THE WORK and THE LIFE Are Two Separate Things

I’m going to start today’s post where I ended yesterday’s: with the idea that THE WORK and THE LIFE are two separate things.

Quick definitions, to catch everybody up:

THE WORK: literally your life’s work, although you can think of it as “the current creative project you want to complete” if you want to keep things simple. The stuff you’d like to be working on, during an ideal day.

THE LIFE: the way you’d like your ideal day to proceed. Maybe you want to rise with the sun and walk along the river that runs behind your home. Maybe you want to sleep in and do a couple hours of work before meeting a friend for lunch. Maybe you want a leisurely breakfast with your family. Maybe you want to wake up and do yoga and fill out your Daily Spreadsheet and look for cause-and-effect relationships between your food and sleep and mood and everything else (hey, that one’s me).

The trouble we get into — and I get into this trouble all the time — is thinking that we can’t have THE LIFE until we complete a certain amount of THE WORK. When we are THE FAMOUS, for example, we’ll be able to take those morning walks, because then we won’t have to deal with our current morning rush because we’ll be famous.

Well.

As I wrote yesterday, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to take those walks now.

Don’t let your desire to buy plants convince you that you need to write a successful young-adult series

So I mentioned the other day that I spent part of this year (way too much of this year?) wanting my career to be like Maggie Stiefvater’s, because then I could have an office with a bunch of musical instruments and plants in it.

There was actually a second reason I wanted that type of career, and we’ll get to that, but let’s start with the office. Go take a look at this post on Maggie Stiefvater’s Tumblr, and you’ll see why I was suddenly asking myself whether I should try a young-adult series like The Raven Cycle. Because maybe that would make me MORE SUCCESSFUL, and if I were MORE SUCCESSFUL I could have more plants… and I was back in the trap again.

Turns out you can just buy more plants. They are relatively inexpensive! (It’s the pots that cost money.) I also bought a piano, which was… not inexpensive.*

And there I was, with THE LIFE I had been dreaming about.

Now I had to figure out what type of work I wanted to do next.

Sometimes the work and the life do correlate

Just over a decade ago, I saw Jonathan Coulton open for They Might Be Giants. I did not know who Jonathan Coulton was at the time. (This would change.) I did know that I was watching this guy sing and play guitar and talk to the audience when he wasn’t singing or playing, and I also knew that I wanted to do that.

So I got myself out of debt as quickly as I could,** and then I bought a guitar (and I probably could have bought the guitar before I got out of debt, but I am an orderly sort) and then I taught myself how to play (it helped that I grew up in a family of musicians and that my undergrad degree is in music composition) and then I started looking into how to book shows.

Two years later I was singing and performing for a room full of fans and friends on the Jonathan Coulton Cruise.

I wasn’t an official cruise performer; I was part of what was called the “shadow cruise,” where attendees created their own slate of performances.

Still. I wanted to be onstage with a guitar, singing and talking to an audience, and doing THE WORK made that happen.

I spent just over a year as a full-time performing musician, during which I got myself back into debt (to the tune — pun intended — of $14,000) and realized that THE LIFE I had created through this work wasn’t working.*** Meanwhile I was picking up these writing gigs, and people were asking me to do more freelance writing work, and that was making a lot more money than the music, and… well, I ended up making a career change.

But the point I’m trying to make is that sometimes you have to do THE WORK to get THE LIFE you want, in the sense that if you want to be onstage performing for people, you have to have something worth performing.

But you don’t have to become THE FAMOUS first, and you don’t even have to hide in your apartment until you write the perfect song. You can go to open-mic night two weeks after you get your new guitar, and you can perform for people. (Ask me how I know.)

I’ve gotten to a lot of places by seeing someone else doing something I wanted to do and then asking myself how I could do it. I watched TED Talks and then started volunteering to be on panels at local SF&F conventions. I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and then got into powerlifting (for about six months before switching to the YMCA’s Les Mills classes, which I liked a lot better).

I started this blog because — well, did you actually go read the Maggie Stiefvater post I linked to earlier? It wasn’t just the home I wanted. It was also the ability to talk freely about THE WORK and, honestly, THE SELF, which is something I don’t always get to do in my current career as a personal-finance writer (who’s also authored a couple of books).

