What it Takes to be an Artist

There’s a controversy going on right now about some kid-size shirts sold by Old Navy; they say “Aspiring Artist” on them, except the “Artist” is crossed out and replaced with careers like “Astronaut” and “Doctor”. Apparently some people in the art community are in an uproar that Old Navy would dare to suggest that being an artist isn’t a viable career that children should strive for. They accuse Old Navy of “stifling children’s creativity”.

These sorts of petty debates don’t generally register on my radar, but this one got me thinking. Well, I shouldn’t say it got me thinking, because this is something I’ve thought about often over the years.

My father is a musician. He’s a really good musician, in fact. He plays piano and sings, and he is seriously world-class. I was born while he and my mom traveled around in a van with his band, and I heard him say – but only once, I think – that he could have gone further on the road to being a famous rock n’ roll musician, but he chose the family path instead.

I don’t doubt that he could have achieved some level of fame had he kept up touring. When I was a kid, I always felt kind of horrible for being the thing that had held him back, because we really struggled to make ends meet as I was growing up, and he seemed pretty miserable to me. My dad played late nights in a country & western cover band in a bar, back when bars actually had live music every night. Then, during the day, he tried to run our ten acre fruit orchard and gave music lessons. To say he was working hard is an understatement: he was working himself into the ground. My mom worked, too, as a Montessori teacher, but money was still pretty tight.

It wasn’t too long before my parents decided that they weren’t going to be able to run the orchard; farming is hard work, and my dad didn’t have a knack for it. My dad is, always was, and always will be a musician. I’m not sure he’s capable of being anything else, and I say that with the greatest amount of love and respect, because what better thing is there than to find your calling?

So, my dad went back to school and got his Master’s degree in music education. This was a huge, ongoing struggle as well, but he did it –and eventually, my parents’ financial situation stabilized.

My dad kept playing in bands. He plays with pretty much everyone. His incredible skill, along with his natural affability and willingness to collaborate and compromise – his pure joy in just playing – has gotten him some amazing gigs. As an example, he played on Super Heavy with Mick Jagger and Joss Stone.

My dad has truly “made it” as a musician. He continues to practice every day and strive for more, but he is a perfect example of a successful artist.

I have other examples of successful artists in my family. My uncle is John Roderick of The Long Winters. He’s an extremely accomplished songwriter, and he tours around a lot, lately playing with Aimee Mann and Liz Phair. He made a pretty good run for Seattle City Council, as well. I mean, he lost, but he did extremely well for a big, hairy indy-rock musician with no official experience in government. I haven’t been as close to his struggles as I have been to my father’s, but I have been aware of them. He’s sacrificed a lot, and worked really hard. He’s had a lot of people supporting him in his struggles. But those of us who know him know that, like my father, he probably wouldn’t be able to be an accountant or plumber (or, he’d at least be miserable doing those things), because he’s an ARTIST (floaty hand motions).

While we’re on the topic, you should also check out my cousin Libby Roderick, a successful folk artist and activist, and my aunt Susan Roderick, an accomplished photographer.

Back to what is, as an artist, my favorite subject: me.

I’ve always played music, and I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve also held a steady, boring office job for the majority of my adult life. I didn’t want to struggle financially trying to make a successful art career like my dad had, and I didn’t believe I had what it took to do so. I played in bands, I wrote songs and put out albums; it was really fun, sure, but I began to see why my dad choosing the “family path”, as he’d said, hadn’t actually been something he’d said in bitterness. When I would slog home at three in the morning after a gig, sick in my soul from too much booze and too much of the “scene”, I realized that the “family path” is much easier and healthier in most cases.

When I say I held a “steady job” though, that isn’t exactly true: I quit jobs constantly, because I was completely miserable. I always hoped that I’d be able to settle into my career if I just found the right firm; after all, it was good money, and good work. But in reality, the only thing that ever got me out of bed in the morning was the feeble hope that maybe, some day, I wouldn’t have to be an office drone any longer.

My friends told me to “suck it up”, that no one likes to work and I was no special snowflake. That just made me more miserable, because I felt like I was being selfish and entitled thinking that I could do something else with my life. In retrospect, I think that my level of misery far exceeded theirs. It’s just part of my makeup. I’m not a good paralegal, or employee of any sort, and my misery in that sort of work was strong enough to be a driving force that propelled me out of it, at great sacrifice and cost (on my part and on the part of all those around me, I’m afraid).

I was finally able to get myself in a situation where I didn’t have to work outside the home, and I finally had time to sit down and write the book that had been banging around in my head for years – a book I’d started several times without success.

So strong was my desire to do something besides office work, and so great was my joy in writing, that I wrote thirteen full-length novels in two years. I also put a lot of effort into learning how to be a better writer, and into learning how to market. That’s how, after only two years of serious writing, I was able to land a publishing contract.

And that’s how I realized that I, like my dad and my uncle and all those other “artists” who live one step above homeless and shunned by polite society for years as they struggle to make it: I just can’t do anything else. It’s not that I’m “gifted” as an artist, it’s more like I’m cursed with the inability to handle a more mainstream career. I just hope to God that I’m able to make a writing career work, because otherwise, I’m going to be a failure in the biggest sense of the word. However, I love writing so much, and hate doing anything else so much, that I know I’ll struggle until my last breath to be successful at it.

My long observation of people who choose this career has led me to strongly believe that it isn’t success that makes an artist: it’s an unwillingness to give up, even if they have to struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds; even if they have to sleep three hours a night to have time to work on their craft while simultaneously working at a day job and having a family. People don’t really choose an art career; it chooses them.

So, how will you know if you’re truly an artist? It’s not by achieving success, because who ever really feels they’ve achieved success? It’s because you won’t give up.

Back to the t-shirt debate. I’m left wondering why anyone would truly wish an art career upon their child. It’s one of the most difficult career paths a person can choose: years of intense struggle for no pay and no guarantee of success. The divorce and suicide rates amongst artists…well, I’m not going to look it up because I don’t want to be depressed, but I’d gamble they’re higher than amongst the general population. But, then again, if your child wants to be an artist, of course you should support them. And get used to supporting them, well into their thirties.

The long and the short of it is, parents shouldn’t wish any career upon their children. Let children choose their own damn careers.

As for stifling their creativity, well, if all it takes to stifle a child’s creativity and make them give up hope of being an artist is a t-shirt from Old Navy…I gotta tell ya, honey, that kid wasn’t going to be an artist to begin with.

Also, take note: the person who designed that t-shirt was likely a graphic artist.

2 thoughts on “What it Takes to be an Artist

  1. Dear Elizabeth,
    If I owned the proverbial wand, I’d wave it and wish your struggles away. But then, as you well know, those demonic struggles are fuel for your furnace.

    I know of what you speak. I own similar desires and frustration. Sad to say, but money defeated me. I spent (wasted?) a lifetime on a career, a career that I allowed to steal my soul. When people told me how cupcake sweet I was to dedicate my life to others, I pasted a smile on my face and seethed inside with an inward angry cry that insisted I was not who I was supposed to be.

    I believe you’re right to say that insistence separates an artist from those who surrender. I gave up. I pray that you will not.

    You are a gifted writer. That much is obvious from the clarity, intelligence and passion that your words convey.

    We old hippies were wont to preach, “Keep the faith.” Most of us failed to do so. Be different. Different is true.

    Liked by 2 people

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