The Office Hours of the Creative Class

Indie artists are hanging out by the water cooler

By Shiralee Hudson

I’m running late. It’s not entirely my fault: I tried to leave work at the prescribed hour of 6 p.m., but at 5:58 the phone rang–a client with a query–so now it’s 6:17 and I’m scurrying down the street to the subway in a vain attempt to be on time for an interview for an article I’m writing. You see, when I’m not working in an office from nine until six, I’m also a writer. A writer who is late.

I may be able to garner a little sympathy because there’s a good chance you, too, are trying to juggle a day job with your creative pursuits, and if you aren’t, then most likely you know many who are. It seems like truckloads of energetic folks are working nine to five (or something like it) and then heading home to their computers or hitting their studios to hunker down for another shift of working on their own projects–art, design, writing, social activism–the list goes on. Of course, the waitress/actress waiting-for-a-big-break is a well-worn platitude, maybe even a time-honoured tradition, but has this dichotomy exploded into an urban social phenomenon?

If a certain high-profile urban economist is to be believed, a strong arts and cultural scene is an essential ingredient for a successful city. But where do the individuals who work to create and who take multi-tasking to a professional level fit into this creative economy? It seems the foundation of creativity for this successful city is being generated from the offices (or basement apartments) and boardrooms (or coffeeshops) of these artistically inclined people with day jobs. Let’s call them “multijobbers.”

The venerable songstress Dolly Parton got it right in her rhetorical lament of the nine-to-five workday: what a way to make a living. Many multijobbers have little choice about this workstyle choice–for a variety of reasons. Chris Eaton, a writer whose second novel, The Grammar Architect, was recently published by Insomniac Press, currently pays the bills by working as a freelance advertising writer. He speaks with a level of practicality that is common amongst artists: “Ideally, I would be able to stop freelancing and just write, but I know this isn’t possible. I think there are only two writers in Canada who are currently just writing as their sole profession.” Others agree that being able to live by the pen/brush/computer alone is not a realistic expectation. Blair Prentice is a visual artist who spends his weekdays as a production assistant for a cultural planning firm. He explains, “in theory, if you were successful in art, this would mean you could quit your day job. But in practice, this isn’t very realistic, and only a very small proportion of artists can do this.”

Creative people, fuelled by a tireless work ethic and a devotion to their creative practices, are essentially volunteering to make their cities a better place to live.

I can hear the chorus of mothers country-wide saying: just pick a nice established profession and stick with it; be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a pharmacist; don’t put yourself through all this trouble. But creative folks don’t have much choice in the matter; the urge to create is innate. Liz Oke is a multijobber who works Monday to Friday as a marketing coordinator for a private company and then spends her evenings and weekends doing freelance graphic design, graphic art and running her own knitwear label, Cousin Liz. “I’m very ambitious; I was born this way,” she explains. Blair Prentice agrees. “I don’t really have a choice about doing my art; I’ve always been this way.”

But multijobbers, despite their need for creative freedom, sometimes crave the stability offered by a day job. Beth Biederman, an emerging independent filmmaker and video art curator, has just started a full-time position as an administrator for the Court Services Division of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. For Beth, this job came as a relief. “Working as a artist full-time is tough, [but] I need stability right now–the security of a day jobs means I’m less stressed out about making ends meet and I’m able to fund my [film] projects if grants don’t come through.” Other artists like Blair Prentice describe the full- time job as a safety net that funds both living expenses and artistic work. He says it’s a matter of “finding the energy to work to pay the bills and do art–having the resources is very important. Making art costs money.”

Although regular work offers artists stability, it has its pitfalls. Long days that continue into long nights, antisocial behaviour, and no time or energy for art are just some of the side effects of multijobbing. “Most nights, I’m up until 1 or 2 a.m. working on my art– some nights I’m falling asleep on my canvas,” admits Blair. Burning the midnight oil is common practice, and Beth also describes a life of late hours when she was working on her first short film Tiny Idol Time: “I would work nine to five and then book an editing suite from 6–12, go home, and then I would have to be up and go to work for nine the next morning.” It can also cause strain on relationships. Many multijobbers feel guilty that they can’t devote more time to their friends or partners. “Ignoring your friends and being single helps you to focus on your work, but is its also horrible” says Chris Eaton. Up against a full time day job, it is difficult for creative work not to take a backseat. “I’m frustrated,” says Blair. “I often don’t have the time or the energy–to do my art.” Beth agrees, “You have to push yourself to do more than come home, watch a movie, and go to sleep,” she tells me. “Doing art while having a full time job is exhausting.”

