the struggling artist

Dear Struggling Artist: It’s Time to Sell Out.

I have always despised the notion of the struggling artist. I hate the idea that the only way to be an artist is to suffer. It was the worst in LA. People moved there from all over to chase the dream of being in the entertainment industry. To work as a professional artist. To make money doing what they love. And yet, time after time, when someone would finally make money- an actress, a band, a screen writer- if anyone would ever “breakthrough”, you could always hear rumblings from their peers:


It was a crazy phenomenon- one that seemed to really plague the artist population especially. A wine that pairs well with a large helping of self-sabotage; this desire to succeed coupled with the underlying belief that to be true to the authentic process of art, you probably had to stay poor. And this kind of carnivorous thinking keeps many people stuck in unsatisfying lives. Addicted to the struggle, yet not really knowing why.

But I realized something recently that is rocking my view on creativity. I feel most creative when I am in this kind of intersection of two seemingly conflicting states: limitation and safety.

We Need the Darkness

I am most creative when I am stretched. When I have lost my job, lost my love, when I feel totally uncertain- this is when I usually start writing, start singing; start making things that didn’t exist before. (Or maybe they already existed I was just previously too content/distracted to let them out.)

For me, it’s also like this with cooking. I cook best when there is nothing in the house. If I have too many ingredients I can feel overwhelmed by the possibilities and or complacent about the combinations. But give me a kitchen cupboard, fridge and freezer where there is almost nothing? I will make you something delicious!

I also saw this when I was producing plays in LA. If I gave the actors complete carte blanche with the work, they seemed totally overwhelmed by it. But if I gave them a theme and a direction in which to express themselves, they somehow found it easier to create. Perhaps we need lines to color outside of.

So maybe the struggle part has just been misinterpreted. Maybe, the human spirit is simply at its finest when it is stretched. Maybe our most unique and fundamental creative power is only activated when we are stripped away from the distraction of total comfort. Maybe it’s hard to see even the most blazing candle on a super bright day at the beach. Perhaps we need the dark.

We Need a Safe Space

But there also needs to be some safety. If you are afraid, of anything from extreme rejection and judgment to being physically hurt- the purest form of creativity cannot be born. Don’t get me wrong, amazing things can and do rise from the ashes. But it usually happens afterward. When you are living in fear, of any major kind, you are not free to make mistakes, free to explore, free to express yourself without apology ( or in some cases actual danger).

Being in Berlin has often made it easier for me to express myself and to create things. Where I come from, it’s better to show up with a finished product. But in contrast to LA, Berlin has always felt like an excellent place for experimentation, discovery and expression. And in the end, isn’t that the purpose of art anyway?

Yet, if we are too coddled, too distracted by all the pretty things we might do with our time (and superfluous resources), if we are too comfortable there is very little reason or impetus to really dig in. (Watching 10 minutes of pop music videos should pretty much drive this point home.) It is hard to find and share your unique essence when you are busy floating through the superficial experiences of life.

So it seems that the most brilliant expressions of creative power happen somewhere in the crossfire between desperation and freedom. But to cultivate this kind of situation seems to be a truly professional ability. What a crazy line to walk. And in the end, if you can find a way to live in this kind of creative crucible and actually produce good art, wouldn’t monetary reward simply be a logical byproduct?

Perhaps it’s time to redefine the myth of the struggling artist and “sell out” once and for all on our own terms. Life is the struggle and art is the expression. If we can keep this straight, maybe we become better equipped to actually enjoy the process.

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