On my 25th birthday, my closest friend gave me a card that said, “Being an artist is like being yourself for a living.” I kept it, as I do with all cards I receive, and hung it on my fridge. At the time, it was an uplifting, lighthearted reminder that my career as a songwriter and an artist in general was as easy as being true to myself.
I like the sentiment behind these words, especially in times of creative confusion or personal doubt. It’s important to be able to connect with yourself and let creativity come through without judgment or fear, no matter who you are. I believe we’re all artists at heart, and art is a direct representation of thoughts, feelings, values, etc. It’s our ability to communicate these aspects of ourselves that takes hard work and dedication.
With each glance at this card, however, I found myself becoming more and more resentful towards the idea that art was as simple as “being yourself.”
These feelings didn’t come up just because art takes so much effort that most artists can barely afford to continue, or because I struggle every day to define myself as an artist, or because society is making it harder and harder to receive the compensation you deserve. No, this resentment wasn’t due to any of the obvious reasons that it’s hard to make a career out of any form of art.
Creativity means questioning who you are
The reason the card was starting to get to me was because taking the plunge into creativity means constantly questioning who you are.
The process of making something can be exhausting, exhilarating, enlightening and overwhelming. It can lift you up, bring you down and force you to analyze and answer questions you weren’t prepared to answer.
In making art, you’re constantly changing, inside and out. External and internal factors become so jumbled that you become unsure of why you’re doing it at all. The highs can be the best and brightest highs you’ll ever experience, but the lows can be debilitating, depressing and destructive.
Roadblock after roadblock present themselves, and all the while, you have to ask yourself, “Is this worth it?” And who can really say, because there’s no defined end goal, no obvious path to take and no right or wrong way to get to wherever you’re going. You can ask millions of questions or none at all and still feel lost at the end of the day.
And yet, you continue. You do it anyway. But this happens with no lack of self-doubt, and it’s certainly not enough to focus on being yourself and walking courageously through the creative fire. With no ability to bend, adjust and sometimes break, none of us would get anywhere. We could make never-ending lists of the industry demands placed upon us or the hoops we must jump through just to be heard and seen.
Part of being an artist is deciding which hoops to jump through and how to justify the jumping when we probably never would’ve left the ground on our own merit.
Like with any career—actually, anything worth doing—sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Giving up your say in one area may mean having increased control in another. It’s often said that budding artists must “pay their dues,” and these “dues” show up in many shapes and forms, not just as crappy jobs done for crappy people for crappy pay.
We find ourselves through our art
What comes from all the shifting, bending and sacrificing? I believe, just like all tough decisions or actions do, this process brings us closer to understanding ourselves. We don’t start our careers as fully-formed humans with precise morals and a manual for our brains and hearts. Babies aren’t born with personalities; these are shaped through living and learning, and it’s the same with an artistic career. We find ourselves through the art.
Now, when I read the card I got from my friend, I make a small adjustment for myself:
“Being an artist is like discovering who you are for a living.”
Being an artist is putting your journey and discoveries on display for the world to see and having the confidence to deal with the feedback you receive. It’s staying strong when you’re told that who you’re becoming isn’t correct or popular. It’s allowing yourself to go in directions you’re unsure of, and being OK with turning back or plowing through when things get rough. It’s about accepting failures and successes as one and the same and not letting others sabotage your journey. It’s about not sabotaging your own journey or minimizing the importance and weight of it all.
The connection art creates is important and necessary
At the end of the day, we’re giving the world something valuable. We’re taking our lives and making them universal, accessible and relatable to others. We’re taking our lows and highs and sharing them with our fellow humans, and in doing so, we’re capable of lifting weight from others’ shoulders. Be it small or not so small, the connection that art creates is important and necessary.
We’re all discovering who we are, and the beauty of art is that it reminds us that we’re not alone on that journey.