Opinions are mixed about what kind of day job is best for the creatively inclined. This seems to be very personal choice, and multijobbers look for whatever steady employment best meets their particular needs. Beth, for example, is currently enjoying her job as an administrator, and is less concerned about whether her daytime work is arts-related or not. “It is a job that makes me feel like I’m learning and growing and where I enjoy the work environment, and it supports my projects.” She also admits that the city is full of qualified and often overqualified creative people looking for jobs in the arts and cultural sector, so competition is fierce.

Truckloads of energetic folks are working nine to five (or something like it) and then heading home to hunker down for another shift of working on their own projects.

For Chris Eaton, his work in advertising compliments his writing. Indeed, his first novel, The Inactivist, was about an advertising copywriter. He mentions, however, that many people don’t want to do what they do creatively for money–they either undervalue their talents or see this as “selling out.” Chris doesn’t feel this way. “How anyone could fault someone else for using [his or her] skill is beyond me,” he explains. For him, a writing-related day job makes his creative work more prolific.

Multijobbers participate in a daily balancing act in which they work to pay the bills, satisfy their bosses, and spend time with loved ones, while still trying to satiate that instinctive hunger to create. Most are still searching for that fine balance, the ideal work/create situation. For most, this balancing act is, like their artistic careers, a work in progress. “I’m still young and trying to figure stuff out,” explains Beth. “I just try to keep up the pressure on myself to get my [film work] done–try to keep a level head and not feel overwhelmed.”

After two degrees and over a decade of working in everything from construction to a music store to a bar, Chris Eaton has been able to achieve a balance between paying the bills and writing by working as a freelancer. “I am living my ideal situation; I have found a way to live off a part-time job.” He confesses there are challenges, but explains, “people are afraid to give up what they’ve got, [but] if you have the drive to do something, you shouldn’t worry about living more meagrely.”

For all their hard work, are multijobbers being given the credit they deserve by the rest of society? If Richard Florida is right and creativity is starting to take the driver’s seat in the new economy, then the multitudes of creative folks are the unrecognized worker bees building a strong foundation on which cities can flourish. Florida asserts that a city rich in arts and culture with many people working in creative jobs has a greater ability to attract and retain those professionals he calls “highly skilled workers” like the doctors, accountants and technology experts that are crucial to the prosperity of cities. While he recognizes the Creative Class as key players in the success of the city, Florida’s work only accounts for those who indicate their artistic pursuits as their occupation in the Government’s National Census Survey. But does someone like Beth write “administrator” or “filmmaker” when she fills out the census survey? Does a real estate agent who paints at night tick off “real estate agent” or “artist”? Is an “occupation” defined as the job done to put food in the cupboards? By sticking only to census data, Florida is ignoring and marginalizing a huge portion of the Creative Class–the multijobbers. “Zinester” is not exactly one of job categories listed in Canada Census survey– but if you were anywhere near the annual Canzine festival the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto this past October, you saw the rows upon rows of creative folks hawking their zines outside of office hours. In the wake of the overwhelming popularity of Florida’s theories it is important to see these multijobbers as valuable contributors to the economic viability of our cities. Undeniably, these people are part of the burgeoning Creative Class.

Most artists are staying up late to finish that painting, activist brochure, or poem not for the promise of money, but because they are devoted to creativity and art. Creative people, fuelled by a tireless work ethic and a devotion to their creative practices, are essentially volunteering to make their cities a better place to live.

Multijobbing is a tough haul. It is a constant balancing act that often puts friendships, mental health, and even the art itself at risk. Finding the time, energy, and money to work creatively while holding down another job to pay the rent is a labour of love done with very little expectation of anything in return, and these multijobbers are building and cultivating our cities. Dr. Florida–don’t you think it’s time we offered a little love (or at least respect) in return?