no idea and right now no grand hope of HOW I am going to (eat, pay rent or) finance my book. I just need to write it.

  • Clara M

    Thank you – I am trying to write a children’s book and can barely get by, I have been unemployed 7 months and its been really tough

  • Amos Gideon Buba

    You can also put up other earlier works for sale. I know it won’t account for much but it will surely fill up some gap and allow you more time to create. Artists shouldn’t starve!