Trifecta profile: Tobi Lowrance

As part of my mission to debunk some of the myths around creative success and discover what it really takes to manage a creative lifestyle, I’m going to be posting interviews with arty types to find out what makes their lives tick.

First up, allow me to introduce Tobi Lowrance – theatre maker, photographer and teacher from Chicago! She has some fantastic insights to share about the practicalities behind creative careers.

You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire – acting, singing, directing, photography, teaching, to name a few. How do you juggle all of these different pursuits? How much time does your work demand?

It’s true that I do a lot of different things, and I think you almost have to do a lot of different things to be financially successful as an artist. But it’s honestly not as overwhelming as it sounds. Things seem to ebb and flow – for a while I’ll find a ton of teaching jobs flooding in, and then perhaps those dry up but are replaced with a spike in photography jobs, and then maybe that fades but I find myself picking up a great directing gig or two.

I do have a couple of “anchors” in the year – projects I go back to repeatedly that I sort of plan my year around. For the last four years, I’ve spent my Decembers donning Victorian garb and singing with a professional Christmas caroling group. This past summer I spent ten weeks in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, directing plays and musicals at a performing arts camp for teens and tweens, and I plan to head back there for the next several summers.

Throughout the rest of the year, I go with that ebb and flow – both of the opportunities that arise, and of my own whims. If I do a lot of work in any one area for too long, I start to get burned out on it and have to do something different for a while. I think that plays a lot into what opportunities I notice as well as which ones appeal to me.

As far as how much time I spend, it can vary so much that it’s really hard to quantify. During the summer when I’m at the camp, I’m putting in 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week for 10 weeks (although it feels more like playing with awesome kids in the mountains than it does like work). When I’m singing in December, I may gig for a total of 40 hours for the entire month, and still make enough to pay the bills and even carry over into the new year.

Different types of jobs have a different time to income ratio. If I’m teaching a class or directing a show, I may be getting a decent hourly rate for my in-class time, but I’m also putting in 1-2 hours outside of class prepping for every hour in class. Private voice and piano lessons have a better payoff, as I’ve been teaching those for so long that I can more or less just show up and teach with very little need for prep. Photography gigs (particularly weddings) can be lucrative, but only come along infrequently. Same with on-camera acting work like commercials.

You mention in your theatre bio that you spent eight years in the sales department at UPS, and that you loved it. What happened to your creative endeavours during that time? And what happened to your budget when you decided to leave UPS behind? Have you had any other day jobs, or does your creative work support you?

I am one of those “middle-brain dominant” people, someone who thrives equally in both right- and left-brain activities, so working a corporate gig for a few years actually nourished a very important part of me.

I did let my creative side slide more than I would have liked during that time, though. I was pretty involved with a contemporary worship band at my church and did teach some weekend voice lessons, so my musical muscles were still getting at least a bit of a workout. But I literally went that entire eight years without doing anything related to acting (unless you count my sales work!), which I think is one of the reasons I sort of “snapped” on a trip to NYC and realized I had to get back to the performing arts.

My experience on that New York trip was so intense that I might have left UPS immediately, except that I was dealing with an ongoing back injury and wasn’t willing to walk away from health insurance until I knew that was addressed. It ended up taking another year to get everything fixed up, so during that time I aggressively paid down debts and banked up savings.

I left UPS in a really good financial situation, and was able to use that to not feel so pressured as I found my way in the performing arts world. It also enabled me to buy things I needed like new headshots, some refresher acting classes and voice lessons, and lots of camera equipment (something that started as a hobby but ended up becoming another means of income).

Since I left UPS in July of 2007, I’ve almost entirely supported myself with gigs either directly related to my creative thing, or at least utilizing my performance training (things like tour-guiding and public speaking). This past year was a little rough with the economy, and I think I worked five or six days of temp jobs in 2010, plus a three-week part-time thing helping with the US Census in May.

How do you maintain energy for your creative work? What do you do to look after yourself? Do you have balance in your life, or do you think it’s a myth?

I think one of the benefits I have as an artist is that I do have the business savvy and the whole left-brain thing going on, too. I have seen my self-employment as running my own small business – as opposed to a series of disjointed short gigs – since day one. I’m doing all the business-related stuff like marketing and business plans and accounting, and I find that balances my creative side and what I do there.

The hardest thing about being self employed is the temptation to always be working. The same goes for having a career that doesn’t feel like work. It’s really easy for me to put in a 14 or 15 hour day and not even notice that I’ve done so, because I’m enjoying what I’m doing. But enjoying it or not, that’s still not healthy and I try my best to check in with myself and make time for friends and for fun. There are times I’m good at this, and times I’m less good at it.  :-)

At the moment you’re working on a very special photography project – tell us about that!

A friend of mine from college, a dance teacher, introduced me to this amazing fledgling organization here in Chicago called Donna’s Good Things. The “Donna” of Donna’s Good Things was a precocious and exuberant little girl who took dance classes with my friend for a couple year – all the while struggling with a pretty aggressive cancer. She lost the fight with the disease at just four years old.

