By RM Rhodes
At the end of The Wake, Sandman writer Neil Gaiman has Ben Johnson recite his resume, "In my time, I have been a soldier, a scholar, a pauper, a duelist, an actor, a translator and a spy."
I feel a great deal of empathy for Mr. Johnson. Over the past twenty some odd years of employment, I myself have worked as a sailing instructor, in a bookstore, as a bartender, in a laundry, as a Defense contractor, as a pharmacy technician, as a technical writer, as a pizza maker, washing dishes, on a helpdesk, as a signmaker, as a cheesemonger, in software quality assurance (an activity not unlike nailing jello to the wall), as a facilities security officer, as a nude model, as a pornograher, as a frycook, in a coatroom, as the guy who checks ID at the door and as the guy that manages the enterprise-wide migration schedule.
Like Mr. Johnson, I also write a bit. However, I am somewhat less prolific and extraordinarily less successful. In fact, you’ve probably never heard of me. That’s okay, I’ve barely heard of myself and it’s my job to self-promote.
I've always been a storyteller with an ability to explain abstract concepts, as necessary. I didn't get great grades in school, but I did get comments like "well written" from time to time; no great praise, but more of a recognition that at least the professor didn’t have to struggle to read the paper.
It’s probably not surprising that I never did get a writing career off the ground – or make a serious attempt, really. I wrote a few novels that I tried to get published, to no avail. I self-published one novel in the bad old Publish America days and eventually turned to making graphic novels and other assorted comics in my spare time. I’ve since vanished into the underbrush at Small Press Expo – occasionally visible in the backgrounds of photos of more famous cartoonists as the man in the purple suit.
While all of that was happening, I spent a decade learning how to be financially viable. It turns out that being able to write actually translates fairly well to a bureaucratic environment – where I still work (and thrive). In addition to basic attendance and reading comprehension skills (you'd be amazed who doesn't have them), having an ability to reliably keep track of complex things and a panoply of stupid Excel tricks has really worked out for me.
When I am honest with myself, I admit that I enjoy being a bureaucrat. I enjoy analyzing business processes and once took a day off work to go to an Edward Tufte course. My favorite jobs have been those positions where I have a narrow scope and broad leeway to the point where someone can honestly forget I’m there, quietly tasking myself and making my business process work with a minimum of fuss. As it turns out, getting stuff done in a professional office environment can be pretty fun.
Consequently, I’ve come to the realization at the age of 40 that it's kind of silly to contemplate the pursuit of a career in the arts if it can't pay me as much as my day job. This is a very mercenary point of view, but my day job gives me affordable health insurance and a steady paycheck, important perks for someone with a heart arrhythmia and a mortgage.
I also recognize that this frees me from having to be overly concerned with whether my creative work is commercial, which makes me a dilettante more than anything else. I’m okay with that because it is what it is – a business decision. I prefer the sure thing of a steady paycheck to constant salesmanship and hustling. Because that’s what being a professional writer is all about – selling yourself. Again and again and again. Done properly, selling should take up almost as much time and effort as the production of the work. And, like most creative people, I really prefer to make stuff than to sell it.
More to the point, I don’t really like my voice when I try to sell myself. Writing this article, for example, has been excruciating. I’m deeply uncomfortable putting this much of myself out there for anonymous eyes to pore over – despite the fact that placing this article on Salome’s blog is a nakedly promotional act. Not everyone has the chops to be truly self-employed, but it’s fun to pretend sometimes.
The weird thing is that my wife is in marketing. She has given me really valuable advice on how to use marketing tips and tricks as multipliers. These have turned barely marginal shows into marginal shows. But they’ve also highlighted the fact that I sell myself reluctantly, with a wince of embarrassment at my blatant self-aggrandizement. I like being a bureaucrat in part because my notoriety is contained – big fish, small pond.
Comics is my hobby, not my day job, but that doesn’t mean it’s not my passion. In addition to my comics output, I also read a lot of comics and I contribute more than my fair share of support to the comics market. I even pay a French teacher up the street to sit with me once a month and help me read my Bandes Desinees. It’s a very specific way of learning a new language and, in addition to allowing me to explore a distant corner of the comics world, it has given me some insight into how much the Norman conquest influenced the English language.
I suppose this is the part where I’m meant to lament the lack of creativity in the bureaucratic environment and pine for the ability to spend the whole day doing nothing but write and/or make art. The thing is that being creative is also a day job – and all professions have trade-offs. I chose low chance of fame and reasonable, reliable standard of living, which is not for everyone.
And it feels like sour grapes to point out that the natural result of success in a creative idiom is fame – which is better understood as a loss of privacy. Fame is a multiplier, but it has no intrinsic value of its own. Beyond that, the twin problems with fame are how difficult it is to become unfamous and how easy it is to become infamous.
And really, if I went into the arts "full time" as it were, I wouldn't be able to wear any of the really cool suits that I've put together over the course of the last decade. One of the best things about an office environment is the fact that you get to wear clothes that are designed to make you look better. That should really be in the offer letter – health insurance, enough money to take a trip to Europe every other year and you get to look awesome in a suit every weekday. Different suits, even.
Find R.M. Rhodes on Twitter as @oletheros