I had a sort of epiphany recently, which makes it sound much more grandiose than it actually was.
When I moved into the apartment where I live now, I had the sense that I was going to live here for a while. And I’ve done a pretty thorough job of decorating, although it’s not done yet. There are still pictures to put up on the walls, and I just bought a new bookshelf, the last bookshelf I need to complete the apartment. It will have to be painted. Still, when I moved in, I had a sense of stability. And honestly, it scared me. I’m not used to stability . . . I’m used to always being on the way somewhere else. In law school, I was on my way to a legal career. In my legal career, I was trying as hard as I could to get out, to go back to graduate school. In graduate school, I had to actually finish and graduate. And then I did: I had my degree and a job I love, teaching writing. But things were still changing: I started teaching at Stonecoast as well as at Boston University, I moved from my smaller apartment into this larger one. I was still in transit. And now . . . I feel as though I’m here, stable, standing still. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not used to it, and I was worried that if I wasn’t moving forward, I was somehow getting stuck, going nowhere.
The epiphany was that I or a divine force (I like to think it was the both of us working together) had gotten me to the perfect place, the place I need to be right now. I have two jobs I love, teaching both undergraduates and graduate students. I love where I live. Oh yes, city living has its annoyances. But from here, I can go anywhere: the museums, the libraries, the train stations, the airport. It’s as though I live at the center of everything, and that center is a tree-lined street with old brownstones that, if you walk along it and then turn right, leads to a bookstore. Or if you turn farther on, a cupcake shop. Perfect, right? My apartment isn’t large, but it has ten-foot ceilings and sunlight streaming in through the windows. It’s the perfect size for what I need it to be, which is a refuge and a place to write. I have a home, an income, and then . . . I have the writing. And that’s at the heart of it all, really. Because what we’re trying to do, if we’re artists, is craft a life that lets us do the art. That’s the whole point.
And it’s not easy, is it? I was thinking about what it entails, and because I am a list-making animal, I came up with a list. Here are the things you need, in order to craft a life for yourself as an artist.
1. Meeting your physical needs.
This is the most basic step, the bottom of the pyramid. You need to meet your physical needs — food, shelter, safety. I know, there’s the cliché of the starving artist. I’ve known plenty of artists who were starving, or at least in situations of serious instability: writers, musicians, cartoonists. Guess what? It’s harder to create art when you’re scrambling to afford groceries, to find an apartment. To afford heating in Maine. (Yes, these examples are based on friends of mine.)
The reality is that it’s incredibly difficult to support yourself solely through art. If you see a writer who doesn’t have a job, the likelihood is that either he or she has an alternative source of income (family money or income from a spouse), or the writer earns most of his or her money through freelancing. Writing technical manuals, tie-in novels, video games: words that are commissioned, that do not belong to the writer because he or she is doing work-for-hire and the copyright is in the company. Very few writers earn enough simply from their creative writing to live on — or raise a family on. Those who do have usually had to work years to get there, to become famous enough, to build up enough of a backlist, to earn significant money from writing.
So if you want a creative life, find a way to meet your physical needs, whether it’s teaching or working at Starbucks. And be proud of yourself for having done so — you’re not selling out. You’re building the bottom of the pyramid that will allow you to become an artist.
2. Meeting your spiritual needs.
I think we have spiritual needs as well as physical ones. By spiritual, I mean a need to connect with sources of creativity. We need libraries, parks, museums. We need to read, to walk by the river, to look at paintings. We need beauty as well as bread. That’s the second level of the pyramid, and for an artist I think it’s as important as the first, although perhaps less immediately crucial. First pay your rent, then stare at a Monet . . .
But remember that if you’re going to create, you will need to feed your soul as well as your body. It’s the spiritual food that will inspire and inform your art. And the physical and spiritual can come together: in your apartment (rent paid for), you can create a beautiful space, filled with music and books. You can hang paintings on the walls. You can create a home for not just your body, but your soul.
3. Learning the craft.
I went back and forth on whether to break this out as a separate step: I was originally going to put it under “creating the art,” below. But I do, after all, think it’s different: this is the process of learning how to create your art, and you need to make a place for it as well. When I first started writing professionally, it was after having gone to writing workshops, but now I learn in other ways: by teaching, for one. Teaching undergraduates and graduate students means that I’m constantly learning.
This is the hard discipline of the ballet dancer who is constantly going to classes, constantly doing his or her exercises . . . The best artists I know, the Charles Vesses or P.J. Lynches of the world, seem to paint or draw every day. They are continually learning.
4. Creating the art.
This is the top of the pyramid, the place we wanted to get to, right? All the other levels of the pyramid lead to here. It’s much easier creating art if you’ve met your physical and spiritual needs, if you’ve learned and are learning about your craft. That’s usually where art happens. It comes not out of starving in a garret, not out of panic and anguish, but out of a small, stable place where you can do the work that is uniquely yours.
My epiphany was that I am in that place: what I need to do now, rather than panic about the fact that I’m not going anywhere, is sit down and write. I have at least five books lined up that I want to write, and guess what? Books don’t write themselves. You need to sit, move the hand across the paper, move the fingers over the keyboard. And that’s what I need to do. (That, and work on meeting my physical need for sleep. I’m much better at meeting my physical need for chocolate!) Write the book, write the next book. Teach fascinating classes, grade smart although grammatically problematic papers, go for walks along the river, remember to use my museum membership, read books. Eat cupcakes. And write . . .
Meeting physical needs: books for a class I’m planning on teaching next fall.
Meeting spiritual needs: flowers on my table.
And the writer herself, in the neighborhood bookstore.