Have you ever dreamt of being a real artist?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to call yourself a real painter, or a real writer, or a real actress, or a real musician?
Have you ever described yourself as someone who does something amazing and magical and wonderful and life-affirming and then added “on the side”?
Well, you might not like what I have to say.
Because I have come here today to deliver the unfortunate truth that you are lying to yourself.
You are not going to become a real artist one day.
You are a real artist right now.
You are a real artist when you sit in traffic, when you wait for the dentist, when you clean up the toys in your kid’s bedroom.
I have known I was a real writer since I was a little kid in Flemington, New Jersey.
How did I know I was a writer?
I got lucky.
A grown-up told me.
When you are a little kid and an adult tells you that you are something, you are wont to believe it. Remember this the next time a kid tells you she is a ballerina, or a math genius, or a comet streaking through an inky black night sky.
For years, I wrote only in my journals. I wrote diary entries, and sometimes stories about myself or other people I knew or celebrities or imaginary creatures. When I stayed home sick from school, I took pieces of yellow stationery with the Mack Trucks logo (this was where my grandma worked) and I wrote and drew comic strips about magical people.
In the third grade I wrote a short story called “Jared’s Christmas” that won an award from the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. There was a ceremony and I was very, very nervous, because even then I had panic disorder, but I accepted my award and got my certificate and my mother and father clapped really loud and it felt really good to know I was a real writer.
I was a real writer then, and I am a real writer now, as I (anxiously and joyfully and cautiously and fretfully and gratefully and I need a Xanax) celebrate the launch of my second book, “Great.”
These days, I am allegedly a grown-up. While I don’t know you personally, I know that you are a real artist if you can answer “yes” to any or all of these questions:
Do you make art?
Do you make art because something inside you tells you that you must make art?
Do you make art because it’s the only way you can feel like yourself sometimes?
Do you make art because it brings you joy, and also pain, but the good kind of pain, the kind you need in order to remember that you are a real person with worth and value and power and all of the feelings (yes, even the shitty ones)?
Do you make art because it’s fun?
Would you make art regardless of whether anybody paid you to make art?
Do you stay up at night after the kids have gone to sleep, when you really ought to be in bed yourself, or at least doing laundry, just because it gives you a few precious minutes to make art?
Do you sit at your computer in your office and make plans to use the money from your office-and-computer job to buy supplies to make art?
Do you make art that some people love?
Do you make art that some people hate?
Do you make art that some people ignore?
Then congratzel tov, my friend. You are a real artist.
When I was 23, I decided to become a high school teacher in order to support myself as a writer. And so I taught high school in the Southwest and no one published anything I wrote, though I tried to convince them it was a good idea.
I was a real writer then.
I was also a real writer when I was a paralegal working at a law firm in Chelsea specializing in immigration for fashion models. I was a real writer when I worked at a publishing company in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood so violent we were required to sign out of work no later than 4 p.m. so that we could reach the subway before nightfall (there had been an assault and a murder a few years back, so the company was cautious). I was a real writer when I worked at a fancy pet boutique on the Upper East Side, where customers spent upwards of $300 on luxurious cat beds and eccentric women came into the shop pushing puppies in prams. I was a real writer when I worked at Planned Parenthood HQ. I was a real writer when I hosted a satellite radio talk show about sex and love and dating five nights a week from 8 to 11 East, 5 to 8 Pacific. I was a real writer when the show got cancelled and I collected unemployment. I was a real writer when I worked at a start-up and I was a real writer when I quit the start-up to write full-time.
I am a real writer now, and I will be a real writer until I die, whether or not I always do this as my full-time job. I have had day jobs in the past and I have no reason to believe I will not have day jobs in the future.
The biggest myth we are fed as artists is that we need to sustain ourselves solely on our art. This is ridiculous. Every artist has at some point in time had some other job. Some of them kept these jobs their entire lives. In the latter category: William Carlos Williams was a doctor in New Jersey; Henry Darger was a custodian in Chicago; Harvey Pekar was a VA Hospital clerk in Cleveland.
In more temporary capacities: Maya Angelou was a cable-car conductor; Sandra Cisneros was an administrative assistant; JK Rowling was a secretary; Jeremy Renner was a makeup artist (Please read that again: Jeremy Renner was a makeup artist).
Art does not require an MFA. Art does not require a BA. Art does not require a high school diploma. Art does not require any formal education at all.
Art does not need your full-time attention. Art does not demand that you starve in order to afford paint and canvas and brushes.
There is more nobility in hard work than in pure luck (though every artist can use a bit of that.) You’ll make better art after a day at the office than you will after a lifetime in an ivory tower.
Real artists have day jobs, and night jobs, and afternoon jobs. Real artists make things other than art, and then they make time to make art because art is screaming to get out from inside them. Screaming, or begging, or gently whispering.
Don’t ever let them tell you you’re not a success. Don’t ever let them tell you you’re not good enough. Don’t ever let them tell you you’re not the real deal.
More importantly: don’t ever tell yourself any of these things.
Believe me when I tell you that no matter how much time you spend at the office, it’s just a side gig.
You are an artist, full-time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Now go make your art.