You thought I forgot about this, didn’t you?
So today’s topic in Things I’d Wish I’d Known Going Into the Arts (man I’ve got to find a shorter title) is something that I think artists need to be really honest about. It’s one of those things that you really need to do some deep soul-searching on, and be prepared to push away a lot of the soundtrack in your head and how you think life and careers are supposed to go. Go to a place where you can chill out alone, get quiet, push movie narratives and redemption fantasies out of your head and really, truly think.
Why do you want to do whatever creative thing it is you’re eyeing?
Go ahead and get the knee jerking out of your system, I’ll wait:
What do you mean??? I’m doing this because I have something to say, I really really want to do this, people say I’m good, are you trying to say I’m not good enough to pursue xyz??? You don’t know my life, you don’t know what I’m capable of, what are you even talking about? I’ll show you, I’ll do xyz and become famous and then you’ll be sorry!!!
We’ve all had those thoughts, or most of us have at some point, especially when we start growing into ourselves and stop playing at whatever creative focus and start wanting to do it for real. Usually we hear this kind of questioning from well-meaning parents, sometimes teachers and other professionals, maybe friends, who knows. Now, in a story or movie, this is the set up for a confrontation, then the protagonist goes off and learns and has some failings and eventually proves that they’re amazing and there’s resolution with whomever. Or maybe you’ve been told you’re talented your whole life and you’re completely supported and know you’re awesome so that’s why you want to do this. Got all those things firmly in focus?
Now kick it out of your head and don’t let that crap back in.
It’s fine to want to prove yourself, but if that’s the sole reason for wanting to be creative, you’re going to exhaust yourself trying. If you’re only doing it because you’re used to being complimented at something, it’s going to be a wake-up call when the compliments keep coming and you’re expected to keep getting better. Same with that chunk of italics up there – if the point is actually to become rich and famous (whether for their own benefits or to “prove” yourself to people), you’re going to become disappointed and disenchanted really fast.
Here’s the deal. This isn’t a story or a movie narrative. There’s no straight line. Your creative career, if you choose to pursue it, is going to have more twists and turns than a back hills road. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be more work than you can envision right now, whether you’re a teen who likes being in plays, a twentysomething who’s been told they could model, or the thirty or forty or fifty or whatever-something who wants to try for the career they were talked out of. It’s going to tax you, and you may actually have to take a break from time to time to either rebuild your energy or gather funds or for personal reasons or something else.
What I’m talking about is very different from doing the occasional thing and putting it online, or hoping to turn a secret passion into a quick moneymaker. We’re talking art as the main focus and earning method in your life.
It’s really easy to see the progression in someone else’s story, especially someone famous. It’s not as easy to see it in your own life. The passion and love (that sometimes borders on insanity) has to be there. Or, (and I kind of hesitate to say this), there has to be a mercenary desire to try to figure out a system and play it hard until you get the desired result. Even then, though, markets change fast, audience expectations change, a whole lot of things change. You can only game the system for so long, and if you’re not prepared beyond that (or if you’ve exhausted yourself getting to that point), you’re going to be in trouble.
If you’re looking for a specific end result (money, fame, adulation, proving to parents or teachers that you’re amazing), keep your creative passion as your hobby and do something else that will give you security or bank or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that. And, truth be told, I’m cynical enough to believe that no career is really “safe” anymore, but I do think the creative ones require a special sort of dedication. It’s not that you can’t necessarily have security and passion, but you will work a freakin’ ton to get to that point. While nothing is guaranteed, it’s somewhat more fast and loose with creative pursuits.
Does this sound pessimistic? Would you believe I’ve told a version of this to kids and parents who want to pick my brain? I lay out exactly where I’m at, what I’ve done to get to that point, and other avenues, because I feel that if you really, truly want something, you need to know what’s ahead. I wish that someone would have been more specific with me as a teen. I don’t think it would have changed my mind, but I would have appreciated a better mental road map than “oh well it’s hard, the odds are against you, blah blah blah standard concerned speech.”
Growing up, I really wanted to be in theatre. I wanted to act, man. Part of that was a genuine love of the art, and part of it was that I was a daydreamer, so of course I had expectations (and I was like somewhere between 12-14 and so hard work to me met getting a degree then instantly going to Broadway, because that’s how kids’ thoughts work). Through various levels of growing up I realized that I love acting (and I still do some), but doing costume work appeals to a lot of my various sides, and in some ways not only is it easier to keep consistently in work, but the admin side is easier for me. And I like being able to play around with different materials and messy products in torn up jeans.