After her death, Donna’s parents started Donna’s Good Things as an official way to continue the spirit that Donna inspired in everyone she met. For example, when Donna was a resident of the oncology wing at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, her parents threw a New Year’s Eve party for the other patients and their families. Donna’s Good Things continues to host the party now as an annual event.

Donna’s Good Things, in its brief existence, has already provided scholarships to children whose families could not afford dance classes, and personal DVD players and iPads to children facing terminal illness. They also sponsored the renovation of the dressing room at a local arts center.

Although it’s gotten some exposure here in Chicago, Donna’s Good Things is still a young group. I was moved to do something to help, so I’ve decided to run a special fundraiser for the month of January. I’m selling prints and canvases of some of my photography work, and 50% of all the January profits will go directly to Donna’s Good Things. My initial goal was to raise $5000 for the group, and I’d love to still get there, although I will admit there’s still a long way to go!

Thanks Tobi, and good luck with the fundraiser!

If you’d like to buy some gorgeous art and help Tobi reach her fundraising goal for Donna’s Good Things, take a look at the photographic prints she has on offer until the end of January. Catch up with Tobi on Twitter if you’d like to know more!

Maybe I don’t have a novel in me

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three times. The first time, I wrote 13,000 words about a bunch of badass grannies who ran a subversive op shop. The second time I wrote a few thousand words about a spammer who sells penis pumps. Last year I wrote something in the order of 800 words about a woman running a safari camp in Botswana who would have eventually found love in a travelling English photographer, had I ever got there. One day I’d like to finish each of these manuscripts, but for now I think it’s obvious that my ability to pump out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days was never very strong and has only been in decline since I first started trying.

So I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. For one thing, I’ve got a bunch of other creative projects I’m working on over the next year, possibly too many, and I don’t want to get sidetracked onto something else. For another thing, I’m not totally sure I want to write a novel at all – I just really like the idea of producing a shitload of writing in a very small period of time. It’s not like I’m ever going to run a marathon, but this is my equivalent.

It seems I’m not the only one who feels that way. I’ve noticed a trend this month of people deciding to use NaNoWriMo to tackle a huge writing project other than a novel (or just a huge amount of writing, period). For example, Tiggy Johnson:

I’m going into it a little differently this year. Well, a lot differently I suppose. I’m going to be a rebel. Which means I don’t plan to write 50,000 words towards a new novel. Instead, I plan to write 50,000 words towards anything. Short stories, articles, poems and I’ll probably even count my blog posts, as I expect I’ll be that desperate. (I’d consider adding the to-do and shopping lists, but that seems a bit dramatic/ridiculous.)

This is an idea I had considered myself. At first I thought I might try to write 50,000 words worth of short stories, because one of my current goals is to write six new story drafts by August 31 next year. But the thought of it was doing my head in. I thought perhaps I’d try and pool all of my writing activities – blogging, pitching, articles, memoirish crap, and short stories – and try to reach 50,000 words of anything. I write every day at 750 Words so why not just use that to write 1667 words a day? But 750 Words is sort of my personal journal, and my personal journal is for pouring out all my complaints about life and the world. If fact, my paper journal is known in my household as my ‘whingeing book’. I knew what would happen if I took on this challenge:

And Tiggy responded:

And so it is decided! I will attempt to write 50,000 words in November, and the vast majority will most likely be words of complaint, private sob stories, angry diatribes and curses against humanity. If I can work in a magazine pitch or a short piece of fiction then all the better, but if not, so be it!

It has a name – it’s not NaNoWriMo, because there is no novel involved. Instead, I am calling it FifThouWoO’Whi (pronounced ‘fifth thou woo why’) – short for Fifty Thousand Words O’ Whingeing!

Who’s with me? I’m thinking about making stickers.

PS If you want to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo site, I’m CBomb.

I make stuff. Do you make stuff?

I don’t know about you, but if I go for too long without making something I get to feeling like I just might vomit up my own pelvis.

I call it The Sickness. It starts off quietly. A little niggling feeling that a bit of writing or drawing might be a good idea. Maybe I have a moment of brilliant inspiration, but instead of doing something with it I ignore it, choosing instead to spend another two hours playing Sushi Cat or Mind the Blox. (Really, I can do that for two hours. Longer if I don’t need a bathroom break.)

Too many instances of ignoring my creative instincts, and pretty soon the system gets clogged. I get Depressed. I start Should-ing all over myself. I let the rest of my life slide and I sit around like a lump, getting a sore back and watching the dirty dishes pile to the ceiling. And if this goes on for too long, eventually it gets so bad it turns into that pelvis-vomitty feeling.

When things get this dire, it’s too late for Real Creative Work. I’m not going to pen the Great Australian Novel or get started on my first painting in five years when I’m in that state. So, I bake a cake. Or I brain-splatter my thoughts all over the pages of my journal. Usually this clears enough space in my mind cavity that I can then tackle the dishes. And afterwards, if I’m clever about it, I’ll get started on Making Something.

Something I think that the urge to create is an incurable mental illness. We Makers of Stuff have no choice but to heed the urge, because the consequences are grim. I’m here to help you get your life sorted out enough to let you get on with the making. Because no one should have to vomit up their own pelvis.