Ask Polly: Should I Quit My Job To Be An Artist?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Like an app that deals with your big, looming questions, only not nearly that good!”

Dear Polly,

Here I am, a decade out of college, floundering at a faux-creative career that barely pays the rent. It certainly doesn’t bring me any real satisfaction as an artist, if that term even applies anymore. I would quit and pursue my dreams, but then I couldn’t feed my cat.

Am I wasting my life?

Almost An Artist

Dear AAA,

You are definitely wasting your life. Just look at you! You wake up in the morning, feeling ambivalent, questioning the worth of your lame career, wondering if you have any real talent for the artistic endeavors you once imagined were your true calling. You go through your little reassuring routines: A double latte and a cheese Danish here, a big glass of water from the Arrowhead jug in the conference room, a few jelly beans from Sonia’s desk after lunch. You email friends to make plans after work, something to lend a satisfying shape to the blurry nothingness of your existence.

But under your skin, a war is waging, a war between pragmatism and idealism, a war between spontaneity and drudgery, a war between captivity and freedom. You imagine quitting, on a whim. You imagine standing up and walking out and going to a café to sketch or write or read or whatever it is that artists spend their days doing. You imagine the immense weight that will be lifted from your shoulders, if you finally give up on this faux-creative career forever and dedicate yourself full-time to your true passions. Isn’t that what real artists do? Don’t the wisest among us recognize that life is short, that we have nothing to lose by leaping into the inky abyss, heedless of the perils therein? You can almost taste it — how good it would feel to walk out of your office and go to the nearest café, with the real artists, and never look back!

Just don’t order anything when you get there, because you can’t afford it. Not even that slice of cherry pie that looks really delicious. What, do you want your cat to starve?

As nice as it sounds to quit a job — and I’m a big advocate of quitting — you have to ask yourself how productive and passionate you’ll be when you can’t eat pie whenever you want to. If you’re the kind of person who’ll stay up all night working on your art, then get up in the morning and bake your own goddamn cherry pie, then go for it.

But if you’re a little bit lazy and you tend to procrastinate, if you already feel pretty broke even with a job, if you’re not exactly sure what you’d work on from day to day, if you question just how industrious you would be without any external structure imposed on you, then you have cause to second-guess yourself. Because the world is not sensitive to the plight of the artist. And those living, breathing humans who clog up the sidewalks and the elevators, they’re insensitive, too — those indifferent consumers who continue to purchase crappy products and go to see horrifically bad movies and waste their money at island-themed chain restaurants (that you will long for, mind you, once you can’t afford to eat there anymore), instead of buying great art like the kind you make. Screw those people! They wouldn’t know quality if it walked up and smacked them in the face (which you’re tempted to do almost all the time now, now that you spend all of your unemployment checks on cat food, coffee and smokes).

That said, though, you know who aren’t insensitive? The spirits of the dead. They are sensitive to your plight. Or, rather, once you stoke the illusion of their existence (which I would encourage, since you’re going to need some kind of self-constructed religion or elaborate illusion to make this leap), you will find that calling on their help is crucial. Once these ghosts stop telling you to call their brother or their daughter to say that he should sell the land or she should divorce her husband (which of course you’ll never do, because, ppffttt! You have bigger fish to fry!), then they’ll tell you that being a real artist means practicing your craft in the absence of positive feedback indefinitely, maybe even forever and ever, Amen. They’ll tell you that, as an unemployed artist person, you will sally forth in a vacuum of ego rewards. The only people who will cheer you on, day in and day out, are the dead ones. Period. “Get used to it!” they’ll tell you. “Now get back to work!”

See how a little dash of insanity is chicken soup for the artist’s soul? But the real question I have for you is this: Do you want to practice your craft every day for several focused hours at a time? Maybe you think you don’t believe in yourself and your talents enough for that. You don’t need belief, though. You just need to suspend your disbelief, enough that you can look in the mirror and say, “I am learning. I am fully devoted to this process. I will continue. The motherfucking spirits of the dead — which I don’t really believe in completely but it’s nice to think that they exist because no one else seems to give a shit — dictate that it must be so. This is how it’s done. I simply proceed. Generations of deceased former artists are on my side, even if no one else is!”

Yes, there is a thin, thin line between being a productive artist and being insane. Does that sound exciting, or terrible? Do you want to throw yourself into hard, hard work every day — and even if you want to, will you actually do that? Or would you rather eat cherry pie?