I want to be inspiring and transparent and helpful. I know I’m a particular type of person (INTJ: I see the world through a systems-and-patterns lens) so my particular brand of inspiration might not apply to everybody. But you’re here reading this now, and I hope you come back on Monday for the next post. ❤️

*Yes, we’re going to discuss the way money fits into all of this, because it’s a huge part of both THE WORK and THE LIFE (and while I want to say that you can do a lot of THE WORK on “very little money,” because I did, I also know that my definition of “very little money” is around $20K/year, which is well above the federal poverty line for a single person, and I also had the type of minimum-payment-every-month good credit that allowed me to get into $14K of credit card debt, so yes, money plays a huge role in all of this, we will discuss).

**Oh look it’s the money connection again.

***I am well aware that one of the reasons people aspire towards so-called “creative careers” is because the life they have created through their current work isn’t working; I also know from experience that quitting your executive assistant job to become a full-time performing musician can change your life, so I’m not going to say this is a bad idea, just remember that you can also go for a walk or play your guitar at the open mic without quitting your job, and if you do want to change your work to change your life, remember that THE WORK takes work.

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The Work Takes Work

So I want to spend the rest of this week discussing two things: THE WORK and THE LIFE.

These are both topics that will take more than two days to discuss, of course, so I will undoubtedly come back to them in the future — but I want to start the conversation now because I just read this Man Repeller article titled Freelance vs. Full Time and BELIEVE ME IT IS RELEVANT.

Actually, it’s relevant in more ways than one. The piece is a discussion between freelancer Meghan Nesmith and full-timer Logan Sachon, both of whom were former colleagues at The Billfold (Logan being one of the original Billfold founders).

So I hope they won’t mind that I hinge this blog post on a quote from Logan, about what she initially thought freelancing could be:

The dream was to go on a long walk in the middle of the day, to meet friends who are also freelance in the middle of the day, to not get out of bed until the middle of the day, to knock off for happy hour at 4PM. (To not … work?) Whenever someone Instagrams from Central Park in the middle of the day, or posts a picture of a cake they just baked to procrastinate for a few hours — that’s the stuff that makes freelancing really attractive.

If you read the whole piece, you’ll understand that both Logan and Meghan immediately disavow this “dream” of the no-work freelance life — because, of course, it is completely unrealistic. Freelancers work very hard. (Ask me how I know.)

But I want to call your attention to the disparity between “the dream” and the work of doing your work.

If you want to bake a cake, you don’t need to become a freelance writer first.

When I teach my writing classes (and by the way, you can sign up for my next online class RIGHT NOW, it starts Jan 12) I ask my students to spend some time writing about their ideal workday. Where would they sit? What would they wear? Would there be a cup of tea nearby? What sounds would they hear (and/or block out)?

This is a super-common workshop activity — I first learned about it from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft — but I add a twist. I ask my students to consider their ideal workdays in conjunction with their other responsibilities.

That was the part I hated most about the Wishcraft exercise; Sher shares all of these ideal days from workshop participants, and very few of them involved any work. They slept in and baked cakes and met friends for lunch. One woman, who claimed to want to start a family, described her ideal day as being alone, on a horse, while pregnant.

You get where I’m going with this. If you say you want family but your ideal day is spent alone, or if you say you want the freelance life but your ideal day is spent not freelancing, well… I think the thing you want is not what you say you want.

Same goes for whatever big creative project you dream about doing. Do you want to make the project, or are you making the project because you hope that when you’re done, your life will look more like your ideal day?

If you want to bake more cakes, you can just bake more cakes.

And if you want to start a freelance career or complete a big creative project, you’ll need to figure out when you’re going to do the work.

This is why I ask my students to imagine their ideal workday in conjunction with their current responsibilities. First, it acknowledges that the work is work, and second, it acknowledges that you probably already have a bunch of stuff chomping at your time.

(Later in my class I give students a grid with a week’s worth of hours in it, ask them to block off all of the hours they already have committed to other responsibilities including commuting/hygiene/sleep/family/etc. and ask them how many of those remaining hours they want to commit to THE WORK. It’s kind of a sobering exercise, unfortunately — and you can do it at home, here’s your grid! We’ll discuss time management and how to find more time for THE WORK at some point, because it is a super-important topic.)

Don’t let your fantasies about THE LIFE get in the way of THE WORK.

