#273: An Artist on Your Terms

Iron Goddess of Mercy at Jing'an Temple
Guanyin Hall, Jing'an Temple, Shanghai, China

This happens from time to time: you’ll tell someone you’re a writer, and they’ll ask, “What do you really do?” It’s not unlike the way some people will ask, if you’re Asian-American, “Where are you really from?”

They’re both tired tropes: that Asians are perpetually foreign, and artists are perpetually struggling. The exception here, if you’re a writer, might be if you’ve been published by a big publisher and they’ve seen your book in the store. Even then, there are doubts. “Do you teach?” they’ll ask. “How do you make your living?”

You’ll find yourself saying, as a hedge, that you used to be a designer, that freelance work at one time paid the bills. Or you’ll say that you visit schools and coach other writers, as means to supplement your income. These things may be true, but by saying them out loud, in this context, you’re playing into the trope, confirming for the other person what they knew all along about art and artists; your words may placate, but the cost is a piece of your soul.

There will, however, be moments when you don’t provide those details. When you say you write novels for a living, and that’s it. You’ll find that they then get apologetic, and say things like, “Well, I’m so busy that I don’t know when I’d ever find the time to write books.” It may all be unintentional, it may stem from their genuine curiosity, from some inner desire to pursue their own art. But that doesn’t make it less disparaging. It doesn’t make the subtext any less, You don’t belong in my conception of the world.

You talk about this at a workshop with a dozen other artists, in the living room of a slam poet’s new home. Even as artists, you’re as susceptible to these tropes as anyone else; sometimes you’re not the best about celebrating your successes, or revealing your failures, at discussing them with each other. There’s a tendency, one person says, to make it seem like it’s business as usual – to not talk, not share, regardless of how well you’re doing. To convey a baseline of unremarkable struggle.

Maybe it’s a Midwest thing, but it’s very different from being in New York, working in industries where the norm is more to boast about both accomplishments (and about failure as accomplishment), which, of course, is not without its own shadows. One wise person points out, toward the end of the workshop, that the need to have your work recognized, seen as important and meaningful and having value to others – the need for external validation – leads nowhere healthy. Much more important, they say, to take yourself seriously.

You’re reminded of your friend Courtney’s recent podcast episode:

I’ll add, at the risk of sounding like a cheesy Instagram quote, that no one gives you this belief [that your work has value]; you have to give it to yourself. I mention this because I find it so difficult. Do you? How often do you show up to the page, start to write, and think, oh who cares? I did it here, on this page. And sure, some part of us believes it’s worthwhile – that’s how we’re able to come back – but we can’t sustain ourselves on that little part. That belief has to expand. Taking yourself seriously means saying that what you create matters because you matter – your voice, your experience, your art. To keep showing up book after book, poem after poem, that belief has to be strong.

You decide, in the car on your way home, that from now on, when someone calls themself an artist, you’re going to take their word for it. Regardless of what visible successes they’ve had. Regardless of whether they do it full-time or not. You’re going to reclaim that label for yourself, too. You decide to say, instead of I write, I am a writer. I may do other things to pay the bills, but I get to choose whether I want to talk about them, and how I want to think about them. I get to celebrate my successes, and share my failures, as both have value. As my work has value.

You decide, as you do with any true identity: I am an artist, on my own terms.