I studied classical voice for like a decade, at least, but by the time I could have been looking at bigger schools and programs (and I did, and got accepted to at least one private school), I was so burnt out on classical voice, and realized that 1. that kind of performance career was pretty short in the scheme of things for most people 1.5 If I really wanted to do this, my work was only just beginning. All this hard work and practice and prep was the easy part. 2. I’d end up teaching, and that really wasn’t my jam. Even with writing, I’ve had to get very honest and start asking questions about where I want to go and how to effectively pursue it, and does that match my desire to do it (spoiler alert, it does. Same with costuming. So it works out).
I can’t tell you what the exact right reason for pursuing a creative career is, just like I can’t tell you what success means to each individual person. I’d say that you have to love it and want to be in that world above all else, because like everything else it is a J-O-B. Part of my past costume work has been, at times, 15 hour days, 100 hour weeks, balancing a lot of projects when feeling like crap and looking for the next job because all I have at any given moment is seasonal, learning new skills on the fly, learning to come up with budgets and cold call vendors and other people because I need answers for something that has to be done NOW. And to get to this point I had to have panicked freakouts as a dresser and take too long on show prep when I was in my teens. I had to be pulled in by tolerant, patient supervisors who sat me down and made me get serious. Because the love of something isn’t enough if you don’t pay attention and ditch a know-it-all attitude. It’s been learning new skills and sucking at them for a while until I found my footing. I had to experience a lot of intense tech periods and production meetings and near-breakdowns to learn how to hustle and stand up for myself and meet people half-way while not driving myself crazy and somehow meet deadlines at the same time.
Part of writing has been fifty pages of rejections (we’re talking one line per rejection, by the way), learning the ever-changing art of promotion, trying to balance all that with bringing income in, deciding who to listen to, and making time to put words on the page. Part of acting is always having the next thing lined up and staying on your game to keep jobs rolling in, whatever that means, keeping yourself in current audition material, tending to your look and skill set, and on and on. Artists and photographers might mean something else, same with dancers or illustrators or any other person who makes their living creating. Add in the emotional ups and downs with how your career is going, artistic block, life happening, the envy of others in your field, and it’s a lot.
You have to love it (or be so vehemently obsessed with working the system to the point that you reach super villain levels), because if you don’t, you are going to have a rough time when things don’t go your way. And they won’t at times. A lot of the time. You have to love it enough to take a day job if you need to, to take a risk if you need to, to give up holidays if you need to, to move if you need to, to sell out if you need to, to stand your ground if you need to, to stay up finishing stuff because you might have a window of opportunity that won’t come around again. You have to love it enough to do the work and all it means, because there is going to be a lot of it.
Throughout college and afterward I went along with things because I had a driving need to prove myself (and a will power that borders on superhuman, apparently). However, that left me incredibly frustrated, until all I really had was the love to fall back on (which is how I whittled down my focus). If anything, I wish I would’ve had more details and options and known the right questions to ask in my teens and twenties, so I could’ve made things a little easier on myself. I think sometimes teachers and experts expect students to understand why they’re telling them the advice they are, and that’s just not the case, or you may actually be on a whole different page but don’t know where to aim yourself. Seriously, you have no idea how much easier life is these days with Google and being able to pick people’s brains via social media.
I’ve also realized through the years that while my teenage self wanted fame and glory, (I’d still not say no to the rich thing, tbh), what I really was searching for was appreciation and validation. And it’s perfectly fine to want that.
But I can’t do what I do because of that. I mean, let’s face it, I ain’t JK Rowling or Stephen King or Dr. Seuss at the moment. If I was basing my creative worth solely on the need for validation, I’d be in a horrible place right now. I can get those things from nurturing the different relationships in my life, from pushing myself to show off my work and taking the compliments when I get them. But if I do what I do for that validation, I’m always going to be left thirsty, no matter how much metaphorical water is being thrown at me. And if I’m thirsty, I can’t nurture the creations that I’m trying to grow or work hard enough to keep myself alive. And, you know, I kinda like doing both of those things.
The fact is, while art can sometimes be therapy, you shouldn’t necessarily do it to be all your therapy, especially if you want to make money doing it.
