The Motherhood of Art
“There are many trails up the mountain, but in time they all reach the top.”
― Anya Seton
In 2014, I made the decision to give up my freelance lifestyle for a full-time, corporate day job. It was the farthest, most-opposite end of the spectrum from my life as a starving artist, which I was barely sustaining with short-term production gigs and part-time jobs. It was also the best thing I have ever done for my art.
I spent many years as a freelance artist, starting in 2002 when I left college to manage and tour with my band full-time. I worked odd jobs and one-off gigs to make ends meet, while trying to live on the road -- a lifestyle that I truly believed was necessary in order to be able to call myself a musician. There were a couple of one-year stints where I worked full-time in the music industry, but they were all-encompassing jobs that took up 90% of my time and creative energy, and ended up being just as detrimental to my creativity and productivity as not having a job. However, the idea of earning money by having a "normal" day job, especially one that wasn't related to the music industry, simply sounded to me like giving up. So I never even considered it.
It took a lot of suffering to finally admit to myself -- probably several years later than I would have admitted it if I hadn't been so stubborn -- that my art was suffering because of my determination to live solely off my art.
This realization was a breakthrough, for sure. But turning my life in a new direction did not happen overnight. Transitioning from that vagabond lifestyle to the lifestyle of a person with a home base, responsibilities, a day job, and a normal life took quite a lot of time, effort, and help. I needed to get out of debt, get my head on straight, and get my life on some kind of track.
Most importantly, I needed to untangle myself from the unrealistic fantasy I had about what it meant to be an artist.
I have always been moving in the direction of becoming an artist. It probably started with my genetics, being the accidental child of two lost hippies who, themselves, always wanted to be artists. The romantic idea about the *being an artist* was certainly handed down to me by my parents. By the time I hit high school, I was hooked on the idea that being a successful artist was the answer to all my problems. And so, it became an obsession.
As I began surrounding myself with people who were chasing fame and "success," I began receiving the same message over and over again. It was a romanticized, self-sacrificing idea that in order to be successful as an artist, I needed to reject the ways of "normal" life. According to the messages I received, which seemed to be based more on legend than truth, all of history's real, true artists had committed to a life of poverty -- and this was the only way they found success. (It was never mentioned that many famous artists started out in wealthy families or had other kinds of support systems that helped them sustain a job-free lifestyle.)
I got the message that I had to sacrificially "throw myself into my work" and prove that I was a true artist by "never giving up." If I did anything but "work on my art" 24/7, I was a failure. A sell-out. Not really committed. Giving up. I got the message that being an artist required an all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach. If I truly loved my art (my baby), then I would sacrifice everything for it.
It was the most romantic idea I had ever heard. I bought in to the fantasy -- hook, line, and sinker.
What ensued was the most painful, draining, confusing, exhausting decade of my life. It nearly killed me. On my 32nd birthday, I was completely broke, practically homeless, living on food stamps, heartbroken, and totally alone. I had no close friends, no relationships with my family or relatives, nowhere that felt like home other than a few storage spaces sprinkled around the country -- and nothing but the generosity of my fans and acquaintances around the country, plus a few production gigs I had lined up, to pay for my basic needs. All of my bills were in collections, and I had no hope of ever climbing out of debt, let alone buying a house, owning a dependable car, or being able to repay anyone or give back to a community in any way. I didn't even have a community.
Yet, to the world, I presented the persona of a starving artist who was living the dream, unchained and free to do as I pleased.
A full-time traveling musician? How ideal! A starving artist? How romantic!
I felt like I couldn't admit that I was miserable, hungry, exhausted and overwhelmed by working 24/7 to keep this thing I loved alive.
I had to keep believing my own lie. I didn't know another way. I thought that eventually, the suffering would pay off. My art would finally start paying my bills, feeding me, giving me shelter, bringing me joy and fulfillment from the outside. I just needed my art to work harder. And so, I became a slave-driver to my art.
As my therapist would point out to me years later, after my breakdown and finally seeking help: a mother would never for a moment think it was okay to put her baby out in the street and force it to work for its own livelihood, for food, diapers, clothing, health insurance, and all its other basic needs. However, that's what I was doing to my art. My baby. I really believed that in order to be an artist I had to be "living off my art." Living off my baby. Instead of meeting the needs of my creativity, I was expecting my creativity to meet my needs. Instead of feeding my baby, I was expecting my baby to feed me.
