Five Tips for Creative Independence: Don’t sell your soul to the company store

by Janet Grace Riehl

Creative people in every discipline must find a way to balance the need for money and the need for time. “Don’t quit your day job,” is a rallying cry that doesn’t rally. Let’s try this slogan on for size:

Sell your services to the company store, but not your soul.

The company store sold goods at high prices and was only too happy to extend credit to mire workers more deeply in debt. In the 1960’s Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded a country ballad, Sixteen Tons.

You haul sixteen tons and what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter don’t you call me for I can’t go,

 I owe my soul to the company store.

 A friend just started a new job. She works as a professional writer to support her creative writing. Her job haunts her—waking and sleeping. This preoccupation about her occupation squeezes out all other thoughts. Her personal projects are indefinitely on hold. She thinks, “If only I can get enough money ahead to become creatively independent.” She’s started to sell her soul to the company store.

But, they didn’t contract for her soul—only her professional services.

 How can my friend break this all or nothing cycle which sounds so familiar?

 1) Job pairings. Is this a good job to support your creative work? Does it take so much out of you that you collapse in from of the TV when you get home rather than going into your study or studio? Would a more physical job give you time to tap into your creative juice?

2) Money, honey. Make a balance sheet. How much money do you need? How much time do you need? Make room for your heart projects.

3) Set boundaries. What does your job owe you? What do you owe your job? Give your best, but send the heroine home.

4) Set standards. Determine what’s good enough, but not over the top. Don’t cheat the company, but don’t cheat yourself either.

 5) Meaning mantra. You matter. Your work matters. Save some of that juice for yourself, Honey, and you can do. Stock and store that juice until you’re ready.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” Become a Riehlife villager.

14 responses to “Five Tips for Creative Independence: Don’t sell your soul to the company store

  1. Great post, and an issue very near and dear to my heart. Thank you!

  2. Dear Selena,

    Thanks for commenting on the Creative Catalyst post for Telling Her Stories.

    Would you say more about how you’ve dealt with this issue in your work?

    Janet Riehl

  3. Hi Janet-
    1) Job pairings. I’ve always written as a creative outlet and sanity savior. As a younger woman with young children, I needed to work to support us, but I refused to write for a living to avoid ‘selling my soul’ in that venue. Writing is precious. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I didn’t want the corporate job that sucked the creativity right out of me. so…

    2) Money, honey. my priorities changed as I realized that money wasn’t any sort of spiritual and emotional fulfillment. I actually did the balance sheet and rearranged my life to fit those needs that I had denied myself.

    3) Set boundaries. So now I work in a greenhouse, my second passion, and I’ve found depths of understanding about myself and the world by spending more of my attention on what fills me. I owe my job respect, loyalty, and commitment to the contract we agreed upon. My job owes me the same. Thus we are both fulfilled, and I can leave work at work, knowing I’ve done my best, and my writing time is completely my own.

    4) Set standards. My standards had been set long ago, but it is in the last several years that I began to refuse compromise with them. I hope wisdom and experience has something to do with that.

    5) Meaning mantra. I do matter. My writing life matters. A lot. It gives me something that money will never buy.


  4. Selena,
    Wow. Thanks for expanding and anchoring the thoughts in this post by sharing your life experience. Your comments will help many readers.

    Thanks for your example in doing the work and following your heart!

    Janet Riehl

  5. A professional writing friend who has ghosted and written many books just told me this story. Maybe it falls under the category of “Nice Work if you can get it!” –Janet
    About selling your soul. A friend of mine, a really good novelist, used to say, “Well, at least not unless you get a good price for it.”

    He became a top Hollywood writer, bought a Porsche, left his wife, dated Anne Lamont, and just disappeared one day. So I guess his advice wasn’t all that great–or maybe it was since we don’t know “the rest of the story.”

