Saturday, December 17, 2011

Work and Play

Here's the quote from Harley Brown that inspired this entire essay.

At the start of my adult life, I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a lake and had to swim for shore. Any shore. No time to worry if people liked me or my art; or if what I was doing was "worthy." I'll tell you why:

There were two things I knew for sure: I wanted to be a full time artist for the rest of my life. And I didn't want to "work" for a living. Whatever else has happened, I've stuck to those very goals. Yet, I really don't give myself a pat on the back; there are many who've worked as hard but had tougher obstacles to overcome. Many of them, my heroes.

In retrospect, I did what I did with a naive young mind that didn't, (thankfully,) understand the Real World. I still don't understand the real world. Thankfully. Harley Brown”

Gee, that’s familiar. His words are different, but I could swear that came out of my old spiel when I worked as a street artist in New Orleans. I’d grin at the tourists and say “I used to work hard at a real job in Chicago, then I moved down here and decided I’d rather play all day and paint. Would you believe it? I eat better and I’ve got more actual luxury than when I was living on ten times as much, because I’m not blowing it all shopping in order to get over the stress.”

What happened to that attitude? What happened to that feeling that left me so crushed I literally didn’t want to draw or paint at all until 2004 when I decided I might enjoy it again if I kept it strictly a hobby?

I fell down and I couldn’t get up. I walked too far dragging too much stuff because I didn’t understand that all physical activity takes me five times the body energy. I moved too far from my setup spot. I dreamed of getting an electric golf cart or something as a convenience when that literally would have saved my career.

I also fell down emotionally the very first day that I had no sales at all. Up to that point, street art was self reinforcing. I trusted that I would get at least one or two sales every day I got out there. I could budget anything I wanted by how many days I wanted to work, versus stay home and do something else including loaf around. (Read, sick days that I thought I was just being lazy.)

This week I made a very minor mistake that brought up that big realistic fear - that if I don’t do this right, I will get back on the Boom and Bust cycle. Do my best, fall down flat and be unable to continue. As well as so burned out I don’t even want to draw a cat gesture for years.

Thursday my prints rack arrived. I got excited and overestimated how much I could do. I was so excited about having my license and everything I need to go out and do street art that I was also trying to get several days worth of preparation done by morning and then get a full night’s sleep. I got all worked up about it, Thrills and Chills, adrenaline can be read either as excitement or fear.

Well, when it's a mix of excitement and fear when both have good sound reasons, that can get a bit stressful. Stress + Fibromyalgia = Sick Day.

Instead of a full night’s sleep, I was too stressed to sleep at all and went to bed at six in the morning only to get up at nine in the morning unable to sleep. I didn't cut any mats because resting till I felt up to getting up, I stayed up too late to get it done and still sleep that night. So I had to call it off and reschedule. No deadline now. I'll go out when I have everything done.

Instead of my glorious debut on the Street Artist Program, I had a lousy sick day in which I did nothing but sit around fielding panic attacks over everything that could go wrong. Then writing an email to a friend and deleting it over and over for eight hours.

Doing that solved the problem. I did not bother sending her the 30,000 word long version. I needed to pretend that my sensible friend would read it in order to be "thinking it through from another person's point of view."

This is a comeback trail from the biggest failure of my life - something that I threw everything I had into getting past the obstacles and keeping it afloat. I was happy in that job but I hit too many crises and bang, down I went. I have spent all the years since then figuring out why I couldn't keep doing it.

I left out one of the big reasons. Stress + Fibromyalgia = Sick Days. Art does not sell on Sick Days. Or on stressful unhappy worried days. Street art sells best when I am happy to be there, thrilled to see a customer, delighted with my project, overflowing with real contentment. My art is happy and has affectionate undertones. My portraits, while not flattering in any technical sense are emotionally flattering. I look at the subject positively to bring out the best in their personality, so they come out looking good with every wrinkle and wart because those became lovable.

I have to actually feel like being with people and painting, even if what I'm selling isn't portraits.

I didn't take morale into account. Street Art was self reinforcing. Instant Cash doing something that's legal and fun, goofing off instead of actually working and being paid for it, what's not to love? That's a daily reward. If I got even one sale, walking away with more money than I went out with made me happy and made me want to do it again. Because I got that money for nothing. I did not need to suffer for it. I didn't have to Care About The Money. I wasn't doing it just to Plod Through a Hated Day Job.

I was goofing off having fun and getting paid.

Then I sold art to people who by their circumstances have up to a year's spending money in hand that is now budgeted for Have Fun and Goof Off. We are on the same wavelength, me and the tourists.

Half the natives I knew in New Orleans grumbled about "God, I hate tourists.” They always ask directions and assume you know, they don't dress or act the way you do. Heck, they're on vacation having fun while you're stuck working for a living and then they demand your time. Oh and they're rude too. (Some of that is "They're not from here and their idea of Polite does not match yours.")