Because you know what’s really a waste of a life? Quitting your perfectly good but not great career to become an artist who mostly wanders around, angry at the world for not giving a shit.

Maybe you’d rather go to work every day and meet your friends for a beer after work. I mean, if you’re not trying to write or make art at night or in the morning, before or after work (“I’m so tired after work, though!”) then you probably won’t accomplish much more without the job. You might accomplish much less, in fact, because you’re too worried about money to think.

An artist isn’t a person who hangs out at cafes all day, shooting the shit. An artist is a person who works his or her ass off. If you know that already, and all of that spirits-of-the-dead, working-around-the-clock, practicing-your-craft, repeating-your-faith-in-your-work-like-a-prayer stuff sounds good to you? Then you really do have an artist trapped inside of you. And you’ll probably like the artist inside you better than you like this faux-creative self you’ve constructed.

(Your cat will like the artist better, too.)

Good luck!


Dear Polly,

I am in my mid 30s, and have a kid (now a toddler I guess) with my partner. He also has a son (in elementary school) who is with us part time. Overall, I totally love having a family, although I really feel like I’m only at the very beginning of a learning curve about how to deal with all sorts of things that I just have no experience with. Day to day things, like making sure that laundry and homework is done and everyone is washed, but also shaky & demanding custody arrangements, differing notions of financial stability, unclear future plans… I find that I don’t know much about how to keep things going as a couple in this situation, and how to build a good family life, especially in a ‘blended’ family context.

Several months ago, I found that I was pregnant again. It was a surprise as much as such a thing can be a surprise, and it wasn’t exactly great news for a variety of reasons. While it initially caused some anxiety for me, I also knew that I wasn’t up for an abortion, and decided that we might maybe be able to manage it somehow. Unfortunately, the pregnancy provoked a fairly significant crisis in my boyfriend, causing him to question the entire scope of our life together, his ambivalent feelings as a father, and “what he really wanted.” He started drinking a lot, and for a while pretty much stopped talking to me. It was awful. He continued to be good to the kids, but things felt really sketchy for us. There were quite a few sad fights, and I was pretty fucking angry because I Was Pregnant, and it felt like a huge rejection. My reaction was basically to prepare myself for the possibility that I might be doing this alone in the near future. Time passed. In some ways things settled down: he drank less, we started talking a little more, having sex again. But a lot of residual bitterness stayed with me, and the usual frustrations of everyday living really started to build up and weigh down in my mind. A few more months passed. During that time, I focused on getting some good support with this pregnancy, because that felt like my priority. And things were sort of OK, but not great.

Nearing the due date, I realized that I had become deeply resentful about a whole range of issues large and small, and that we actually spent a lot of time apart. It started out as a free-floating anxiety that I was going to go into labor early, but I knew that it wasn’t really the material needs, like not having enough diapers on hand, that was bothering me. Suddenly I became incredibly afraid that everything was going to fall apart. And in this almost unbearable anxiety that built up, I started to become aware of just how much I had created this situation: that I had consistently been pushing him away, and had isolated myself in my mind with my son. I started to see that what I wanted was closeness — intimacy with my partner, a warm domestic life for the kids — but that my actions were really breeding coldness and distance and blame. (I have had some great models for this type of behavior in my family.) Can you take my word for it without my having to detail what this actually looked like? I have been pretty hard on everybody. And I started to remember a time when I felt much more open to the inadequacies and imperfections of our life together (namely, before we were living together & Especially Namely, before I had a baby), and really wanted to get some of that back… not the naiveness of that perspective, but that spirit of love & generosity, especially for my partner & his kid, even knowing what I know now about how our lives look together. We talked a lot, and at this point I feel much more grounded, Much Less Bitchy. I am trying to be a lot more straightforward about my fears and desires. I guess that I have recommitted to our life together (as opposed to hatching escape plans and complaining a lot), and am trying harder to make it good, to make it something that addresses our varied needs and desires.

So we’re in a pretty good place now. But what the hell are we going to do when the stress hits? In terms of material concerns, we live pretty modestly but are doing OK for now. We need a better long-term plan for financial stability, but I think that will come in the next year or two. I am so afraid that a few sleepless nights, some ordinary illness, or some other unexpected thing, is going to come once the new baby is here, and I am going to lose it and become miserable and angry again, and push away, and we are just not going to be able to handle it! How the hell are we going to manage when there is a newborn baby, and everyone is acting like themselves, and all I can see is how maddeningly careless/selfish/whatever everyone is, and I just want to crumble onto the bed with my baby & toddler and float away on a stream of tears to some tranquil garden where I’m not in danger of having my heart broken and stuff ruined?


