IF YOU LOOK INTO THE LIVES of artists and writers—past and present, famous and unknown—you often discover stretches of time when the artist barely got by (hence the term starving artist). For some, starving artist is a proud banner, and for others (parents of artists, say) it’s a term of derision. Both attitudes—pride and dismay—reflect the truth that a life in the arts, though among the most delightful and profound of pursuits, rarely pays off in dollars.

In February, my composer friend and frequent collaborator, Carol Barnett, and I will be scraping together the airfare to get to the Carnegie Hall performance of our bluegrass mass, The World Beloved. To make ends meet, we’ll stay in a spartan convent. Thirty-some years into our careers, with scads of performances to our credits, you’d think we could each afford a decent hotel room. Not so—not in New York City—but it’s no big deal. Most people—or at least the 99 percent—have to scramble for bargains and patch things together.

Illustration of a woman juggling everyday objects.To create a body of artistic work demands many uncompensated hours, supported by small advances and commissions, plus odd jobs—sometimes very odd. A highly regarded singer/actress I know has a business card with a startling title—“I Can Do That!”—beneath which she lists a scattering of occupations: caterer, gardener, babysitter, carpenter, housekeeper, bouncer, and crossing guard. The card delighted me, given my own job history. I’ve been a writer in residence and a distinguished this and that, but I’ve also delivered newspapers, picked apples, baled hay, staffed a home for disabled adults, directed documentaries, trained ad execs to meditate, and ghostwritten books.

Scrambling for odd jobs has a hidden benefit that many new grads may discover in today’s job market, and that Baby Boomers, even those with advanced degrees and long resumes, may be rediscovering. The hidden benefit is this: If you know how to do many different things, your risk of starvation goes way down. Your eggs, as they say, aren’t all in one basket.

Many of my odd jobs have continued my education, opening my mind to how things operate and the strange stuff that goes on in the office towers, school buildings, and farmyards around me. Such as the frosty morning I viewed, from my ladder on an orchard ridge, a fox sauntering through the tall grass between the trees, and learned from the foreman’s sharp warning that a fox that wanders toward human contact is likely rabid. Or the afternoon I went to an office tower’s 20th floor to take notes from the CEO and discovered that his entire staff was covering up his inability to use email and his unwillingness to learn. (And I’d been worried he might be put off by my old-fashioned habit of taking notes by hand.)

I’ve landed many gigs by pretending I knew more than I really did about any given line of work. Because I’m a quick study, it has often paid off—but not always. I’ll never forget the uncomprehending stares from the auto parts chain staff members when I showed up to write them a video script. The NASCAR references went over my head—what the heck is a tri-oval track and what’s an aero-push?—and since I couldn’t Google during the meeting, I lost the job and the chance to prove that “I Can Do That!”—which, in the event, I probably couldn’t. But most of the time, my can-do strategy has worked just fine. Operating this way, I’ve saved time for my own creative work, and have completed at least as many written works of my own as I have works-for-hire.

I don’t mean to suggest that the freelance life is a lark. Much of my paid work has been tedious, and I’ve suffered times of financial uncertainty when tempers frayed and worry became corrosive. But I don’t really know how else it might have gone.

What is work, after all? Our tribal ancestors wouldn’t have questioned the need to hunt and gather, just as other creatures do. For me, and for many others, odd jobs pay the rent and put food on the table, and “I Can Do That” becomes the overarching principle for the life of a working artist.

Marisha Chamberlain ’73 is a poet, playwright, and screenwriter living in Hastings, Minnesota

October 19 2012

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