I know I know, it’s like day two and I’m already lecturing, but I fell into this trap myself over the past year, even though I know better, because it is a very powerful trap with a really big gravitational pull. (More on this tomorrow.)

Let me quote Logan again:

I don’t even know if I have a dream job. I think if I’ve ever had one, it would be being like, a New Yorker writer who works on long stories, like Kathryn Schulz or Ariel Levy or Elif Batuman. 

I know I know I know I am pulling the dreamiest quotes out of what is a very practical interview about the realities of freelancing (which you should GO READ and then DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS), but I’m doing this because I spent the past year telling myself I wanted to be like such-and-such a person* and I wanted their level of fame or whatever, and when I asked myself why it was because I saw a photo of their office and it had musical instruments and plants in it.

SO I GOT MYSELF A PIANO

AND A BUNCH OF PLANTS

And then it was like well, that problem’s solved, now I actually have to think about what work I want to do with the rest of my life.

(Obligatory yes I know not everyone can just buy a piano.)

That’s where I’m going to begin tomorrow, if you’re interested in following along. ❤️

*okay okay it was Maggie Stiefvater, go read her commandments of life and then tape them to your desk if you find them as inspiring as I do

New Year, New Blog

So it’s twenty-ought-nineteen, in the sense that a lot of us are feeling like we ought to be in a different place right now (we said “happy new year,” and now we have to make it happen), and I’ve started to feel like this ought to be a different kind of blog.

Actually, I thought about creating a whole new blog. Something to pair with The Billfold, but instead of having honest conversations about money, we’d have honest conversations about The Work. By which I mean both the work we do for money and the creative work we’d like to do (and/or are currently doing) with an emphasis on the creative end of things.

Also, how to turn that creative work into work we do for money, because you can’t have a conversation with me for too long before personal finance gets involved.

Unfortunately, The Work was already taken. So was The Candle (because we burn it at both ends?) and The Breath (because it inspires us?) and all of the other catchy “the noun” titles I thought of.

I came very close to starting a blog called The Creative Practice Club, because Dot Club is now a thing, but that sounded like way too corporate. (Although I do, in fact, want this to be a creative practice club. It is a very accurate description of what I hope this space becomes.)

But — because you can’t have a conversation with me for too long before personal finance gets involved — when I looked into how much it might cost to start a new for-real professional blog, with the WordPress Dot Orgs and the fancy Jetpacks and the rest, I asked myself “do I really need to pay $300 to build something brand-new, when I have a perfectly good Nicole Dieker Dot Com already set up and in the budget?”

So here we are.

I want to do a post a day, Monday-through-Friday. I am going to use a lot of what I learned from The Billfold, which means there will be Question Wednesdays (though they might not be on Wednesdays) where I ask you a question that’s on my mind and then invite you to answer and/or discuss your own questions in the comments, and there’ll probably be Link Roundups or in-depth discussions of inspirational articles, plus occasional Nicole Recommendses.

But the core of this project is to share everything I’ve learned about Doing The Work, which is another title I can’t use because Steven Pressfield already used it (good book, though I like The War of Art better) and explore some of the questions and issues I’m coming up against as I continue to Do The Work.

Also, to explore your questions and celebrate your accomplishments. Because this is a Creative Practice Club, after all.

See you all tomorrow. ❤️

Writing and Money Episode 19: Should You Become an LLC?

In which I list the pros and cons of becoming an LLC, and offer my advice. Remember: I am neither a lawyer nor a CPA, so you might want to consult both of them as well!

I should clarify what I mean by “the IRS counts all your LLC earnings as your income even though you can only take a distribution:” Let’s say you are a freelancer who incorporated as a single-member LLC and you earned $50,000 in freelance earnings. Let’s also say that you took $40,000 of those earnings as a distribution, which means that’s the money that went from your business bank account to your personal bank account and got put towards rent and food and stuff. The other $10K stayed in your business bank account and was either spent on business expenses or saved for future business expenses.

At the end of the year, the IRS will tax you on the entire $50K (minus expenses/deductions/etc. etc. etc.) even though you only paid yourself $40K. That’s what I mean by “it’s all your income,” even though you’re also supposed to keep your business income separate from your personal income.

An Excerpt From The Biographies of Ordinary People: Meredith on Christmas Eve

The Biographies of Ordinary People is a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016. This chapter takes place in December 1989, when oldest sister Meredith Gruber is eight years old. It is also one of my very favorites, in the whole book. 

