THE ARTIST’S BURDEN: ON HAVING A DAY JOB
On Saturday I had the honor of delivering a presentation on being a DIY artist at the Brecht Forum. I prepared a talk accompanied by PowerPoint of the ten most important lessons I’ve learned as a grassroots artist. Among many tips was the harsh phrasing of number seven: “get a job or stop complaining.” Of course I bolstered that point with poignant notes such as “get one with meaning to you,” and “the work can help fuel your art” and the ever present “peace of mind that comes with a steady check.” And while I believe all of these things are real and true, I also know it’s a hard point to swallow for us artists. We are hungry for time and space to create and we often refuse the idea of working for other people because we are a mix of fiercely independent, burnt out, not so good at dealing with authority and/or dreamily creative. And we tend to like to work at odd hours, which doesn’t help, either. (Mornings still leave me a scrappy cat dragged out of a rainstorm.) Take myself as prime example, however. Many know that I serve as Education Programs Manager for a well regarded film non-profit, and our radical, innovative work with youth absolutely adds fuel to my fire, as a large part of my human identity corners on education and activism. But the rub, when I do feel tension, comes in missed opportunities for my artistic identity due to a 9-5, especially in the month of April, when the film festival swoops in and magically takes our every waking moment for two good, solid weeks. Which is precisely why I said yes when Cheryl Boyce Taylor invited me into her group of ten powerful women to write 30 poems in 30 days for National Poetry Month. Today is the last day and despite it all, thirty poems arrived, and hundreds of poems were read.
And with that, there are a few things I want to share with you about the precarious balance of work and creation, a writerly pep-talk if you will:
1. You are still a real artist. Yes, it is possible to be an artist or writer and hold a job. Many of the greats did it. One of my father’s favorite lines when I used to get more salty and outspoken about wanting an artist lifestyle was, “Kafka** was a bank teller.” I mean, how could you argue with that? Kafka was one of the most well regarded writers in history, which made Dad very annoying for this undisputed point. Having a job does not make you less of an artist, in fact, if perspective can shift, it makes you a more textured, layered human being. It gives you stories and experiences to gather as fodder for creation. Imagine the characters Kafka must have encountered at that glass window as he slid the money into so many passing hands… Right?
2. Real artists don’t make bullshit excuses.
I hate to break this one to you in a cruel tone, but your job is not ever going to be a reason why you are not creating. Save a terrifically abusive environment (and even still), there are always ways you can commit to your craft, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. Often people have exclaimed that I am a superwoman for balancing work and writing, which is flattering in some ways, but I find it a silly statement. I simply find pockets of time and use them wisely. My commutes give at least two hours a day of usable time. Instead of headphones, or even a book, I furiously type into my iPhone (though a notebook is a fine analogue alternative.) When did I write nearly every poem in these 30 days? On the train. An added bonus, getting lost inside my own words made my long commutes a snap. Which brings me to point number three…
3. Self discipline is not anti-artist.
There is a grand myth about the flaky artist whirling around the universe in a cloud of pink smoke and not having a foot set in reality. Though a sexy woman this creature is, on the ground, she’s probably not making art worth a hoot. Art, writing, like anything we put our heart and sweat into, is work. Not every moment of writing is enjoyable, and if it was, it’d be a hobby- which is wonderful, but then what is the urgency about? Commit to your work because it is who you are, which means, get up early to write. Write on your lunch break. Write before bed. No one is hovering over you with a mandate that you cannot make time to create. This is your life. Stop watching television for a week. Skip the party this weekend.
4. On becoming a “life artist.”
I have recently developed and delivered a speech aimed towards youth on this notion of the life artist. For a long time I have been working to come to terms with the overlapping pieces of my identities and finding the harmony in their connective tissue. In this quote, I’ve found the words to finally describe this way of life: A Zen poet wrote in the Art of Living, A person who is a master in the art of living makes little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their mind and their body, their education and their recreation, their love and their religion. They hardly know which is which and simply pursue their vision of excellence and grace, whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing. To them they are always doing both. A life artist is a person who sees their existence as art and draws no boundaries between their fluid identities. My work as a writer, a wife, a friend, a sister, a teacher, a program manager and as Caits, the center of my person, are all part of the larger moving canvas of my life. I have the power to shape and create not only how I walk my path, but where the path leads. This is a freeing thought- I am the hand painting the canvas, I am the canvas, and I am also the viewer, taking in the canvas. There is a larger song to this whole orchestration. This is Yusef Salaam, exonerated member of the Central Park 5, and my co-worker Karla Rodriguez at a work event I produced. Karla and I worked together on Women Love the World Festival (outside of our job) and after meeting Yusef, I was inspired to go home and write a poem. Two examples of where life and art and work interweave.
5. There will never be enough time.
My friend and mentor, Allison Millewski, often chanted this mantra when I was drowning in five projects and teaching five classes, “you can do anything for six weeks!” Though it seemed the mantra was repeated more often than not, a different length of time inserted each round, it was a helpful tune to push me through a busy season. The point is, it is always a busy season. If you are anything like most creators, time is never on your side. There are a million ideas to pursue, fifteen thousand ways you want to contribute to the world and 2am always creeps up on you like a warden locking you into that burden of sleep. But you know what? Get used to it. Get enough rest. If we are lucky, life won’t end tomorrow and if it does, then what? It does. Either way, whether at a nine to five or working from home, if you’re strapping on your sneakers, just know this: time is always going to win in the race.
6. Squash your envy of someone else’s “artist life.”
Comparison is an act of violence against self. - Iyanla Vanzant She’s right you know. Just stop. That person over there is constructing a life for you to witness- we all do, so do you, if you have a facebook page or a twitter feed or a blog. The truth is, you don’t know if their heart is broken, their bills paid, their mother ill. And they don’t know about your awesome new co-worker’s high praise or how five children sang with you on the train today. Everyone’s journey is their own. And yours is brilliant and important and valid. So stop drooling about what’s over there, and start giving back to yourself. Flonia, Vee and I, my co-workers, with artists JR and Sol Guy- two men who’s lives I wildly envy, but in a way that I am inspired, not broken down! Use what I call “kind envy” as a way to bolster your own visions.
*Please note, none of these thoughts represent Tribeca Film Institute.
** Whoops! Dad just informed me Kafka was an insurance agent, not a bank teller as he’s been saying for years.