Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Henry David Thoreau
In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.
In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables.
Though working as a teaching artist has paid the bulk of my bills for a while now, I’ve resisted quitting the restaurant business altogether. For one thing, waiting tables is a good job for an artist; the money’s decent and the hours usually flexible. Freelancing is often feast or famine; two or three nights a week of steady restaurant income helps during the lean times. The other reason is psychological. I think I’ve kept a foot in the service industry because it doesn’t feel like a career. If I took a meaningful full-time job—in a school or an arts nonprofit maybe—I worry I might stop writing. Or write a whole lot less. During my tenure in the service industry, I’ve watched fellow servers get real estate licenses, take sales jobs, go back to school. Some have kept working at their artistic dreams; others have downgraded their art to hobby status. Writing feels necessary to me. More necessary than working out, than doing the dishes, more necessary than money. Writing is right up there with love as things I need to feel whole and happy.
But lately, I’ve grown tired of the hustle. It’s gotten harder and harder to make ends meet as a teaching artist. The whole freelance venture feels uncertain, precarious. There are tough schools, poorly managed programs and an ever-shifting arts-in-education landscape. There are a lot more people out there doing this type of work and a lot more small organizations than there were twenty years ago. It occurred to me recently that I’ve basically been running my own business for twenty years with no training and no plan. No wonder it feels like I’m struggling.
I always thought if I weren’t a writer I’d be a doctor. From a layperson’s perspective, medicine seems nice and straightforward. There’s a road map: Go to medical school, choose a specialty, fix people who are sick. My path as a writer, on the other hand, has been circuitous and murky and if there’s a map somewhere, I haven’t found it. My mother has said on several occasions: “You made your choices.” Meaning, I could be making more money if I wanted to—if I were, say, a doctor instead of a writer. She is correct. I have been privileged to have a choice in the matter of what I do. Many people don’t have that, I know.
So how to live as an artist?
I stumbled upon a blog called The Days of Yore which interviews artists about the “years before they had money, fame or road maps to success” in hopes of inspiring readers to find their own. The interviewers say their mission is to gather stories from subjects about the “floating, in-between time when we’re figuring out how to establish and sustain ourselves (and make money) doing what we want to be doing.” It’s a worthy idea. And the interviews are really interesting to read. But how do we measure success? The in-between time they write about on The Days of Yore can continue for one’s whole life. Lots of writers—famous ones even—have other jobs to pay the bills. I feel like I need to hear those stories. The not-so-glamorous stories about persevering, living a life as an artist.
Samuel Beckett gave this advice to a young poet:
If you must write, you should do it in the face of all opposition. It was in the night, exhausted & sick after ten hours at the Berlitz School that Joyce wrote Ulysses… When everything conspires to make the thing impossible, when you are tired, worried, with no time, or money, it is then that things get done…So, patience & courage.
I found that quote in a post on the Ploughshares blog by Jennifer De Leon, a writer and teacher, on her struggle to find balance between the two. Alexis Jenni, the forty-eight year old biology teacher who won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt for his novel The French Art of War, said he thought he would “never be anything other than a Sunday writer.” Paul Harding wrote his Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, while teaching and navigating new parenthood. He said he resorted to “guerrilla writing”—“I could flip open the laptop and write anywhere.” T.S. Eliot chose to keep his day job at a bank even when friends offered to set up a fund to allow him to write full time.
Friends, I’m letting it be known, I would graciously accept such largesse.
I haven’t figured out exactly what my writer’s life looks like. I do love teaching; I’m grateful for the adventures I’ve had and the connections I’ve made as a teaching artist. Waiting tables gave me fodder for at least one screenplay, but I could say goodbye tomorrow and not shed a tear. I like having health insurance, and I wish paying bills wasn’t so anxiety ridden. So I’m doing some recalibrating, trying to figure out the best way to live the life I want. Creativity is messy; I suppose it’s unrealistic to think the trajectory of a creative life would be any less so. I know I’m not alone in struggling with this conundrum of how do I earn my keep and do my work. I haven’t figured it all out yet. Like I said, there’s no road map.
What I’ve worked on, along the way, is figuring out how to love my life. How to live it with passion and meaning. Isabel Allende, who’s written over twenty books, says it’s about saying yes to everything that comes your way—happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain. That’s one choice—the yes—I want to keep on making.
Here’s to knowing your bone and gnawing it, here’s to guerrilla artists everywhere, here’s to patience and courage and messiness. Here’s to the yes.