In all my exhausting effort to push the sales of my music and art, to get people to give me money so that I could stay jobless and be a "true artist," I found no joy. No peace. No fulfillment. I was constantly anxious, I couldn't connect with people, and I felt overwhelmed by my life. Something wasn't working.
Rather than face reality (which perhaps, at the time, I couldn't have done, having had no support and no tools), I spent years punishing myself, shaming myself, comparing myself to the other artists who seemed to "have it all together." But instead of looking within and considering a different approach, I only tried harder to make my art deliver on my fantasy's promise of fulfillment. Maybe I just hadn't suffered enough.
I believe that this is where the desperation kicks in for artists. We reach this point of trying too hard to "succeed" that we lose sight of why we're creating art in the first place. This is where we start to compromise our art. Our focus becomes external validation. Having learned few other skills besides making our own art, and having waded too far out into the waters of the fantasy we hold about ourselves as "artists," we become isolated, terrified, and desperate. At this point, our art is starving, we are (actually) starving, and the pressure to survive on the earnings of our art becomes too great. Many of us give up or sell out at this point. We either quit altogether, or give up our creative control in a desperate final attempt to get what (we think) we want.
This is the point I had reached after ten years of trying to "make it work." I had no desire or option to sell out, but I physically could not continue trying the same approach. I was ready to give up -- and this was the breakthrough I needed.
Finally, I had reached the point of realizing that what I was doing wasn't working. Finally, I admitted that I didn't know all the answers. I needed help. I needed someone to teach me how to be a good mother, to my art and to myself.
I found a mindfulness cognitive behavioral (talk) therapist, who, within our first few sessions, began planting the seeds of change in my psyche. She pointed out to me that I could do one simple thing that would alleviate all the pressure and stress I was putting on my art.
I could make one small investment of time that would not only sustain my art but also:
get me out of debt,
and open up a whole new world of possibilities for my art.
I could get a full-time, grown-up job.
At first, I was terrified. Obviously. This idea went against everything I believed to be true, the messages I received, the illusion I had created about myself, other artists, and what it meant to be successful. The idea of getting a job meant giving up the fantasy about who I thought I was, or what I thought my career was going to look like. It meant redefining words like "artist" and "success" and "career." But I was willing to try anything. So, with the help and guidance of my therapist and other support groups that she pointed me to, I began changing my focus, shifting from outer-dependence to inner-dependence. I sloooowly began taking steps toward trying out this new-fangled concept of meeting my own needs so that my art could be free to exist without the burden of supporting me.
It took a couple of years, some starts and stops, and working hard to learn what kind of job would work for me. Eventually, I figured out that I needed a flexible, hourly job that did not have anything to do with music or art. I needed to make a certain amount of money per hour to comfortably cover my basic costs of living and help me save money for my art. I needed to have health insurance and a savings plans so that I could eventually retire without having to stress about money. I needed a car, a house, and the ability to stock my fridge and fill my gas tank each week. I needed to work no more than 40hrs a week, and I needed to be able to leave my job at the office, so that I could have plenty of creative energy when I got home, to work on my art. Most importantly, I needed to stop viewing my art as work, and start viewing it as play.
After a couple years, I found a job that lined up with my values. It's a job that utilizes my skills and holds my interest, without draining me of my creative energy. I'm not rich by any means, but I am healthy, well-fed, insured, financially secure, out of debt, living in a house that I bought for myself, driving a reliable car, taking good care of my dog, going to yoga classes, buying healthy food, and still seeing that therapist who saved my life four years ago. I am also able to pay rent on a rehearsal space for my band, and pay an amazing engineer to record music in a beautiful studio space, and take risks on things like making art films or producing large-scale art installations for my music.
Because of my job, the money that comes in from things like Patreon, ASCAP royalties, and iTunes sales can now go toward savings instead of survival. I don't have to wrestle with the guilt of needing donations from my supporters in order to eat. I can put their (your) money directly into the art they (you) are supporting. This makes it easier to ask for support.
By putting the burden of success back on myself, and deciding to provide for my art instead of expecting my art to provide for me, my art gets to just exist. It gets to remain wild and limitless. I never get mad at my art anymore. I never doubt my art or judge my art. I don't try to change my art to get other people to like it. I love my art and I love providing for my art. My art -- my baby -- gets to thrive and grow, explore new territories, and be free. And I am learning how to be a good mother.