Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

Is, “Don’t quit your day job!” fair advice when it comes to writing and illustrating for children’s literature? Someone even posted it on social media today regarding the downward slide of advances and royalties in recent years (though I’ve been paid well over the years save for a couple of packagers). The point of the advice is that you’ll probably never financially succeed as an artist so you better keep that dependable income coming in. All I know is that the advice didn’t work for me, but everyone’s circumstances are unique.

I left the Maryland Institute College of Art after a year and two weeks (which is another story). My new plan, at age 19, was to pursue a career in art on my own, since MICA wasn’t showing me how to do that. With 0 experience and not much of a portfolio, I discovered that my quest wasn’t easy. I got a job working as a grunt for a veterinary hospital. After saving up a bit, I moved to California. I got another job as a vet assistant and kept a close eye on the job classifieds for something remotely closer to my goal. I did publish my first cartoon while working there, for no pay. It was for an article the vet wrote about doggie digestion. I wish I still had a copy! Edit: I found it! Obviously, some influence here from MAD Magazine.

I eventually switched from the vet job, which turned out to be a house slave for the vet’s wife and her 30+ Norwegian elkhounds that lived in kennels all over their backyard, to Activities Director at a nursing home. I adored the people and hated most everything else. But I did design and write a monthly newsletter for them, my first production art experience.

I worked there a year when at long last, a job came up for a production artist at a local newspaper. I applied with nothing other than a meager portfolio of cartoons, the nursing home newsletters, and average typing skills. I probably got the job because I had a nice butt, because I seriously knew nothing about what went on in newspaper production. One of the workers showed me the various basics of the job and the bosses even allowed me to draw cartoons for them while on the clock. I learned a ton of skills there. Meanwhile, that nice worker and I fell for each other. Later he was bound for Oregon to go back to school, and I was bound to join him.

Once we landed in Oregon, I found a production artist job at a small printing company. I made a deal that I’d work when there was work (which they generated), but otherwise I wanted time to pursue my other art interests. I designed logos, book covers, and other advertising for their clients and was paid for all of that separately as a contractor. On my own I designed and published greeting cards and Christmas tags, marketing them around the country. A friend saw my work and suggested I try illustrating children’s books, so I pursued that idea as well.

One day, I was approached with an offer to be the sole production artist for a new advertising agency with guaranteed hours of employment in a fun field I’d only dabbled in, plus, I would have the same freedom I had at the print shop for my own pursuits. I didn’t give it much thought, and didn’t ask many questions; I said yes. The owners leased Compugraphic equipment and set up a small production room in the basement of their house. The idea was that the woman would bring in clients, she and I would design whatever the clients needed, and I’d do the production work and take care of printing needs. I’d make a decent wage and have time to continue with my quest to be a free-lance illustrator.

As it turned out, there were almost no clients coming in, and I just worked on a few jobs for the family company. Then I was told that it was my sole responsibility to generate enough income to pay for the leased equipment and my salary when no ad work was coming in. I solicited a few jobs from customers I had worked with at the printing company and also hustled around town (off the clock) and found various typesetting jobs. While I kept the bills paid, I wasn’t working enough hours to survive. Alone in the basement, I felt guilty, miserable, and pissed. How did I wind up responsible for all of this? Couldn’t I do this on my own?

And that was my last day job. I would strike out on my own, vowing to do so with the same energy and devotion I had given all of my employers over the years. Those efforts, along with a big dose of luck and good timing, launched me into the children’s book illustration field and later, writing for children.

I don’t know if you should quit your day job. There were certainly lean times when I started checking the classified ads again, but after over 35 years in the business, I made enough money to sustain us while doing something I (mostly) loved. But what I learned is this: if your illustrating/writing abilities are valuable enough for someone else to profit from them, then maybe honor yourself enough to try being your own boss and choosing who gets to make money off of your talents. Maybe take a few months off and give it a go. Just be sure you invest everything you gave to those day jobs, and then some.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Robin Koontz says:

    Thanks! And I also look forward to seeing that fishy quilt book. It’s very slow-going.

  2. Susan says:

    I enjoyed your origin story! I hope it can inspire other young artists- at this stage in my art journey I am happy to give it away, but can’t recommend that as a career strategy. Looking forward to seeing that fishy quilt book some day somewhere.

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