If you aren’t familiar with the story: Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie are the three Gruber sisters. Alex (short for Alexandra) is Meredith’s best friend. The rest should make sense on its own.


The thing Meredith liked best about the Methodist church was that nobody asked her to consider her sins. In Portland they had gone to church with Grandma and Grandpa Gruber sometimes, and it was a big church with ceilings so high that Meredith couldn’t even read the words at the tops of the stained glass windows, and when you turned around to walk out of the sanctuary you had to face an enormous statue of Jesus nailed to the cross, with red painted blood dripping from the hole in His side. Meredith tried to look everywhere else but at that Jesus. She focused her eyes on Grandma Gruber’s purse instead.

But before that you had to kneel down and think about your sins, and Meredith felt like she was in the wrong place because she didn’t have any sins. She didn’t steal, she didn’t lie, she didn’t cheat, and she didn’t try to hurt people. What was she supposed to think about, in the silence? She thought about her parents and her grandparents, and she was pretty sure they didn’t have any sins either. Why were they all doing this?

The Methodist church never used the word “sin.” When they said the Lord’s Prayer, they used “trespasses,” which Meredith liked because you could hear the “s” sound come out of a hundred mouths at once, and there were plenty of “s” sounds in “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was her favorite part of the prayer.

Meredith had asked Dad what “trespass” meant, because she knew about “No Trespassing” signs from books but thought they probably weren’t talking about that.

“It’s sort of the same thing,” Dad had told her. “Think about it like going into someone’s space when you aren’t supposed to. Like when you’re playing, and you want a Barbie that Natalie’s playing with, and you get her to give it to you even though you know she doesn’t want to.”

Meredith had definitely done that. She hadn’t even realized it was bad. So she also liked this church because it helped her become a better person.

Now she stood next to Natalie and Jackie and Alex, wearing red velvet to match her sisters and shaking hands with the grownups in front of them and behind them. Some of them said “Peace be with you!” and some of them said “Merry Christmas,” and one of them asked if they were excited for Santa, and Jackie said “Yes!” so loudly that everyone laughed, which Meredith thought was a little unfair. Jackie didn’t know yet about Santa, and it was mean of them to laugh at how excited she was.

Meredith had figured out Santa when she checked out Little Town on the Prairie from the library. She asked Alex if she knew, and Alex talked about footprints in the snow and half-eaten carrots next to the stockings, and Meredith said that at her house, Santa didn’t leave any footprints or carrots. They put it together like the Boxcar Children solving a mystery, and then Meredith decided not to tell Natalie or Jackie. Laura Ingalls hadn’t told Grace, after all.

After everyone shook hands and sat down, it was time for Special Music. Meredith and her sisters walked to the piano in their matching dresses, Natalie carrying the music book under her arm with a paper clip in the right spot. The two of them made sure the book wouldn’t tip forward, and then they carefully lined up their hands on either side of Middle C, while Jackie took her place next to Natalie and stood very still like Mom had taught her.

Meredith counted, trying to do it so no one else could hear. “One, two, three, four—”

“JOY to the WORLD, the Lord is come!” Jackie sang out as Natalie and Meredith shared the melody between their fingers. Meredith also had a few chords to play with her left hand, and she concentrated on what Mom had told her: be the accompaniment, not the solo. She kept her fingers curved and her wrists loose. It all made a difference, even though it was hard for Meredith to hear what the difference was.

After they finished, the congregation clapped, which embarrassed Meredith because she knew you weren’t supposed to clap at church. She didn’t know whether they should bow, but they hadn’t practiced bowing, so she didn’t. The three Gruber sisters stayed very still, like Mom had taught them, until the applause stopped.

Then Jackie and Natalie went back to their seats and Alex sat down on the bench next to Meredith. They moved the piano book pages forward to the next paper clip, and played “What Child Is This?” They had picked this Christmas carol because it sounded like castles and princesses. Dad had explained that it was also a folk song from England, and pulled out a record called “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” which Meredith wished he would play again, as soon as it was over. She wanted to write a story about a girl who listened to that record and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was in a magical forest. The instruments made sounds like trees and rain on leaves and waterfalls.

The other reason Meredith liked “What Child Is This” was because it was both happy and sad, so it really felt like Christmas. It was easy to think of all her trespasses tonight, and all of the ways she had been trespassed against. Even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she still wanted to be good. She wanted to get everything right.

Then it was time for the candles. There had been candles in wicker baskets when they walked into church, and now everyone took their candles and one of the ushers turned off all the lights and the pastor lit her candle from the big Peace Candle in the center of the room. Then she walked to the first row, and the candlelight began spreading throughout the sanctuary.

Everyone sang “Silent Night” with no piano or organ, just voices. It was all voices and the steadily growing light, and Meredith half singing as they began a second verse and she realized she didn’t know any of the words. It felt like forgiveness, like it was okay that Meredith had read an extra chapter of her library book instead of cleaning up the playroom and Mom had come up the stairs and said “Meredith! What did I ask you to do?” or like it was okay that she had sat on Santa’s lap and pretended he was real. It was okay that they had called Grandma and Grandpa Gruber that afternoon, and Meredith had nothing to say except she was fine and school was fine, and she felt like she should have said more because it was a special day and she wanted them to know she loved them. It was okay that the congregation had clapped at their music, even though it had felt so embarrassing to sit quietly while it was going on.

Christ was born. Meredith looked at Alex in the candlelight, and Alex made a face, and Meredith tried not to laugh—and then she made a face back and Alex did laugh, but covered it up with her hand. Meredith looked the other way and saw Natalie leaning into Mom’s side, and Mom’s hand reached around to hug Natalie’s red velvet shoulder. Dad was helping Jackie hold her candle, as Jackie kept singing the one verse of “Silent Night” that she knew, over and over. When all the verses were finished, the ushers turned on the lights and the pastor called out “Merry Christmas!” and it was.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.

Online classes, the Freelance Writers Den, and the BOOP book sale

This post was originally sent to my TinyLetter subscribers.

Three quick news updates for y’all! ONE TWO THREE!

1. I’m teaching another round of my online course How to Get Started as a Freelancer, through Hugo House/WetInk. Early Bird pricing runs through December 10, and the class itself runs from January 12 through February 9. You get one lesson per week, and each lesson and its associated assignments should take roughly two hours to complete. Plus, you get to hang out with me and the other students online! It’s super fun and you should totally take this class if you’re thinking about becoming a freelancer.

2. I always recommend Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den to early-career freelancers — it’s a $25-per-month members-only freelance community that includes a very active forum, plenty of early-career resources, and an exclusive job board — and Den membership opens THIS FRIDAY. Use this link (yes, it’s an affiliate link, #fulldisclosure) to learn more about the Den and get notified when membership opens. After this membership period closes, the next one won’t open until Summer 2019, so if you’re thinking about it… DO IT.

3. The Kindle editions of The Biographies of Ordinary People are on sale through the end of the year. Get ’em both for $5.98, or pick one volume for $2.99.

Also, since I’ve just shown you three ways of… um… giving me money, I want to give you something in return. Please enjoy the YouTube version of The OneUps’ Super Mario Sleigh Ride, which is my absolute favorite holiday music track ever recorded. ❤️

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Read The Billfold’s First Book, Frugal and the Beast and Other Financial Fairy Tales

The Billfold’s first book, Frugal and the Beast and Other Financial Fairy Tales, is OFFICIALLY RELEASED! 🎉🎉🎉

Here’s what people are saying about Frugal and the Beast:

“The Billfold turns personal finance advice on its head, so it’s no wonder it would do such clever things with fairy tales. These stories reveal so much about who we are and how we live today.” — Mike Dang, co-founder of The Billfold and editor-in-chief of Longreads

“I never knew I need Rumpelstiltskin to involve Bitcoin or a parable about instant pots, but I’m so much happier now that I’ve read both. These stories will both delight and get you thinking about money.” — Lillian Karabaic, author of Get Your Money Together and host of Oh My Dollar!

The Kindle edition is $5.99 and the paperback edition is $10.99, but The Billfold earns roughly the same royalty either way so choose whichever one you prefer. Frugal and the Beast is also available for Kindle Unlimited, if that’s your thing! There are so many good ways to read this book, including reading the six fairy tales published for free on The Billfold (if you just want the free ones; if you want the full collection, you’ll need the whole book).

I am so excited to get Frugal and the Beast out to readers, and I hope you enjoy it. ❤️