Right after I finished college, during my “anthropology experiment” phase of online dating I went out with this guy who was going to Wharton.
I was worked at a coffee house off Rittenhouse square near his apartment which was about the extent of what we had in common. So usually, I’d finish work, we’d go to some bar nearby and sit there staring at each other a bit bemusedly and ask each other questions. Usually our conversations went something like this:
Guy: So ok, let me get this straight: You got this incredibly expensive education and a degree in chemistry. You could be going to med school or grad school.Me: Yeah. But I realized that I wanted to do something else that meant more to me.Guy: So instead you’re working as a barista?Me: Well, for now. I’m making money so that save enough to take time off and pay for stuff to do what I really want to.Guy: Which is?Me: Make plays.Guy: So you’re working a crappy job that doesn’t pay you much so that you can take time off and work more on something that doesn’t pay you at all?Me: I guess. I don’t really see it that way. And eventually I’ll be making some money doing theater, not a lot, but enough to live.Guy: Weird.
Or if I was asking the questions, it would go something like this:
Me: So ok, let me get this straight: You don’t really like finance. But you’re going to this school for business. And the plan is that someday you’ll move to New York and get this job that works a million hours a week.Guy: Yeah but it pays a TON of money.Me: Will it be interesting? Will you like the work or find it rewarding?Guy: No. But I can retire really early and do whatever I want.Me: And what do you want to do?Guy: Astronomy. I really love that. It was what I majored in when I was in college.Me: But you could just DO that! That’s a job.Guy: Yeah but I’d have no money.Me: Weird.
On and on like this.
Perhaps the two of us were a bit more forthright than most – I about the grim specifics of a life in theater and he in turn about working on Wall Street – but I would wager that this dicotemy is one that a lot of people have to choose between. And when you land on one side of the line, sometimes it’s tough to imagine being on the other. This guy and I dated each other for a while. Longer than you’d think given how little we had to talk about, how much we thought the other person was sort of bizarre and had their priorities mis-aligned and especially how much my sister really hated him. (Dale, you’re right, he was kind of douchy). I think it was really just the fascination with how the other half lives, how people make choices totally different from your own and seem to carry on totally confident in them. At least that was true for me.
I’m not trying to be glib about this. It was genuinely strange to think back on this time when I was bumping up this very specific and particular way that I live my life against another person my own age. I’d go to social functions with him and people would flock around me. I am not a social butterfly, I don’t do small talk well. But I think the fact of me in the midst of these people was an anomoly. I was a weirdo doing weirdo things. And those weirdo things were different enough to make a lot of people ask me questions about what I did every day – working at a cheese shop, the piece I was planning on, etc – the things that to me seemed awfully banal.
At this point, it’s been a long time since I had a significant person – friend or significant other – that wasn’t involved in the arts. The only ones left are my family and the few folks in my non-theater jobs that aren’t performers. These folks are mostly acclimated to what the artist’s life is like but there are still times when I feel a little alien trying to explain what I do and why I do it to them. I think it’s important for us artsy types to remember that there’s a difference. Not to alienate ourselves or imagine that no one understands us, but to remind ourselves that it’s likely not intuitive to the average person what the particular concerns of an art maker will be. Remind ourselves of all the choices we take for granted. Remind ourselves the things we gain for all the losses we sometimes perceive ourselves needing to adopt. It’s not an excuse for the arts to be impoverished, but it’s an important reminder why anyone would persist in them when such a lack of recompense is potentially part of the deal.
Think about the fact that artists, as general rule, are always looking for more work. This instinct is so ingrained that often we need to remind ourselves not to take jobs that don’t pay or don’t pay nearly enough. How many janitors do you see considering coming in on off days just to get some exposure to the craft? Beyond simple economics, I think that artists take on lots of work because they love the work they do. And indeed they are often evaluating that work not simply on metrics of money but on the level to which the work challenges, engages, and uplifts them. This force likely plays a role every time we decide to start a new project and it means that we have to evaluate and make meaning of our income source ALL THE TIME. This is rare in the outside world. Don’t underestimate that power.
Artists make their own schedule. Ok, not all. But many. As generative creators this is sometimes a strange paradox: no one stops you from doing whatever you feel like. (No one forces you to do anything either). Even when you are a gun for hire, we still get to decide if we take a job. And though we often view that instability with fear, it is a real power to say yes or no to work, to determine whether you deem an institution worthy of you. And at the end of the day, you can always go entrepeneur. Nothing stops you from making something yourself.
You get to work with so many people and form deep deep bonds with them in short periods of time. I worked in an office for a summer. It was boring and I barely talked to anyone. One of the things I love about rehearsals is that suddenly I feel like I’ve rediscovered a whole new group of friends. In fact often, I like to work with the same folks simply for the pleasure of their company. Making a play is like going to war without the war – all the comradery, none of the bloodshed. And when you really hate your boss or your co-worker, you know that you only have to deal with them for a few weeks or months. If you hate your boss, you can even quit and know that it only affects the next few weeks of your salary versus the rest of your life. While temporary-ness can be tough in some ways, you also know that you can take risks and try things others might not be able to if it meant a commitment of forever.
You get to make things that matter to you. Not always, not perfectly, but in general if you’re in the arts you aren’t there to please others. The world of theater especially is just too punishing. If you didn’t find something meaningful in the words you write or say, the movement you create, the songs you sing, the stories you are telling, you’d leave. If you make your own work this is doubly true. And this is why we are willing to put up with jobs we really don’t care about, because the thing we really do is what we really want to be expressing about ourselves.
And finally, Artists like what they do. Let me repeat that. We like what we do. This one still flabergasts me. That there are so many people in the world that literally hate the thing they spend most of their waking hours doing. That they are biding their time and counting down the hours until they are free.
You are already free. I know sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. But you really are.
And that is a serious luxury.