When I was twelve, my vision of my future was that I would be sitting at my typewriter (before the days of PCs and Macs) in my kitchen or dining room, free to write as the mood struck me, using a pile of money for a footrest. And every word I wrote would be welcomed with glowing praise and great fanfare from my massive fan base.
Okay, so this dream sorta came true…in a distorted, Tim Burton kind of a way.
I do write for a living, and I do it from my dining room, or where-ever I happen to be. (Yes, I love both my laptops!). I make a living from writing, but instead of a pile of money, I rest my feet on a pile of bills. I often work nights and weekends and through vacations to make deadlines. And there are generally no trumpets heralding the arrival of any new paragraph I happen to put forth.
So here I am, decades later, living the dream, quite a bit scaled down. Yet I’m still able to appreciate it. That vision I had of my life as a free-spirited artist is largely intact, despite the intrusion of things like kids, mortgage payments, and the demands of a world that works mostly weekdays. I would hardly put myself among the ranks of major artists, but most artists out there are a lot like me. They have some degree of talent and a need/desire to use it. They also take care of children and parents, do grocery shopping, and make car payments. And try though they might, artists are not immune to Swine Flu or FICO scores.
Where Art and Life Meet
It’s a constant challenge to make room in your life for your art, and to keep yourself motivated to do it when nothing seems to be going right. All of the artists I have come to know well over the years have addressed these same issues, each in different ways. I count among my friends, painters, actors, filmmakers, musicians, book authors and screenwriters. They are all professionals―with lengthy resumes of actual jobs in their respective fields―but that doesn’t mean they can always live off their art.
Working in the arts is scary. Unlike most other occupations, you have to do the work first, on the belief that someone is going to want to pay for it. Nearly all art is on spec (speculative). My painter friends work in their studios (which they have to pay rent on) for months on end to put together enough works to even be considered for a gallery show. My writer friends send out queries and develop proposals for many more projects than they will ever get to sell. And my actor friends audition for tons of things they will never get to be in.
We all do it in the hope that just one of these possibilities could come to pass. And when it does, you’re hooked. It becomes hard to stop, even though you might go for months (or even years) without a paycheck, and you’re putting in tons of hours for things that never see the light of day. Any success becomes the current exception that ruins all our plans of giving up the dream.
What Do You Do When It Doesn’t Happen?
But the flip side is when you don’t get that job, that commission, or that show…when the painting/sculpture/book/screenplay/concerto/(insert your own word here) didn’t sell. That’s when you have to work for your art. And it’s hard.
Because in the arts, you work for time, not money. Most artists are not that interested in money, except for the freedom it brings to go back to your drawing board (or whatever). They tend to be easily dragged down by things like insurance payments, and most have little understanding of an IRA.
As an artist, you probably work at some job which may or may not be related to your field because it allows you to time to do your real calling, and hopefully, it provides benefits like medical insurance. If you’re a painter, then you probably work nights so you can be in the studio during daylight hours. If you are an actor, dancer, singer, or musician, you have to keep it flexible so you can go out on auditions and do gigs when they come up.
People make it happen for the love of their art. I know two actors who are graphic artists in New York. Their boss lets them go when they need to because they are willing to work nights and weekends when he needs them to—and they try not to be away at the same time. I also know a documentary filmmaker who sells water purification systems between shooting his films. Most of the painters I know teach classes, as do many writers, musicians, and filmmakers.
Life Sculpts Art
So unless you become an overnight success, you build a career of many pieces, and it forms the basis for your art. The life you live outside of art is crucial to your ability to keep producing it—because the other part of art is connecting with the world from beneath its skin, something you can’t do if you don’t participate in that world.
In my eclectic career, I have worked in the offices of banks, advertising agencies and in the Economics Department at MIT. I have worked on events for major pharmaceutical companies and galas for Habitat for Humanity. I managed an art gallery last summer, and a beer tent at a music festival the summer before that, and in between, I worked on the set of a Hollywood movie, several indie films, and a film festival—all paying work. Then I get to go home and write.
We all planned to be millionaires by 25, 30, 40, and well…it hasn’t happened yet. But it could, the possibility of which is not even the main reason we do it. We do it because we can’t find anything else that makes us glow inside. And I don’t think any of us are sorry.
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