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Pursuing the Creative Life: An interview with Joel Eisenberg

Filmmaker, entrepreneur, and author Joel Eisenberg has survived as a wage slave to become a professional writer. He shares his experiences, along with a long list of contributors, in the first volume of Aunt Bessie’s How to Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life.

Filmmaker, entrepreneur, and author Joel Eisenberg has survived as a wage slave to become a professional writer. From sorting laundry to President of Eisenberg Media Group and a job in specialty publishing with Topos Books, Joel shares his experiences, along with a long list of contributors, in the first volume of Aunt Bessie’s How to Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life.

Jeff Faehnle: What was the first step in writing this immensely insightful book?

Joel Eisenberg: Firstly, thanks for the compliment. The answer to
your question is that I had become … what Clive Barker refers to as a professional ‘wage slave.’ I had always wanted to earn a living as a writer, yet I worked one unrelated day job after another. I was an assistant to a pro wrestler turned bounty hunter. I was a produce manager for a supermarket. I was a special education teacher on and off for ten years. I’d come home after a stressful day, and write. I’ve written numerous screenplays, stories, etc. but I was a terrible marketer. Only later on did I realize that a creative individual needs also to be learned in business.

At that point, I actually started getting some work. I had done some small television projects, and wrote several low-budget films that hit the video stores both here and overseas. But I wasn’t satisfied. I strived to get to that next level, but all that happened was between projects I had to go back to a day job.

I live in Southern California, from New York originally, and have many friends who are frustrated with their creative careers. I asked them what they perceived as their greatest obstacle, and they all said the same thing, a variant of: “How do I survive my day job while pursuing the creative life?”

So one night I sat by my computer, and spontaneously wrote a list of some of my favorite actors, writers, musicians, etc. I then went online to see who had official websites. Surprisingly, many of them did. I emailed them, requesting career advice to compile for a book. I expected maybe a 2% response rate at best. I was shocked, as nearly 90% replied and participated. Hence the book, which has since become the first in a series of ten, collectively representing what I hope to be the ultimate career guide for creative artists.

As far as “Aunt Bessie” goes, if I called the book “Joel Eisenberg’s How to Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life,” it wouldn’t have the same joie de vivre. So, somewhere in my deepest, darkest recesses lurks an edgy cross between Ann Landers and Eminem, who frames the book’s individual chapters.

JF: Of everyone you contacted for this book, who surprised you the most with his/her decision to get involved? Who disappointed you the most by not signing on for the project?

JE: Who surprised me the most? Robert Wise, the legendary director (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). My honest thought at the time was that he of all people had nothing to gain by contributing. Like so many others, though, he proved to be an invaluable mentor. This was also his last print interview before his death earlier this year. What an incredible legacy that man has left behind.

The second question, ‘Who disappointed me the most for not signing on?’ Not to burn any bridges, but I have to say … maybe Whoopi Goldberg. She didn’t refuse (and I hope she’s reading this, as we’re both from projects in Brooklyn!) but I just couldn’t seem to get to her.

JF: Whose piece/interview did you enjoy reading and including in Aunt Bessie the most?

JE: I honestly have to say Clive Barker. He surprised me. When I asked him to participate, he said he’d do it with one proviso: that I understood going in that he had never held a day job, as he refused to be a ‘wage slave.’ Just a unique perspective. His story, then, is one of being on the equivalent of welfare in England, and putting down ‘poet’ as his profession – getting paid by the system while knowing full well no one would hire him as a poet. In the meantime, he honed his craft.

What I most respect about Clive is his steadfast ability not to be pigeonholed to any specific art, and his ability to stay true to himself. From books of extreme horror, to children’s books, to a daring volume of photography combining demonic imagery with nude male photography … he may not be for every taste but again, he’s true to himself, and professionally he thrives. Not bad for someone formerly on the dole.

JF: What was the worst day job you had to survive and how did you do it?

JE: I was a launderer at a mental hospital in Middletown , New York , sorting dirty linens for 4-hour shifts. How did I do it? Looking back, my first response would be beats the hell out of me .

If I think about it though, I guess it was just knowing that this was a temporary deal.

JF: What has been the most important thing you learned as a writer while working on this book?

JE: That Talent+Passion+Chronic Follow Through sprinkled with a degree of Luck=Success. May sound simplistic, but you have to learn strategies such as how to make your own luck. It also doesn’t hurt to be a maverick.

JF: How and when did you start writing?

JE: I was the stereotypical, introspective child who escaped into a world of film from an early age. I always wanted to be in that world, as a creator. I was also asthmatic, so my athletic options were limited.

JF: When does the world get to meet Aunt Bessie in person?

JE: They already have. I do speaking engagements and book signings around the country. My workshop, “You’re Too Smart to Go Down Stupid: Maverick Career Strategies for Creative Artists,” is taught at writer’s groups and arts organizations throughout the U.S. Please contact me through my website, for further information.

JF: At the end of each section of Aunt Bessie , there are “Did you know” pages listing the odd day jobs of many celebrities. Whose day job most shocked you?

JE: That the great Al Pacino was a building superintendent! Ah, from such humble beginnings …

JF: You did not just interview A List celebrities and artists, but also some seemingly everyday people, for example a prostitute and also a hypnotist. Why was it important for you to include these types of people also?

JE: Great question. I needed to represent artists who are struggling now, to lend the book a sense of immediacy. In other words, so many struggling creative artists will be reading these stories, looking for a shot of motivation. It’s always thrilling to read how someone who is successful today got there. But we also sometimes need to step back and discover strategies on how to cope NOW. That is why I included your ‘everyday people.’

JF: What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists trying to make it while struggling with a day job?

JE: If you truly believe your talent has merit, keep pushing. I’m the perfect example of a life changed partially due to the encouragement of those who believed, and discouragement of those who did not. Both made me push that much harder because I believed in myself.

Jeff Faehnle is assistant editor of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop newsletter.

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