Dear Rebecca,

Ah, yes. What the hell happened to you? You were once easy-going and generous, you went with the flow. You accepted your boyfriend for who he was, you were happy to hang out and disappear whenever necessary. Why did you have to go and get all serious and heavy about stuff out of nowhere?

Oh yeah, you moved in and had kids together.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, but it sounds to me like you’ve twisted yourself into an emotional pretzel in order to keep your boyfriend from splitting, and now he’s reluctantly willing to hang out and speak and sleep together again. Yet it doesn’t really sound like he’s made any promises about the future. He doesn’t seem to have a coherent vision of the long-term horizon, nor am I hearing about any apologies for the drinking or pledges to not disappear the next time things get tough. So you wonder: What happens when life gets chaotic again? (Which, with two small kids and an infant under one roof, is a guarantee.) When you talk about “everyone” getting “maddeningly careless/selfish/whatever,” who are you talking about, besides your maddeningly careless, selfish, whatever boyfriend?

I don’t doubt that you can be a real blaming shrew. Show me a woman who doesn’t turn into a blaming shrew when she’s pregnant and taking care of two kids and her partner is drinking heavily and not talking to her, and I’ll show you a lobotomized rat peddling furiously for more crack pellets.

It’s time to give yourself a fucking break.

But maybe some perverted part of you was trying to push the relationship onto terra firma by getting pregnant again. Maybe your boyfriend sensed this and resented it. Or maybe the pregnancy was a complete, true accident, but he still resented it.

Either way, here you are. Your boyfriend has exerted his independence. Some part of him wants you to know that he’s not there for you. I tell you this not to depress you, but to refocus you on bigger, more important things. Instead of casting your situation as, “Can I stay superhuman enough to keep my boyfriend here and keep my family together?”, I’d reframe it as, “Can I take care of myself and my children, no matter what?” It’s time to grow up.

When you talk about focusing on just you and your child? I get how that can be corrosive if you say it out loud a lot, but it’s not entirely bad, either. Because I think what you know, that your boyfriend doesn’t seem to recognize, is that you’d probably be a calmer, stronger woman if you weren’t so consumed by the inherent uncertainty of your relationship. He sees your worst and thinks that that’s who you are. But you’re behaving like a needy nutjob because you’re in a situation that would make Joan of Arc act like a needy nutjob. That doesn’t mean that you’re not tough, or that you won’t emerge from this very taxing time as a stronger, more confident adult.

The first five months after a second or third kid sometimes feels like an apocalypse. Everyone is hungry and dirty and screaming, and everything smells bad. I would urge you to be easy on yourself, and you’ll be easier on everyone else, too. Make a pledge to yourself and your kids to remain calm, to speak in quiet tones when requesting your boyfriend’s help. Find a therapist-in-training locally who’ll charge you the price of a cup of coffee to talk once a week; I’m reasonably sure you can bring your baby with you. These people exist, and sometimes they help more than the seasoned, semi-bored $150/hour therapists. Reach out to friends and family as much as you can, because you strike me as someone who isolates herself. Join playgroups and all that other mom shit you don’t feel like doing. Force yourself to do it. This is about survival now. You need more support, even from strangers, even from people who don’t get it or avert their eyes when you get unexpectedly heavy with them.

In the long run, everything will look about a million times brighter, as long as you recognize that you’re the one who’s going to fix this picture. This relationship you’re in will either mend itself or fall away. Believe me when I tell you that it’s really the least of your concerns at this point. What matters is that you take full responsibility for the way you live, and you shift into high gear and fix the things that aren’t working. No one is born knowing how to bathe three kids, do laundry, help with homework and stock the shelves with diapers. We all have to whip our own sad, avoidant asses into shape. You can’t drag your feet and shrug and point to someone else’s slackness indefinitely. You’re only making yourself unhappy with that routine. You owe it to yourself to start living at a higher level, no matter how your boyfriend wants to live in the meantime. This is a good time to surprise yourself with just how strong and resilient you can be.


Need help with a big decision? Experiencing bouts of unfocused longing? Write to Polly!

Previously: Ask Polly: Should I Bring A Baby Into This Messed-Up World?

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is our new existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by becca.peterson26.