So if you think you’re going to write a book/make an indie film/do something quick and have it immediately pay off – that’s super rare, guys. And that’s not really how those things work. I don’t care what the Hollywood narratives are, so often there’s so much work behind the scenes leading up to stuff that comes out of nowhere. Just forget that, put that right out of your minds. And when I say work, I mean can you work a forty hour regular work week then work even more on your own projects that are perpetually on the back burner. Can you put off that purchase or trip you really want to pay for a class that might help you out, a networking opportunity, promotion stuff, media help, or something else that will hopefully pay off long term (or not, nothing’s guaranteed). Can you divest yourself from being “the artiste” to take work that you may not want to take, to take criticism that you may not want to hear, to take the time needed to push yourself to the next step, then the next, then the next with no definite guarantee that you’ll ever really “make it (whatever that means).”
The other thing to consider is this: It’s not a bad thing if you decide a creative career isn’t for you. I know a lot of super-talented people that do things on the weekend or on the side or as an off and on hobby. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s going to make you happier, by all means, do that. There’s nothing that says that just because you’re good at something, you have to do it as a job. That’s not a personal failure. If anything, it’s empowering because you’re making the choice that’s best for you.
At the end of the day, I almost physically recoil at the thought of not telling stories (which has made the past year or so super hard). My stomach knots at the idea of not making stuff. It’s impossible for me to consider, but I’m also pretty eyes-wide-open about what I’m pursuing and what it means. Could this change in the future? Possibly, sure, and I’ll renegotiate with myself if that point comes. Does this mean I have to be conscious about how I feed my need for emotional validation/appreciation? You betcha. If anything, it’s making me more aware about tending to that part of myself and being gentler with that part of me.
It’s all really multi-faceted, I know. No one said this would be easy. Or stay constant throughout your whole life. Or any of the cliches you’re used to hearing.
So, first assignment (hey, it’s back to school time!). If you’re even remotely thinking about approaching some sort of artistic career (or wondering whether to continue, or any variation thereof), I want you to go somewhere on your own, whether that’s in a room or in nature or whatever. Someplace you feel comfortable and safe and happy. And I want you to get really quiet and think about why you want this. Not just the obvious, not just that you love it. Why do you love it? Why is it important to you? What specifically about this thing could you see yourself doing? Could you do anything else? Explore all those reasons, follow them where they lead, see if you can figure out how to feed any emotional hunger without it being the be all end all to your life path. Put the nay sayers out of your head, kick out all those who make you feel like you need to prove something, kick out all those who compliment you and tell you that you should do this because you’re talented. This is a one person conversation involving only you.
Then, hit the Google. Really find out what all’s involved in what you want to do. Talk to those who are already in it. Ask the rough questions. Dig in. Really figure out what it’s going to take, if there are various levels achievable, find out all the gory details you can – and not just from those at the top of the field, but those who also are doing the same thing in the day to day (because it’s likely that’s where you’ll be). Talk to more than one person, and make sure they really know what they’re doing. There are so many spin artists these days, you have to really be careful. Don’t just listen to what they’re saying, but really examine what they’ve done and if it’s actually something to emulate or a bunch of hot air. Then get quiet and asking yourself why you want to do it again, and if it’s something you really, really have to do.
Then get quiet and asking yourself why you want to do it again, and if it’s something you really, really have to do.
Only you can answer that, and only you can be comfortable with it (Hint: there are no wrong answers, just answers you push to the side in favor of what may sound better).
No matter what you decide, you’re awesome, dude. I’m proud of you. This is not an easy conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one, no matter where you’re at. You’ll probably have it more than once throughout your life. Hell, I’ve had it a few times in my life. I haven’t really talked about it, but part of the past year of being so quiet has been that extended conversation – I honestly, curiously wanted to know if I could divest myself and do something else, and feel good about not having something creative as my focus. Honestly, I can’t. I’m miserable and don’t function well without it. I just don’t think it’s possible, so here I am back again, and there’s a lot of other refocusing and planning in the background that you won’t see (other spoiler alert: even creative careers have constant planning in the background. Don’t believe anyone who wants to push a ‘let’s put on a show!’ mentality, even if they sound somewhat professional).
I rarely tell people don’t do it. But, do it because you love it, do it because you have to, do it because you’re prepared to put in the effort, do it because you’re curious to see where it will take you, do it because you’re willing to learn and change to grow and be better. Forget about the construed narrative that we so love to tell ourselves and follow because it’s the trope that won’t die. Do it (or don’t do it) for your own right reasons. I can’t say it’ll be any easier or you’ll be definitely happier, but you’ll be going forward with the potential to be more satisfied.