"What does it mean to be an artist?"
If there was ever a prelude to a pretentious conversation, that's it. I despise that tattered cliche of a question, "What does it mean to be an artist?" I never ever thought I'd opine about it myself. Yet here I am.
I learned one winter evening what it means to be an artist. But not in the sense of the "artist" wearing a black turtleneck and beret, scribbling in a Moleskin notebook while sipping a cappuccino in Soho. I mean "artist" as a completely normal person in jeans and a grey sweater, having cheap Thai dinner one night with a dear close friend who asked me, "How have you been?"
I answered, "Depressed."
"Tell me about it, dear," she said.
And then I discovered what it means to be an artist.
It was winter of 2010. I wasn't a mom yet. I had been working overtime all year in San Francisco. Mornings and evenings were bookended with a 45-minute BART commute. After hours and early mornings, I was helping relatives with childcare duties. At the end of the day, I could only sleep.
Wasn't I supposed to be writing a book?
Oh, right. But I didn't have the time! Not for a single creative thought, not for a doodle, not for a bad haiku about the weirdos on BART. Despite having the perfect job (or two), despite the delicious feeling of watching the numbers in my bank account increase, despite being back in my home town of San Francisco with blue skies, strong coffee, and organic lunch breaks at the Ferry Building, I felt dead inside.
And I realized something. An artist has to be creating. Pretty mundane, huh? But it's really what separates us from non-artists. We cannot feel okay if we're not creating. No pep talk will pull us out of the deadness if we're not creating. We can't feel grateful for all the perfect things in our lives if we're not creating. It's like telling a plant to be grateful for the soil when it's lacking sunlight.
Hence it's a burden to be an artist. The non-artist - who might be your parents, co-workers, or even friends - don't understand this and so we hear things like, "What are you complaining about?" "Why are you wasting time on that book of poetry?" "You spent how much on a writer's conference?!" And the ubiquitous if unspoken, "And how do you intend to earn money with that?"
Well, sorry. I wish I didn't have this ingrained need to be creative. Because think of all the MONEY I'd save! And time! I could be working a real cubicle job if I weren't pursuing my passions! Wow!
But in all seriousness, the Artist is envious. Oh, how I wish I could be happy working in a dental office, going for drinks with friends in the evening, cleaning my apartment on weekends, and going back to work on Monday. You know, mediocrity. Sadly, that just doesn't work for me. I have tried.
Instead, my mind is cluttered with ideas, ideas, ideas. And feelings, and stories, colors, images, music. With no outlet, my skin and my blood vessels clog up with creative detritus and I look dull and depressed.
The burden of the artist is therefore three-fold. The artist must work not only to pay living expenses (and possibly children), but to pay for creative projects. And along with the extra time required to earn that money, the artist has to find enough time to actually be an artist, in the evenings, on weekends.
Artists don't become a non-artists when they aren't allowed to be creative, they become depressed. Which is why so many artists I know prefer to live in sub-standard conditions to preserve their daily creative time, or squeeze the extra minutes out of each day to whittle away at their projects, no matter how exhausted they are after the kids have gone to bed.
I wish it could be another way. But it isn't. It means that like it or not, I have to live in a place of grit, hard work, perseverance. I'm a reluctant citizen of the Gritlands.