LivingArts: Why So Serious?

As someone who has been a stereotypical “struggling artist” within the theatre industry, often resulting in a love/hate relationship, I’ve decided to share my experience and write one of the most honest blogs I’ve ever written. Eeeep. Scary. But here goes.

As I approach my 30th birthday (considered OLD for women in the world of theatre and film, sigh) I am forced to look at my career thus far: a task which often leaves me stressed, anxiety driven, with a side of barfy feelings. I often struggle with how to properly measure accomplishments in my career (listening to the RENT song “Seasons of Love” on repeat didn’t help AT ALL). I know that I have experienced various achievements but have also faced MANY failures along the way.

I begin to obsess. I start thinking about EVERYTHING. Adding it all up. Okay, well… I’ve invested countless hours and money. That’s got to count for something (I think?). Gone to theatre school, taken workshops, auditioned and auditioned and auditioned, volunteered my time for my arts community, networked at events, developed initiatives, assisted in theatre education, created my own work, even took on writing a BLOG about theatre for crying out loud! That means I did it! Right?! RIGHT?! If I’m successful, I should be supporting myself with my art!

So, why am I still slinging coffees at a cafe?

Enter depression. Exit self-confidence stage left. Cue self loathing.

I begin to shut down and have that horrible argument that I frequently have with other Laura. The one where I remind myself about how many cool, creative things I’ve done. How I’ve worked so hard, worked with really talented people, and have some value as an artist. Then other Laura (EVIL Laura) comes back and tells me I’m a fraud. How I’m getting too old and if I was suppose to be successful in any kind of artistic field, that it would have happened by now (there’s that word again… successful…). She tells me that everything I do is crap and it’s time to think about upping my latte art skills if I want to keep up my creativity.

I hit a wall. I don’t know what else to do, so I once again reach for a creative self-help book for inspiration. It’s called “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) and it’s changed my approach to creativity.

To summarize, here is what I quickly realized:  

I am taking myself and my art way too seriously. I REPEAT. I AM TAKING MYSELF AND MY ART WAY TOO SERIOUSLY.  

Of course we can be working at coffee shops, bars, clothing stores, movie theatres, and the like and still be artists! DUH, LAURA. We need to support our art, not have our art support us all of the time. When we become reliant on our art to ALWAYS be successful (especially financially) we lose our ability to take exciting risks. We are left with no chance to play. It can put a pressure on; a pressure which can quickly take us from feeling that creating art is a magnificent privilege to it feeling like a crushing chore. When we keep track of these superficial things, always weighing, always tallying, we can start to lose sight of why we are creating art at all. We become OBSESSED with defining success by money, quantity of projects, rewards and distinctions, or career status.

Often, we can become addicted to being the woe-is-me artist. So, in order to get ourselves out, it’s time to start identifying where we currently (not permanently) fall. We may at times find ourselves in one or more of the following categories:

The Entitled Artist - Feeling that the world owes them something. They believe they’ve worked hard enough and it’s THEIR time to come out on top. They deserve it above all else. A false sense of superiority may also begin to creep in.

The Jealous Artist - Also known as the “I could do that” syndrome. Constantly judging others and sometimes even badmouthing your peers. There is a sense of “someone else got mine.” There tends to be an uneasy (yet constant) sense of competition.

The Misunderstood Artist  - Perhaps they didn’t get the response they were hoping for or received a bad review. Now they believe their work is beyond the comprehension of the average human being, and that others couldn’t POSSIBLY understand what they feel (others do) or experience what they’ve gone through (others have).

The Burdened Artist -  Frequently referred to as the “I can only create work when I’m in pain” artist. Enjoys needless suffering. Likes to talk about the constant struggle with little reward.  They often toil alone for long periods of time only to emerge from isolation to complain about their doomed artistic destiny.

So how do we get out of these toxic negative stereotypes? Well, there isn’t really one straightforward answer. But I’ll give you a jumping off point. Keep creating. Choose projects you love and are passionate about even if you can’t understand why. Have faith in the creative process. Don’t lose trust in it even when you don’t understand (or necessarily like) the outcome. And lastly, don’t give up the minute things stop becoming easy or rewarding.

Let’s agree to stop taking ourselves and our work so seriously. Let’s make a pact to stop glorifying stress. And let’s avoid become so far gone that we reach the stage of depressed isolation where we contemplate whether or not we need both of our ears (thank you, Van Gogh…).

Gilbert asks artists to ponder this question: “What do you love doing so much that the words success and failure eventually become irrelevant?”

Do what you love. Your art is sacred, sure. But it’s also….not. Should it be hard sometimes? Yes. Should it be painful and depressing? No.

Because after all, if you aren’t having fun… you’re doing it wrong.