Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day 238: The "struggling artist" stereotype and me

I was a bit stumped for a blog topic, so I put out a notice for ideas on facebook.  An old childhood friend of mine, Gina Fraser Hoppa, replied with a couple of great ideas, including "the stereotype behind struggling artists and your personal journey".  It got me wondering, how typical has my experience as an artist been?  Do I wear the mantle of "struggling artist"?

First, what is the stereotype of the struggling artist?  I picture a young kid who comes to New York with big dreams and $20 in her pocket, gets into an arts college of some kind, slaves away taking classes all day and waiting tables all night, and lives in a dingy, cramped, cockroach-infested 2bd apartment in the east village with 5 other roommates.  She graduates school, ready to conquer the world, and now instead of being in class all day and waiting tables all night, she is standing in line for auditions all day and still waiting tables all night.  On top of that, she still must squeeze in dance classes and acting classes and voice classes whenever she can, only now she has to pay for them out of her table waiting money because student loans are over (except for having to pay them off now).  The apartment gets smaller, and she lives on top ramen and peanut butter.  She lands an acting/dancing/singing gig here or there, and sometimes they even pay enough that she can take herself out to dinner or even, if she's really lucky, stop waiting tables for a few weeks til the job is over.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This goes on indefinitely - possibly for many, many years - until she either can't hack it anymore and gives up the dream to take some kind of soul-sucking corporate job, or she gets lucky and actually gets the kind of break that allows her to change her mantle from "struggling artist" to "working artist".  Sound about right?

My journey has had some similarities to this, certainly, but also a lot of differences.  I was too intimidated by NYC to come here for college (it was a very different city in 1990), so I stayed out west for both college and grad school.  I did work a few stints as a waitress, but I largely paid my way with my computer/admin skills and teaching skills (I was also fortunate to have scholarships, teaching assistantships, and some family help).  I didn't escape student loans altogether though (I am still paying them off, 13 years later).  I still didn't come to New York right after grad school, instead getting married and going back to California, first to San Diego and then to San Francisco.

After school, instead of waitressing, I went right into the soul-sucking corporate day job, squeezing in voice lessons during my lunch hour and dance classes on Saturdays and acting classes at night.  I was eventually able to leave corporate life and teach music instead, both privately and at a college (this is the one leg up that my grad degree gave me).  I auditioned - always, always auditioned -- and I got a lot of small-time gigs, but they rarely paid much more than the gas money it took to commute the long distances to get to them.  I traveled to New York City every couple of months for bigger auditions and to study with teachers and coaches here.  Almost every dime I made teaching went right back into my own lessons, audition fees, and travel expenses to New York.  I could never have done this if I hadn't been married.  Eventually, finally, I was able to relocate myself, my then-husband and our two cats to THE BIG APPLE.

To be an artist in New York, one has to be scrappy.  I've worked a lot of different jobs here, including walking dogs.  Seriously.  Eventually I landed a great part-time office job (as great as an office job can possibly be), which I still have 5 years later.   When I was still singing, a large amount of my income went to private lessons, workshops, and audition costs.  Since I gave up trying to get other people to hire me and started putting on my own shows -- first as a singer and now as a playwright -- that same money now goes to producing those shows. 

The last two years are when I most keenly felt like a true "struggling artist".  Upon getting divorced, my part-time income was close to impossible to live on.  I took on additional part-time work, reluctant to strap myself into the full-time-soul-sucking corporate job, as it is almost impossible to leave that once you are in it.  At times, I have juggled as many as 3 different jobs, all the while taking classes and writing and performing and producing shows.  Those of you that have followed my blog have heard me bitch and moan about this.

Finally, in just the last few months, I feel I have gone beyond "struggling".  Now that my voice teaching studio is firmly established and growing, I make enough money between that and my office job to actually save money as well as enjoy some meals out and some vacations -- no more buying groceries on credit cards for me.  Soon, soon, I will even have enough students to let go of the part-time job and then I will have that most precious of all commodities -- more time.

But beyond money, I think the main reason I no longer feel like a struggling artist, is that I am no longer trying to make a living from the art I create.  Sure, I would love for that to come to pass, but I know it very well may never happen.  I know that I have to create in order to be happy, so I am finding ways to create that are fulfilling to me regardless of whether or not they make me any money.  I only demand that they make me happy

I think rather than a "struggling artist", I would call myself a "striving artist".  As I described myself on my indiegogo profile for my play shower, I am: "an opera singer - turned cabaret singer - turned producer - turned playwright, a woman forever striving to inspire, touch, and connect with people through her art. 

And that's my story.
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