I met a few annoying people but I didn't categorize all Tourists as Rude. Most of them were nice to me. They at least complimented my art. They looked at me like I was a tourist attraction same as the famous churchyard where duels took place. Fair enough, that's what I was doing! This was great and I loved them. It took genuine extreme bad mood behavior for me to dislike a tourist.

I didn't get mad at "Where is the Cafe du Monde?" when it was right over there in sight from where I was standing. They never saw it before. That's a reasonable question. Not everyone's eyesight is good enough to read a sign from half a block away.

Then came the summer bad season, when I had a hard time making my nut - earning out my necessities at the top of the month. Summers were when I had zero sales days. Some summers I didn't have many because I still had that morale. I blew it off as “well, this is the off season and I have to get out more days to earn enough to make it.” I just didn't get much beyond necessity and had to physically overwork in order to make it.

The year it started to take off, when my art was getting into galleries and I'd already put two years on the waiting list for an "A" license, I had a personal crisis with a family member. It knocked me back hard with fibromyalgia symptoms. I had too many sick days, so I was reduced to "force myself to go" on bad days during tourist season. Every time I got a zero sales day, it was harder to make myself get up and go. By the time summer came, I could not earn enough during the month to survive.

I moved farther away from my setup to have cheaper rent because I had less money. So I was putting in extra physical effort to get out and work with less joy in it every time after that crisis. I took in annoying roommates in order to survive because I wasn’t earning enough to live by myself. I didn’t have the physical energy to clean my apartment and got in fights with those roommates about housecleaning, when they included slobs.

Annoying things that had been tolerable, that I'd blown off as no big deal, became overwhelming depression. That became a vicious cycle. If anything bad happened, that day turned into a zero sales day. I was running on the edge in terms of physical energy and financial survival and I was way over the edge in terms of emotional resilience.

Friday was when I sorted all that out and figured out what happened.

I have figured things out like this before. I used to be able to live within my budget whatever it was, but never able to save up money either in general or to get something big that I couldn't afford on one paycheck or windfall. I solved that when I was living with Kitten in a practical way. I decided I wasn't going to buy any Terry Pratchett books - my favorite author - unless I put $50 into savings first. If I did, I could go to Amazon and buy a book with what, under $10 of my spending money?

The game worked. I lost my savings to using it for crises several times and would like to save up to the point where a crisis doesn't obliterate it. I'd like to have some savings beyond the "for emergencies" level. An arbitrary reward system does it.

I might not have been gradually demoralized by bad days or bad customers if I could have counted on a self set reward every single day that I had the will power to get up, grab my stuff and go do it. The natural rewards of "I get to paint in the pretty place" are real too but if I'm hurting for money, fear overshadows that simple pleasure. I have to make any no-sale days that are just Plein Air on the Wharf worth doing and play the averages between "good days" and "bad days" loading it for success.

Literally the happier I am, the better my art is and the more customers buy it. There's something beyond just selling in an art career. Every sale is a thrill, a reaffirmation that “I’m an artist.” I'm sharing that thrill. Tourists who do something else for a living and did not spend years learning how to draw or paint have met a real artist. They saw me start from a blank piece of paper and create a beautiful artwork from scratch the way a master does anything well. They came into my studio. If they ever had any fantasy of learning to paint and asked questions, they became art students on the spot and got a lesson with their painting.

We, me and my client, are both enjoying ourselves in that moment. A warm human memory is going home with them along with the beautiful painting, which has an emotional undertone of "I love doing this and you are so awesome, you have great taste for spotting how cool this painting is. You bought real art instead of just going to the mall, so you're refined and sensible. This is real value, not junk. Also, you have talent. Keep sketching. Remember how I did that trick with the eye highlight. You will draw that well someday too whether it’s for fun or you want my job someday. The more the merrier."

All the good reasons why people buy art, from the fantasy of "I might have just got a pre-famous Van Gogh" to "God, that was fun" associate with something that's already beautiful in its own right. It’s a place or a face that they love. All my happiness in the process goes into the color harmonies and shape choices and what details I chose to focus on whether I’m conscious of that or not. So it’s a face or a place they love seen at its best on a good day. No wonder they fall in love! They were already in love!

I've never been able to do a Hard Sell, to put the money first. That's antithetical to why I'd rather paint and write than work. I can't "Close the sale" when a customer's not sure. I take no for an answer, that doesn’t work for selling insurance or encyclopedias or anything else I tried in pure sales jobs.

What I can do is a soft sell letting the real beauty and my real good mood turn into reality. They fell in love and when they get home it's still the painting they love, so they're happy. They got good value for what they paid and had a happy experience. I think sometimes I made their vacation, sent them off in a good mood that made the fancy seafood dinner taste better and the music at the blues bar more fun.

