by: JoAnneh Nagler
Here’s the thing: artists are sensitive creatures. Starving and struggling does not, in the end, work for us. It’s like running too much electricity through already delicate circuits. It doesn’t help us focus on our art, or our creative inspiration.
We think—from years of being fed romantically-skewed and iconic tortured-artist imagery—that if we’re “real artists” we’ll be willing to go to any lengths to get to our art. We think, that if we just love our creativity enough, and “take the plunge,” living without supports under our feet, that God, or the Universe, or some magical entity in the sky will reward us for “doing what we love,” and that we’ll in short order have a viable art business.
But the world just doesn’t work like that. (Would that it were so.) That whole “Do what you love and the money will follow” line we’ve been fed is a ridiculous lie, and it has caused many of us great personal pain.
In truth, we have no idea how the world will receive the creative pieces we’ve poured our heart and soul into. Worse yet, the world is not really clamoring for our efforts as we’re creating them, because they are being formed from inside the interior of our soul—meaning there’s most often no chance for the world to want them until after they’re crafted and built.
And that speaks to an important (I’d even say crucial) building block of our artist’s life. If there’s no A to B to C linear line between our creative efforts and “success”—monetary or otherwise—then that means we have to be prepared for some pieces of our work to lift off of the ground and some not to lift off the ground. It means we have to have a means of living as an artist for a lifetime, not just for a few daring efforts.
It means that we must—if we really want to do this—support our artist’s life as we’re making art.
In the retro-1980’s vernacular, we need to learn to have it all. We need to find balance in our lives, and hold more than one thing at a time as our life centerpieces.
We don’t want our art relegated to 12th, or 20th, or even 5th on the list of our most pressing priorities, and we do want it accessible—not hidden in a closet or buried under a corporate life. That means, if we’re not independently wealthy, which most of us aren’t (and we don’t need to be), then we have to get good at doing more than one thing at a time.
It’s a lesson in what I call slow, steady steps.
When I was writing my first book, I decided to try to work one hour a day, by the timer, four days a week. Of course, I thought that wasn’t enough. I had stereotypes of what it “really looked like” to be writing a book. For years, I had regaled myself with terrible internal dialogues that yammered on about how I wasn’t a real writer, or a real artist, if I had to have a day job and had to support myself.
But then I got it: if I could put in even one hour a day, four days a week, and do it regularly, I’d get a whole lot of work done over a six month period. In fact, I ended up writing an entire book in just over a year-and-a-half. And what was I doing that was so all-important that I couldn’t teach myself how to put in four hours a week? Nothing, it turned out.
But there is a learning curve to living this way. It’s not as if I just decided that it was a good idea to sit down and write a book and—ta-da!—I could do it. I had to try to sit down in my allotted time, and fail at it, try something new, mess around with how I worked my hours, and try again. I had to learn the tools of becoming a healthy artist.
When I moved from Southern California, where all of my day job-employed friends were trying to make it in an artistic field, to the affluent Northern California suburbs, a funny thing happened. I started encountering people who had no need for day jobs—they had enough money—but couldn’t get themselves to work on their novel, or their metal sculpture, or their painting career. And that woke me up to something.
Just because we have unlimited amounts of unscheduled time, doesn’t mean we’re going to use it well. In fact, many people, when faced with open-ended time, will waste it. And that’s a clue to how our day job and family lives (which we usually see as a distraction from art), can serve us.
When we flip our time assumptions over, our day jobs, family responsibilities, and duties become our gifts, not our burdens. They teach us to stand up on our wobbly artist’s legs and press against the time constraints of our lives to get what we really, truly want: a life filled with art, creativity, and love, balanced with supports put under our feet. That is the life of “having it all.” Then, if the day comes when we no longer need a job, we’ll have some rock-solid work ethics to build into those free hours.
But that balance (and the attitude adjustment) doesn’t come automatically. We have to practice, and learn, and fail, and try again until we get it.
It’s no accident that artists in our time have trouble with time, money, relationships, and emotional balance. We have not been taught the skills of how to live well with our gifts. So we have to teach ourselves. We have to be willing to go into the core of our self, and learn to “beat the room”—to set aside all of the nay-saying voices, all of the self-esteem issues and crazy cultural nonsense about being an artist that we’ve been fed, and then learn to sit down, explore, and see what we have to say.
With a few simple skills learned we can have the art life we want, balanced with all of the other fine stuff that makes for a great life. A few simple tools—that’s what I’ve learned for myself—gets me a life with art, work ethics, motivation, inspiration, love, willingness, family and joy at the heart of it.
And at the end of my days, I will know that no matter what the outcome of a particular piece, I get to say that I was courageous, I stood up, I was engaged, and I gave my heart and soul to all the things I love.
That, to me, is an artistic life worth having.
JoAnneh Nagler is the author of the new book "How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind", "Your Shirt or Your Creative Compass", and the Amazon Top-100 Book, "The Debt-Free Spending Plan". She has been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, and many other outlets. AnArtistryLife.com