by: Jason Karasev, M.A.
For many creative professionals life can be a never-ending roller coaster. A career in the arts is subjective, competitive and you often have to “know someone to get somewhere.” While all of these external factors can be stifling, artists often face an equally difficult internal process of feeling “up and down.” This pattern can make even the most successful and accomplished people question their sense of identity and worth. I hope to shed some light on this often painful shifting and lay out some ways that creative professionals can brave the storm.
STAGE 1: OH, THE POSSIBILITIES!
Maybe you’ve been here before: “This audition just came in. It’s going to change my life! If I get this (fill in wildest dreams).” Or: “Holy shit! This idea is incredible. I know how I want the whole story to go — the world, the characters, the conflict!” The start of almost any creative project is intoxicating. You know your capability and the results will be golden. Forget sleep -- you're gonna’ work all night, baby! You have a sense of power, talent, and the feeling of being unusually upbeat. But then…
STAGE 2: THE CRASH
Somewhere in the later phases of the work – running your lines, outlining a story, finding the right chords– there is a sinking feeling that sets in: a “crash.” Replacing that voice of power and potential is a new one that says,
“You don’t have what it takes.”
“Look at (fill in name of nemesis), they always get the gig – why am I even trying?”
And finally, “I’m not cut out for this. I should probably just quit.”
You’ve gone from top of the world to bottom of the barrel. You feel worthless, find it hard to motivate, and isolate from friends and loved ones. This can be a very destabilizing and painful process. But before I discuss how artists can empower themselves, let’s acknowledge a few things about that roller coaster.
SETTING THE STAGE
You are not alone. Those living a creative life — especially as a professional pursuit — often go through a process of feeling absolutely empowered and absolutely defeated. This is why there are acting coaches, books on writers block, and sometimes eight writers on that hit pop song – it’s hard!
No, that other person does not have it all figured out. It’s easy from the outside to look at a colleague and feel certain they are not struggling. But believe it or not – they wrestle with the same fears and insecurities. Even people at the “top of their game” battle low confidence and self-doubt.
Societal pressure is real. We live in a society where success is equated with wealth and regularity, but a creative life is often an unpredictable one of feast or famine. It’s important to acknowledge how society (and maybe even your family) addresses your “unconventional” lifestyle. These attitudes can wriggle their way into your mind and negatively impact your self-esteem.
But let’s be real: despite these challenges, you still have the dream, drive, and need for expression to forge on. So…
HOW TO FIND BALANCE?
Know your value. When times are tough in our society (like oh, I don’t know: a pandemic), where do people turn for comfort? Art. They turn to books, television, music….Remind yourself you are an integral part of our culture. You provide a laugh in times of sorrow, or an escape to a different world when the realities of this one are too harsh. It is a noble and healing pursuit to dedicate oneself to the Arts, and it takes guts.
Keep your power. Often times, how artists feel about themselves depends on their latest validation or rejection. Giving this power to others forms a slippery slope where your happiness is contingent on getting a “yes” or “no.” And hey – of course validation feels good! Especially when you’ve poured yourself into something deeply personal; but try to set your own standards of achievement. At the end of the day, you are doing this for you, not for “them.”
The need to make money is real. As a creative, you’re often told you should donate your work or work for less (or nothing!) because it fuels your passion. You can be made to feel like less of an artist if you expect a paycheck like everyone else. Well, you do deserve a paycheck. But obtaining one can be difficult. This is why so many creatives hold down a day job, sometimes even two or three. These jobs are not a sign of failure, but necessary to pursuing your goals. And none of us can be summed up by one part– so even when you serve tables, tend bar, dabble in real estate, or walk dogs – you are still that artist. Not to mention this can help pay for headshots, studio time, or that next project.
Seek support and do things just for you. Find others who understand your passion, and value you regardless of output. Form a writers group, read scripts for fun, jam with your buddies. Find a therapist (yes, I’m biased) who you feel understands your experience. Create a project without the intention of showing someone else and see how it feels. This can empower you and put you in touch with your original love for the work.
You are not “whining” if you talk about how hard this is. Trying to live a creative life is really hard and it does take a toll. You have the right to feel sad or pissed off. However, you also have choice. While you can’t control outcomes, you can control your internal process and relationship to what you do. You can also choose how you express your creative passion – pursuing it professionally or weaving it into the fabric of your everyday life in other ways. Which brings me to…
Having a “fallback” or choosing a different path does not make you a failure or less of a creative. Artistry and creative work are not defined by your job title and where your salary comes from. Lawyers, Accountants, Mechanics…they can all live a creative life. If you need to change course, or integrate something new, you have the right. Pain and artistic worth are too often paired together, but there is no evidence that ‘pushing through’ leads to success or happiness. Set boundaries, define your personal goals, and do what you gotta’ do.
During the pandemic this roller coaster may be even more volatile. The inability to perform live or generate material may feel like a tragic loss. This difficulty is understandable – many artists’ greatest strength is being in tune with the world, and right now there is a lot of heaviness to hold. But in the spirit of this article, I hope creative professionals can explore the notion that they are more than just output, external validation, or social expectations.
Here are some books that further support and explore creative living:
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott