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The Road Less Travelled: Three artists reimagine success and career

Linh S. Nguyễn for Culture Days

Jun 14, 2021

RE:IMAGINE Series Storytelling Writing & Literature

When I decided at eleven years old that I would be a writer, I drew inspiration from the names of authors lining my library shelves—but I had no insight into the paths that had led to their success. Rare stories of rags to riches told me nothing of skills, accessible programs, or tangible steps I could take to embark on my desired vocation.

Linh S. Nguyễn. Photo credit: Hana Nikčević.
Linh S. Nguyễn. Photo credit: Hana Nikčević.

The beauty of art lies in that flexibility—the possibility of vastly different journeys intersecting at common destinations. However, this ambiguity stands at odds with the rigid formula of education and work that we are taught as kids. Without models in my own life, an arts career became a pipe dream. I struggled throughout university to see myself in second-choice jobs that could never replace my passion for writing.

Amidst these doubts, I met Justine Abigail Yu at a career fair, where I was seeking guidance as a third-year student. It was 2016, back when she was the Director of Communications and Marketing at Operation Groundswell. At the time, Christie Wong was working as a coordinator at a marketing agency. It would be years before we crossed paths and longer still before all three of us left our day jobs to each pursue our creative dreams.

Behind the Scenes

It’s easy to romanticize quitting your job on a whim and pursuing art. The reality is steeped in challenges of opportunity, financial constraints, and stress-filled planning. To even consider the option of working independently is a privilege—one that Justine, Christie, and I all had with the support of our families and friends, in the form of housing, loans, or the mere knowledge that regardless, we would not starve. Our relationships provided stability as we found our footing.

I left work in the midst of the pandemic. I had dreamed of writing full-time for years but only left when my job drained me past the point of sustainability. The move was calculated over months. Reasons for leaving tallied. When I listened to Justine and Christie’s stories, it struck me how much it took for all of us to disentangle from the narrative of a stable career and take a leap of faith.

In Christie’s case, years of negative work experiences culminated in a heavy financial loss, pushing her to address underlying questions around her relationship with work and money. Justine’s catalyst was Living Hyphen taking off, the magazine and community she had founded. Despite the success, she called her decision to quit “terrifying” and recalled paralyzing financial stress in the days after.

Photo credit: Dual Citizens Series.
Photo credit: Dual Citizens Series.

“I panicked,” Justine said. “I had a plan, and I knew I could afford to live this way for a certain amount of time, but anxiety took over. I actually ended up taking on so many [freelance] clients in 2019 and did not give myself the space and time to work on Living Hyphen as I’d envisioned.”

I too spent feverish hours on Excel, bank account open, and calculator in hand, counting grocery money by the cent. I had savings from living at home through university, but the loss of steady income consumed me. I scraped together contracts and went on E.I. shortly after.

Christie Wong. Photo courtesy of the author.
Christie Wong. Photo courtesy of the author.

The common thread that kept us afloat was exercising every entrepreneurial muscle: relying on connections and cobbling together interests and trades. All three of us lead writing and arts workshops independently and with partner organizations. Justine spearheads the Living Hyphen community, from print production to speaking events. Her digital marketing contracts are her main source of income. I write click bait articles to pay the bills so I can write the words I love. Christie runs customized social media and branding for her clients and also does consulting, coaching for emerging writers, poetry courses, illustrations, print sales, chocolate-making, natural dyeing, and paint. Creativity infuses the lives we’ve chosen but not without hardship.

“There is a misconception that when you take this leap to pursue your own endeavours, things will just fall into place; it won’t feel like work,” said Justine, “but it’s still tiring. I work a lot.”

Linh S. Nguyễn. Photo credit: Hana Nikčević.
Linh S. Nguyễn. Photo credit: Hana Nikčević.

“It wasn’t like suddenly I could do it,” Christie shared, reflecting on her lifestyle shift. “I spent years job searching, understanding how to read job descriptions, how to reach out to people, to get them to like you. Years of practice negotiating… This was the moment I thought, ‘screw it, I can do this’, but before, if I’d lived without hard-hitting questions of how I saw the world, I probably would’ve continued my pattern of applying to jobs, getting the stability, and moving on.”

Christie Wong. Photo credit: Lucy Lu.
Christie Wong. Photo credit: Lucy Lu.

Living Honestly

I realized this year how so-called stupid decisions, like quitting a full-time permanent job, can be painted as brave in retrospect. Things did not fall into place right away, but within months, I had signed with a literary agent and sold my debut novel. I was hosting events often, collaborating with organizations I admired, and revelling in the many creative projects I could suddenly pursue.

For Justine, Living Hyphen grew in scope and garnered international recognition. The magazine expanded into a wider community, involving writing workshops and a new podcast—though the pandemic brought uncertainty as lost contracts plagued her. Thanks to CERB, Justine was able to stay afloat. Only several years after leaving her job did she get to a place she called success.

Justine Abigail Yu of Living Hyphen. Photo courtesy of the author.
Justine Abigail Yu of Living Hyphen. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Success is being able to do what I love in a professional capacity while also having time to dedicate to the people that I love,” she said. “If I’m able to juggle those things in a balanced, healthy way, that’s success. I feel I reached that this year.”

Meanwhile, Christie’s definition of success sums up the best parts of taking a road less travelled: “freedom to choose, freedom to decide what happens in your own life.” We dictate our schedules, accept work that aligns with our values, and take breaks as needed. Knowing this, none of us could go back to an office full-time.

Our careers hold no guarantees, but I have come to see such beauty in this frightening uncertainty. I have come to love the nuance found in-between risk and responsibility, between glamour and grittiness—and lean in.

This article is part of a special blog series featuring writers and creatives from across Canada (and beyond!) with stories that both highlight and celebrate Culture Days’ 2021 theme, RE:IMAGINE. Explore more stories below.

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