Diversify, or How to Get the Most from Your Writing Degree

APTOPIX Turkey DolphinariumI confessed to a fellow writer that I had nine jobs in the Yukon, and that it was still sometimes make or break at the beginning of each month.  I was living by cobbling together jobs, which isn’t necessarily bad. In my case, I might not get to do everything I want at first–but learning to diversify has helped me survive.

I’d always thought I would rather live by the phrase: I’m a ________ who also writes. Fill in the blank with astronaut, beekeeper, mechanic, sumo wrestler, whatever you like. This is where my money would come from–then I would carve out writing time. Or, another option was: I married a _______ and I write. Fill in the blank with astronaut, beekeeper, fire swallower, accountant, President, Estate owner, whatever you want. [On second thought, hold off on the fire swallower] Either way, money would come into my house steadily. I like paying my bills, really. 😀 But these options come with their own heartaches, as I’ve been reminded of by a good friend who struggles with the full time job and not having time for art. I would say it’s a choice–this art or security–but I want to believe we don’t have to make that choice.

Some say “the lean and hungry look” is a good one for writers–makes you write more, and more brilliantly. But lack of security makes me frightened, cranky, and depressed, and angry at myself for not planning better, or getting marketable skills. My brain panics and I make endless lists on how I can make money—that’s not what I would call “creative writing”–it is Fear.  You don’t get paid from writing for months, so it’s never fast money. So, the answer I came up with –if I couldn’t get a big job that paid well–was to diversify.

Here’s my version of diversification to make ends meet: I teach one college class on novel writing, teach cartooning in the schools through Yukon Arts Edventures, teach an after school program for teens through the City of Whitehorse on writing science fiction and fantasy, write articles for Yukon: North of Ordinary, sometimes for What’s Up Yukon, work as an on-call interpreter for the Beringia Centre, am doing an Oral History project for a friend, perform vaudeville in the summer, write radio series for CBC. In the works: I have auditioned for some short movies as an actor, may be working on an ad campaign, am auditioning to sing in a Big Band and am trying to teach online, and teach through teleconference, in the summer.

Even with all these small jobs, I’m still doing what I love:

Of my  jobs, most of them can be connected to narrative in some way. I write articles on topics that both interest me, and might be used for later stories; I teach about writing or literature; the radio series lets me both write, perform and produce; cartooning in the schools has expanded my understanding of narrative. The performance jobs–including Beringia as an interpreter–are still about words, communication, entertainment, teaching. So, in reality, I haven’t strayed too far from my writing, or my degrees.

And–working outside my field has improved my writing by showing me different styles of writing: a more informative style (articles and Beringia) and comedic (vaudeville and comic strip), for example–and by giving me new subjects to write about–like mammoths and scimitar cats and Yukon history and fifth graders. Also, it’s given me several editors–newspaper, magazine, online editors.

My friend, Arlin McFarlane, is a professional at diversifying. Actor, producer, director, B & B owner, acting teacher, English teacher, creator of Burning Away the Winter Blues and other creative events in Whitehorse, Arlin calls it repackaging yourself for every new job–the money I make she calls “ribbons of income.” It’s what we do to survive as Creators. I’d say that diversifying is more than a survival technique, it is a way of expanding your understanding of your skills. What CAN you do? A host of things. They may not pay much at first, but they keep you creating.

Write anyway:

I had to give writing its own place in my job line up too.  If I didn’t, then job number 10 or 11 could sweep away the writing.  Until you find a sustaining job –that also gives you time and support to create–diversify to keep your name out there, your skills fresh, and your money coming in.   If a Walrus can play a saxophone to make a living, you can discover new ways to make your bucket of fish too.

PS. While I was writing this, the phone company called to remind me my bill is overdue. Sigh. Ars longa, bills brevis.

6 thoughts on “Diversify, or How to Get the Most from Your Writing Degree

  1. Kater January 13, 2009 / 9:59


    Summer is coming. Things will get better. (For you, anyway. I dread summer.)

  2. jstueart January 13, 2009 / 9:59

    Hey, thanks, Kater! Yeah, I know it is. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, only that I’m surviving on writing because I thought up new ways of repackaging and that it might work for others. I read your letter to Karen and I really liked it. It was very practical. She wanted me to talk about my nine jobs and I thought, gee that’s gonna be sad…hehe…..maybe I’ll talk about diversifying!! Yeah!

    Anyway. I had a sale, so the world is looking good! And writing is looking like a stronger presence in my life.

  3. 'Jack' Jenkins January 13, 2009 / 9:59

    what if the ____ is something you really don’t like, but it pays the mortgage? and the different material you’re reading and writing causes your eyes to glaze over and your stomach to heave? what if when you come home at the end of the day you’re so burnt out by getting nowhere you never actually get around to doing the thing you want?

    and what if you have tons of friends who are artists, who perform, display, get published, do radio shows, tour, are recognized, and sure they don’t have a nice new condo and can’t pay their student loans but they get by and seem happy about it?


  4. jstueart January 14, 2009 / 9:59

    Jack, I sympathize. Yep you have a _______ that pays the bills and keeps your income steady, but you are not doing what you love enough–and you aren’t getting it out to the world. You are definitely the other side of the coin. Either you scramble to do a million little jobs and live in panic, or you do a major Monster Creativity/Art-consuming job that leaves you hollowed out for your art. We often want the other side–I want financial stability, you want more time for your art; it’s the perennial argument for Artists. You have to decide ultimately if you are happier with stability or creativity. They may not be a universally guaranteed combo—in fact, for very few people. What does Jack want? I’m with you though, and we should bitch together sometime over an inexpensive coffee on your free time. I’d like to find a happy medium too. We sell our time, no matter what. I’d just like to sell some of my time back to myself, and I imagine you would too… Mochas at high noon sometime, eh?

  5. jstueart January 14, 2009 / 9:59

    Talked with Ivan Coyote today and she is run ragged at times by her schedule, living on grants and small fees, but she is producing and happy with the art. But sometimes exhausted by the running around to make art happen and to survive. I don’t know the answer, Jack; I just know that I’m doing the best with what I have. If I had the full time job, I’d be telling your story. If you had my little jobs, you might be well telling mine. 😉

    I’m glad that you’re telling the other side of this too, though. Thanks for your voice.

  6. MK January 17, 2009 / 9:59

    I read your post with a lot of interest. Suffice to say, I fall under the category of “I married a __________ and I write.” It’s great. However, the purpose of my comment isn’t to gloat.

    I want to say, first of all, that I thought your “Yukon 2058” radio series was truly awesome–and I’m no fan of science fiction. (I won’t even tell you what I think about the fantasy genre….)

    Second, as I read the post, I started to hear a radio story in there. I think if you wove the story of your adventures with diversification together with a science fiction or fantasy element as a narrative device, you’d have a great pitch for a program like CBC Outfront. If my own experience is any indication, you’d get to work with a great producer–and be paid pretty well for the learning experience.

    Hope you don’t mind the unsolicited suggestion!

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