  6. Janet,

    Four and five resonated for me, simply from the aspect of making my writing my priority. Maybe we need to bring Elvis in here, Taking Care of Business! As a woman I tend to over estimate the standard for things that need to be done and do more than “good enough.” This can be a flaw. Sometimes good enough is just that. And by giving myself permission to do some things at the “good enough” level I create space and time for the work that provides the most meaning for me and feeds my heart and soul. Nice post, concise! It also applies to more than just work for money… um maybe housekeeping? :>)

  7. Yes. Set standards. Affirm meaning. I think the “good enough” one is key for those of us who tend towards being overly responsible as a point of pride. As we start to let go of doing everything full-out, then time and energy opens up for what’s really important to us.

    Janet Riehl

  8. A probing question, Janet, as usual—

    Taking the initiative to support yourself and your art is a matter of priorities. What are you willing to do without? If there is something more important than your art, your dharma, then it may be time to reevaluate. In the end, the true artist always finds a way because she knows that ‘understanding’ is the goal.

    The trap that trips up many an artist is this: they isolate and segregate their art from the rest of their lives, or from other work they might do. To counter this seeming fragmentation, I realized that everything I do is my art; this insight allowed me to continue as an artist uninterrupted while living an integrated holistic life.

    When I paint, this is my art; when I write, this is my art; when I illustrate, this is my art; when I walk my dogs, this is my art; when I interact with people, this is my art. You get the picture. This isn’t a new perspective. Leonardo da Vinci’s art and science, for example, aren’t separate, but belong to the same lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

    Instead of fracturing my art into painful self-mutilating shards, I include my art in everything, which makes for a healthy approach to opportunities as they arise. When you are confident in your art, then doing other work for hire—art related or not—makes you no less the artist.

    For a painter, doing an illustration, making a poster (or even hanging posters as Gauguin had done to earn a few francs), designing a brochure, driving a cab, or waiting on tables, isn’t threatening or beneath him. When you do whatever it takes, which you must, good fortune magically appears as a doorway where none had existed before. It is still up to you to knock.

  9. Eden,
    Wow. Your comment is a complete post. I hope readers explore your work more to discover “An Artist Empowered” and the wisdom it contain. Yes, priorities. Inclusion. Acceptance. Work. “It’s still up to you to knock.”

    The feeling that our life is our art is one of grace as well as choice. When I suffer from “meaning malaise” it’s because I’ve forgotten that. It’s good to have friends to remind us.
    Janet Riehl

  10. Thanks for the book plug, Janet.

    Having spent some early years in the demanding corporate world with all its trappings, I empathize with those working nine to five who feel they have nothing left for their art in the evening.

    Still, if you have the courage to heed and befriend your intuition, and follow that driving inner need that only you can feel, a path to your art will open—eventually.

    Whether you step up, or not, dictates the course of your existence.

  11. Eden,

    Cool to have this online chat.

    I managed projects, did training and teaching, and wrote–mostly wrote anything moving. Mostly nonprofits. Once a consulting firm I owned in Albuquerque (very non profit!). And for a few years a corporate gig that my friends were amazed I could hold onto, being the maverick I am.

    I have a tendency to throw myself into whatever I’m doing. I would have been healthier for me and better for my job, even, if I’d saved more back for my life outside the office.


  12. Eden,
    Living your Art! Being an Artist, a Creator, does indeed develop from certain world view. I think many of us are comfortable indulging in that paradigm as children, but as we “grow up” we risk losing sight of what I like to call the magic of of the mundane.
    Thanks for your post and everyone else’s’ input as well!

  13. Jenny,
    “The magic of the mundane.” That’s exactly it! As children we see more freshly. As adults it requires more work.

    Janet Riehl

  14. This has been a wonderfully stimulating and inspiring discussion to follow. Thank you Janet for initiating it with your original, thoughtful ideas, and thank you also to everyone who responded. I don’t have anything to add except that I never chased the money, always only the satisfaction for knowing that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. Now the ground is shifting a bit again, so might be time to re-evaluate and set new goals……

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