The other day a good friend of mine, an amazingly talented artist, called me up and told me she was thinking about giving up on her dreams of an art career and pursuing nursing instead. I promptly talked her out of that idea; she’s been dreaming of being a professional artist since I met her 13 years ago and she is not the type of person who would be able to do all the things nurses do. But while I was talking her down off the ledge, I realized I had a lot to say on the subject of “pursuing a career in the creative industry” and I thought it was something worth sharing.
I should start by saying that my friend called because she was doubting her abilities. She looked around and saw artists who were “better” than her, she kept hearing how hard it was to make a living being a professional artist, and she saw how miserable her boyfriend, a professional artist, was. As a creative person myself (my medium being the written word) I could really relate to how she was feeling; how a lot of artists (visual, written, etc) must feel while trying to achieve their dreams and work their way to…maybe not even the top, but somewhere safe, comfortable, or stable enough to build a life around. I wanted to put this advice out there for those creative people (to be referred to from here on out under the umbrella term ‘artists’ because that’s what they are, no matter the medium), including my friend, so they have something to think about when they start to doubt themselves. Hell…so that I can have something to think about when I start to doubt myself.
Firstly, there are always going to be artists who are “better” than you. I put better in quotation marks because art is very subjective and one person can love a work of art and another person can hate it just as passionately. The key is to be happy with your own art and be able to find a job or career path that suits your particular brand or style of art. If you work hard enough and you have passion and a willingness to learn and grow, you will have options. And in the meantime, it isn’t going to help you to compare yourself to the competition. Be inspired by them, learn from them, but don’t be intimidated by their presence. Remember that for every artist whose work intimidates you, there may be an artist who is equally intimidated by your work.
I do want to acknowledge that it is hard out there for artists to make a living. That’s a fact and I won’t gloss over that. It takes a lot of persistence, determination, hard work and talent, and (sometimes) a certain amount of luck to become a successful artist. The thing is you can’t just go forward thinking “I want to make a living being an artist.” You have to be smart about it. What are your particular strengths when it comes to your art? If you want to make a living in your art, is there a way to do so without being a starving artist? When I graduated from high school, all I wanted to do was be a writer. I went to college because it was expected of me but I got an English degree (Writing Concentration) because I figured I’d learn for four years and by the time I graduated I’d have a book written, a publishing deal and enough money to live off of. In hindsight and after years of working in publishing, that’s a laughable goal. But when I got to my senior year of undergrad and had nothing worth publishing, I had to think outside the box. Sure I wanted to be a writer but what could I do for a living that was related to my art? At times I just wished I could read for a living. I loved books so much. It was that wish that led me to become an editor. It was a job related to writing, it required me to use my skills as both an avid reader and a writer, and it was something I was passionate about. And the deeper into that career path I got, the more my passion grew. I had found a way to make a living (bupkis at first, sure, but still more than I was making as an unpublished writer) while working with the written word on my terms, even if it wasn’t what I had initially set out to do.
That’s something that happens very often---the path you start off on leads somewhere you never expected it to. But ultimately, the journey is what life is all about, not the destination. I never knew how passionate I would be about editing until I got into it, and I had no idea how passionate I already was about children’s and YA books until I started working on that side of the industry. And ya know? Working in this industry has inspired me in my writing, the original creative venture that led me to becoming an editor. I’m surrounded by book people every day. A lot of my friends, who I met at work or through industry networking, are book lovers. Many of them are writers too. I’m part of two book clubs, I’ve been and am still involved in writing groups, all of which are filled with colleagues from the book business. When I first read a Sara Zarr novel (her debut, Story of a Girl), I was inspired by what she had done; by the artistry of her words and the impact of her story. To then be able to contribute my thoughts while she was revising her next book (my boss was her editor), to see her process and how she worked, was such an honor. It opened doors in my mind that I hadn’t known needed opening. I realized that my love of YA novels extended to my writing and suddenly I was coming up with more YA story ideas than I was adult story ideas. And the ideas meant more to me because of my passion for YA lit.
That's one thing that always bugged me about the musical RENT. As much as I loved that show, I always wanted to strangle the characters and say, "just because you are artists doesn't mean you can't get a job and support yourself! You don't have to abandon your art to make a living!"
Sure, you might not be able to make a living immediately just by creating art, but there are ways to have a career that is related to your art, that will allow you to utilize your artistic talents, and they will inspire you to grow as an artist. And if you are really passionate, you will continue your art on the side, using evenings and weekends and any spare time you can commit. To paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, you will create art because you can’t not create art.
And there are always going to be naysayers and people who have a rough time of it. As far as my friend’s boyfriend is concerned, he’s a whiner. I’ve heard countless stories about how he procrastinates, misses his deadlines and has held up production and in general sounds like a real nightmare for any editor who is stuck working with him. He’s obviously not happy doing that type of work, but he signed a contract out of obligation and is now dragging his feet. There are always going to be people like this---self-defeatists who give up and blame other people for their failures, or who blame the industry for how hard they have it when they’re just doing it to themselves. And like I said, any creative industry is going to be hard. The competition is heavy, there are going to be people who try to step on you to get to the top and you will often be told you’re not good enough or not right for the project. But it is possible if you’re smart and you have the right attitude. And ya know, a lot of people are going to give up along the way. They are going to realize this isn’t for them, or they don’t love it enough to stick with it through thick and thin, or maybe they’ll just burn out. But if you love your art enough to be able to hold out longer than everyone else, you’ve won half the battle. Again, being smart and professional is the other half.
I truly believe that if you can’t see yourself anywhere but in the creative industry of your choice, you shouldn’t give up pursuing it. My friend was born to be an artist and would never be happy being a nurse. I was meant to work with books (and hopefully publish some of my own someday) and I would never be happy working for an insurance company (which is what most people do back in my hometown). If you were born to create art, do it. If you can’t support yourself with your art right away, find a way to support yourself while also creating your art on the side. And let your fellow artists inspire you, lift you up and teach you. And most importantly, be open to growth in your art, don’t blame others for your failures, and learn to view mistakes and rejections not as failures but as opportunities for more growth. You can do it…but only if you are willing to put yourself out there and do what it takes. Do you have what it takes? You won’t know until you try.