A long time ago I had high artistic ideals. I wanted my work to change the world, to bring awareness to important issues, and to be “great.” That lasted until I was out of college. That’s when I realized that I had to eat, pay rent, and fill up my gas tank. High ideals went out the window in favor of any job that paid. And since I graduated in the middle of the 1990’s recession, the bar wasn’t all that high. I took a fair amount of advertising and marketing work, shilling useless products to people who probably didn’t need them. But I got the bills paid, even if my work wasn’t world-changing in any way.
A few years out of college, I met a former friend who was still clinging to his ideals. You can guess the state he was in. He didn’t have a job and was living with his parents. He had no social life or real work. But, dammit, his ideals were still pure. He was still cranking away on his “literary masterpiece.” In his parents’ basement. While I was far from rich, I’d managed to cobble enough money together to have my own place, a car, and a few extras. I felt superior to him in just about every way.
“You sold out,” he accused me.
“I had no choice. Work of high artistic merit doesn’t pay the bills.”
“That stuff isn’t important. Your work should change the world. Be important. Not just be some drivel on the side of a cereal box.”
“Yes, but I also need money to live. These jobs pay my bills.”
“Sellout,” he said, shaking his head.
I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. While I don’t live for money and I don’t chase the Joneses, I’m well aware that everyone needs money to exist in this world. Earning money through legitimate work isn’t a terrible thing to do. In fact, it’s pretty darn noble. I’m sure if you’d asked my friend’s parents they would have preferred having a sellout for a son over a mooch.
There is nothing wrong with taking jobs to pay your bills. You may not be crafting life altering prose when you write that ad for weed killer, but you are earning money with your skills. You only become a “sellout” if you let that kind of work permanently derail your higher dreams. If you’re writing marketing brochures by day and working on your novel or Pulitzer winning article by night you haven’t sold out, you’ve just made a realistic decision to keep your head above water and feed yourself/your family.
You might even find that “selling out” can be a good thing. Work that gives you a credit can be a pathway to better things. You never know who will see your work and ask you to work for them. One job may lead to another until you are suddenly being paid to produce work of high artistic merit. (Incidentally, some of the greatest artists in history became famous after they sold out.) The money you earn from selling out can also be used to buy more education or better supplies which may speed you on to that ideal job. Getting yourself out there and earning money is rarely a bad thing.
The exception is that you should never take work which goes against your moral principles. Sometimes you have no choice but to work against your beliefs, as when your jerk of a boss demands that you work on a campaign for fur or be fired, even though you’re vehemently opposed to the fur trade. You may have to do it because you don’t have enough money saved to tell the jerk to shove it. (But you’ll quickly learn to save money and find a better job so that you’re not in that position again.) If you have a choice, though, don’t sell your soul. Try to find jobs that align with your beliefs, if not your definition of great writing.
And try not to take work that will impact you negatively later. Writing that script for a hard core porn movie may net you a boatload of money, but chances are someone down the road is going to frown on that one. Just try to look forward and think about how this job will be seen later when you’re applying for another job. Most employers won’t care that you took “sellout” work like advertising, low budget movies, brochures, and infomercial scripts, but they may not look so favorably upon things written for certain industries or fringe causes. (In other words, if you have to write the porn script to pay for groceries, for heaven’s sake, use a pen name.)
Artistic snobs like to call those of us who get paid for less-than-ideal jobs sellouts. But there’s nothing wrong with selling out. I’d rather be a sellout with a place to live, food to eat, and a cared-for family than a parasite living off of my parents or society. High ideals and great writing have their places and are certainly worth striving for. The reality check is that you have to pay your bills. Fortunately, we live in a world that requires a lot of words to explain (ads, manuals, web sites, easy to read books, brochures, etc.) and offers a lot of jobs for those who are willing to do the work. I’d rather work than not. I still work on my idealistic projects, but I admit that I took the money and ran a long time ago. I’m a sellout, but a sellout with a good life.