I have to care about the experience more than whether that customer buys or someone else does, trusting that if I'm having a good time someone will buy. A lot of times people want to and don't have the money. They went to a bar last night or they bought something in the shops first. They dithered and wished, wandered off and didn't come back. I didn't resent that. Heck, sometimes they rebudgeted and came back.

Putting those two things together, I’m going to manage my morale as much as my time and body energy. The “conditional self reward” system of Terry Pratchett books for savings worked. So I’m going to choose something small that I want to enjoy very often. It should be something I won’t get bored with.

So when I go out to sell art, I’ll budget five dollars for something from the convenience store. They have donuts and breakfast pastry, fruits, corn dogs, genuine Mexican Flan with Caramel Sauce in a little dessert cup, food treats. I can choose to stick the five bucks in my pocket if I’d rather eat hot oatmeal before going down and don’t feel like convenience food, that might stack up to pocket savings of another $10 Pratchett book.

Instead of making the treats specific, I’ll just budget some lunch money as a self reward. It also means that if I get hungry while I’m out there, a snack from a vendor on the spot to stay happy and have something to eat when I’m starting to get sick from hunger makes a sale later on a lot more likely. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to also brown-bag it. If my sales even match what I did during the off season, they will become an important income stream to fund websites and self publishing and art supplies and business. If I like a restaurant down near the area I might save up my treats to eat out whether I sell or not.

I used to reward myself for good days by eating out before going home. I think that’s a good idea too. When I celebrated making my nut, I worked a little harder to get ahead. I did that as early as I could during the month so that I’d have the choice of either working harder for something big I wanted, or staying home to work on things that don’t pay as fast.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll “make my nut” within a month of starting the Street Artist program. It’s unlikely unless I count it by smaller goals. The first “made my nut” goal is “My license renewal is in the bank.” That’s minimal success for this season. Next level: business expenses and savings for contingencies at stepped levels. Then “a month’s rent in the bank,” and “rent plus bills in the bank” and eventually reaching the $2,000 maximum savings allowed by Social Security.

That is as much cushion as I can put between my leap to self employment and phoning up to quit my day job. It’s good for two months of minimal rent and expenses. Then either I’m making enough to live on every month and take the plunge, or I maintain that savings more or less around that level and keep throwing it into the business till I do earn enough to live on.

There are plenty of things I can invest in. A giclee printer and archival inks and paper, so I’ve got prints sales supplementing originals. Websites with affiliate links. Having my novels edited professionally before sending them to publishers or self publishing - a worthwhile expense either way.

I’ll decide the next milestones as I reach them, because I don’t know the details of my path to self employment. I’ll just keep moving in that direction until I get there and continue rewarding myself for every small achievement along the way. That will keep me going when the going gets tough and remind me why I love this lifestyle, why I’m goofing off for money instead of just going to work like a normal person.

When it’s a job instead of a hobby, that kind of planning and maintenance is one of my tasks. I enjoy it though. Deciding what I’m going to do always gives me a sense of empowerment.

I always plan for the worst case and the best case. Reality usually comes out somewhere in between. What could go wrong in the best case? I could earn so much that I’m bang, off Social Security in the first month I do it having to deal with working out my taxes and withholding and recalculating and changing my life in a major way without being sure if that level of sales will continue.

If I want to be sensible, I’ll pay attention to the seasons and make sure to have $2,000 in the bank. That’s either two months of so sick I can’t do anything or tap it to make up the difference in slow times and restore it as soon as things are better. Loans to self are repaid at a level with immediate business expenses like getting more mat board or more paper when I run out.

Whatever I’m doing, whether it’s keeping up a Nanowrimo word count or cleaning my room or building my self employment, getting ahead makes me want to do more of it. Catching up if I’m behind is emotionally hard and emotions affect this job. So getting ahead and rewarding myself tangibly for every step toward getting ahead will be my best shot at my year-goal.

I want to be self employed again in 2012. I don’t have to be over the poverty line, that’s another milestone and will take some planning to be able to get medical coverage. In that time I don’t want to worry about rent, food, bills or business expenses. That’s the big goal. It’s not minimal. What’s minimal on the Big Goal is “Closer to it than I am now.”

I need to know this market and its seasons. I need to learn my pace in this better climate, how many physical effort days I can do in a month with the rollator, later with a power chair. I need to find out how to pace a week and develop habits that let me get a full night’s sleep the night before an outing.

Yeah, I’m scared. It takes more effort to get up and go on a comeback trail than it does to tear off into a new adventure that might be wonderful. That’s okay though. If what I wanted was to never worry about paying the rent and bills again, I’d hang it up. I’d donate all my paintings to various charities and any proceeds of any of my books and just live on SSI doing whatever I wanted.

That’s okay though. Thrills and chills are both adrenaline and moving around burns that into activity instead of backfiring as aches. By the time I get off the short bus at the lottery spot, I’ll be ready. This is going to be awesome!

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