Identifying as an artist is a commitment — one I’ve tried to break many times.
In my first month of doing stand-up comedy, an older comedian was complaining that he didn’t get enough laughs during his set. I saw his performance, which in fact got a great response, and said to him “Really? But everyone was laughing really hard, you did great!” He replied, “I saw a few people not laughing, and it’s not great unless everyone is laughing. Nice try at being positive, kiddo. Don’t worry, eventually this biz will bring you down.” To which I balked, “If the biz ever makes me feel that down, I’ll quit.”
And I did. Five years after that conversation, I “quit” the entertainment business. After what felt like a lifetime of wandering aimlessly through the winding and seemingly dead-end roads of stand-up comedy and acting, I felt defeated. After four years in Los Angeles pursuing and procrastinating on my dream at that point, I found myself in New York City, starting all over again in a tougher and less sunny city. I was sick of late nights of doing stand-up for little to no pay and little to no acknowledgment. I was sick of the rejection, judgment, and disappointment from failed submissions and auditions. I was sick of being asked, “So, what are you working on these days?” by my peers — instances where I wanted to scream and cry, “Nothing! I’m working on nothing except for this fourth cocktail and trying not to ‘accidentally’ throw myself onto the subway tracks.”
Yup, the biz had brought this kiddo down (oh, how I hate the term kiddo — it just reeks of condescending bullshit) so I gave up.
When I left the entertainment business I began to get those condolences that artists get when they stop chasing the dream. Why is it when a person decides to become a teacher after working for years as a computer programmer, people say, “Cool — congrats!” But, if a person decides to become a teacher after years of working (or trying to get work) as a singer/dancer/actor/writer/etc, people say, “Oh no! You’re giving up? Why? I’m so sorry.”
And I was sorry, too. While I was trying desperately to cleanse myself of the cutthroat creative industry for a life of stability, security, and perhaps sanity, all I felt was sadness. After less than two months of quitting “the biz,” I ran right back. I started to learn that there was no “normal” life. That being “normal” for me is being an artist and how dare anyone deny themself their true identity?
Being in the creative field can drive a person absolutely crazy. The highs are incredibly high, the lows are heartbreakingly low. And that is why I went back, because those highs are too glorious not to try and reach. The high of seeing your words, your vision, your work affecting others is beyond any other feeling in the world. Once I accepted who I was, I was able to be who I wanted to be. Before I knew it, I was actually making my living off my art and I was living my dream.
So, if you’re feeling stuck in your creative career — or just still looking for your true calling — here are a few tips for what to do when working hard for the money just totally gets you down:
The old cliche is true; distance does make the heart grow fonder. It’s good to take a step back and re-evaluate whether or not what you’re pursuing is what it is you really want. Whether taking a step back means running away to suburbia for a year like I did or simply hiding out in your apartment for a week, it’s okay to go on hiatus. It can be scary to step away from your routine, because there is a chance that while you’re stepping back you may never want to go back, and that’s okay. One of my dear friends took a break from the biz and ended up deciding to change her career path and go back to school and she’s happier than ever. Meanwhile I took a step back, tried out a life I thought I should have, and ended up figuring out what I didn’t want and I’m happier than ever. It’s okay to try out different lifestyles and careers before making a big commitment to one thing. Don’t we date different people before find the love of our lives? Why should choosing a career be any different? So while going away from your life can be terrifying, it’s more terrifying to stay in a life of monotony.
FOCUS ON YOU.
It’s very easy to get distracted by the success of others and the speed at which others seem to find success. I constantly hear my peers complaining, “How did he get that part?” or “How did she book that gig?” Perhaps “they” got “that” because “they” are focusing on their work and not focusing on how unfair it is that others got things they didn’t. It’s tough not to concern yourself with others, especially as an artist. We don’t work in an office where a promotion or raise increase legitimizes our work, so as artists we compare ourselves to others to see where we stand. Putting energy into analyzing and envying the journey of others just takes energy away from your work and will just throw you off course. If you put out good work, good things will come — trust me.
STOP TALKING, START DOING.
This somewhat relates to the last tip, as in don’t talk about what others are doing or what you’d like to be doing — do something! Whether it’s taking a class, organizing a show, or simply going out and meeting other people in your field, don’t just wait for opportunity to come to you: create your own opportunity. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first got started in this industry was expecting that I’d be successful simply based on my talent and my great karma. But no one was going to knock on my door and offer me my own TV show based on the fact that I was a good person. I needed to go out and learn as much as I could about my craft, practice my craft, hone my craft, and showcase my craft. I also had a history of talking about all the things I want to do rather than doing them. If you’re feeling like nothing is happening, try this: make a list of three things you can do every day to help your creative career. These things can be anything from “Go to the gym and get in shape so you will look and feel better at auditions” to “Attend a writers mixer to meet potential job contacts.” If you’re an artist, you know how to do creative things so why not creative opportunities?
LESS IS MORE.
I know I often have a bad habit of attracting quantity not quality into my life. I get involved in lots of things, spreading myself too thin, producing stuff that suffers from lack of attention rather than doing just a few things that shine as a result of total dedication. Right now, my laptop has at least 20 half-written stories and scripts, and wouldn’t it be better if I just had one finished piece? The answer is an obvious yes. Your feeling of being down from the biz may not be the biz at all but simply exhaustion and/or feeling overwhelmed. Focus on a few things that you feel excited about and that have the most potential, and then put all of your energy into completing one project at a time.
TAKE A BREAK.
I know that as a struggling artist it may feel ridiculous to take a break. How do you take a break when you feel like you’re not even working? But you are working, sometimes multiple jobs — the one that pays bills and the one you love — and most artists work non-stop, spending late nights editing videos, weekends rehearsing with their bands, and any time in between figuring out what to do next. I know that for me, my brain never shuts off. I’ve sprung up in the middle of the night to write down ideas, I’ve sadly spent dinners at my family’s house with a computer in my lap trying to multi-task eating and writing. Everyone deserves a break. Not just 30 minutes on a park bench on your Blackberry relentlessly emailing invitations to your solo show. I mean a real break: as in, a vacation. Whether it’s a day or a week, take a vacation. Or at least take an hour or two to do some yoga, enjoy coffee with a friend, or take a nap. Just do something with no Internet, no phone, no business, and no worrying that your “big break” is going to come the weekend you relax and rejuvenate at your friends’ beach house.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH SUPPORT.
Only keep people in your life that support your career choice. The last thing you need is anyone in your life who judges your choices or insults your lifestyle. You didn’t go to medical school like your dad had hoped, and so what? If you believe in your career, others will, too. And if they don’t, screw them. Also, ask for help. We tend to get into a groove, trying to do it all on our own, but it’s good to collaborate on projects, get coached, or get advice from mentors and the artists you admire. Have some friends in your field so that you can share your frustrations and victories with people who are in the same boat as you, and who can also share contacts and job leads. Only surround yourself with those who want to raise you up, not push you down, however. One my favorite quotes is, “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated.” I couldn’t agree more.
Perhaps the best tip ever given to me, which I’m now passing on, is to own who you are! You are an artist. You have something amazing to give to this world. I used to feel embarrassed that I dreamed so big and I felt guilty wanting a life where I loved my work. I felt like what I wanted to be wasn’t important. But why shouldn’t I dream big or love my work? And how dare I say that entertaining others, touching others, isn’t important? To take what dances in your head and heart and translate into art that then dances its way into the heads and hearts of others is an absolutely beautiful thing. Don’t deny your potential and your power.