Now You’re an Artist
Every year, Mom and Dad worried about what we’d do for money when Dad got laid off for the winter. As an eight-year-old, I bit my nails in the corner of the living room and worried too.
Dad was a cement-truck driver, and Mom was his housewife. We were practical.
I never claimed to want to grow up and write novels. I wanted to be a secretary. When I watched Nick-at-Nite, you know which women always had jobs?
Secretaries. I dreamed of security.
I didn’t know the word ‘novelist’ the same way I didn’t know the words ‘trust fund.’ Those things weren’t in my world.
I thought the only people who got to be artists were prodigies and children with rich parents who’d save them when their art inevitably failed. Since I was neither, I put art away and got out my calculator.
Imagine my outrage when I grew up and discovered we blue-collar kids were every bit as allowed to become artists as anyone, only our parents hadn’t told us — it’s our birthright, and it had been all along.
That shouldn’t happen to you. I’m giving you permission to be an artist, no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if your parents are rich, and it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you’re already doing.
Trust me on this shit: There’s no greater use of your time than finding the real art inside of you. Your art is the only thing that can heal you from the inside out. We could all use some healing.
So if Mom and Dad were plumbers instead of Rockefellers, but you’ve always longed for a microphone instead of a plunger, this guide is for you. Here are some tips I learned by accident while everyone tried to keep me in the dark.
Learn how to do something people want — this side hustle props up your art.
Here’s the first thing I had to understand about becoming an artist: you actually have to become one. Expecting your art to pay the rent while you work on getting better at art is like planning to do surgeries to earn your tuition for med school.
Do what your parents did and learn a trade instead.
Learn their trade if you want. Me? I could barely ride a bicycle, let alone drive a big-rig, so I didn’t follow in Dad’s footsteps as a truck driver. But I was pretty good at math so I studied coding and business.
Ariel Gore, one of my favorite writers, suggests becoming an electrician.
Samantha Irby worked in a veterinary clinic while she ran her blog and wrote multiple books.
Whatever your trade is, just make sure it’s not something like brain surgery that won’t leave you any time to work on what really matters — your glorious songs about growing up the son of a plumber, remember?
Don’t bother hating your side hustle.
When I started college (via financial aid — going into debt for a degree might be dumb), my only criteria for a career was that it offers a salary and job security when I graduated.
I ran my finger down the course catalog and stopped on software engineering.
“I like math. I’ll be an engineer!”
And I might’ve, had the professors in the software engineering department not been demons from the Hellmouth. I dropped out within a year.
Here’s the thing: I’m grateful to those demonic professors because they did their job as gatekeepers meant to keep out wannabes like me. They saved me ten years doing something I would’ve hated.
After leaving the engineering department, I transferred to the business school. I still got to code, but now without the additional requirement of solving esoteric engineering problems — no longer was I expected to prove I could build a structurally sound tower out of restaurant straws.
With my final exams on paper where they belonged, I was free to graduate, suck up to my mentors, and enter the world as an office drone.
That was my path to a side hustle that would prop up my art, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Your path will probably be different.
The thing we’ll have in common is that you won’t settle for the first thing you’re decent at, especially if you hate it. Hating your daily life is a massive waste of energy.
Find a side hustle you love just enough to do most days, or you’ll have to live outside.
You got the job, but remember you’re nobody’s serf — you’re an artist.
For the first seven years I was an office drone, I wrote nothing but emails. I still believed art was for rich people. I got a jealous pain in my stomach when I saw other people writing, but I’d convinced myself it wasn’t for me.
How could it be when the few times I’d tried, I sucked? Blogging where other people could read it felt like hearing my voice on a tape recorder: I was embarrassed by the echo and wanted to turn it off.
Since writing was so scary, I pretended I’d loved business all along. Running from your passion builds up good momentum. I got pretty good at the thing I only sort of liked.
That’s why it was so confusing to everyone when I stopped going to work.
I hated my daily life, even though I didn’t hate the side hustle. I’d made a beautiful prop — my side hustle — but I wasn’t doing anything with it. With nothing to prop up, I got depressed. We all need meaning just like we need food and water.
Often if you don’t change your direction, something else will intervene and change it for you. Something will come into your life and redirect you inward. For me, it was a mental breakdown and quitting a job I thought I loved.
The situation seemed unfair while it was happening, but it brought me back to myself. Now I’m back at work and treating my side hustle like a side hustle while I do art in all the spare moments.
To recap the recipe, get your side hustle in place, then add meaning. You’ll find meaning not at the grocery store, but in the thing you’ve always wanted to do if you didn’t have to do it right.
Now you’re an artist.
If you’re still too scared to do art, here’s some advice that’ll piss you off: just start.
It’s the only way. Go in with the attitude: “I may suck at this and that’s all right. I expect to fail, so failing doesn’t exist. Success is showing up.”
Why are you doing this? Because there’s nothing better to do in life except live out your dreams. And heroin. You could do heroin, but we’ve all seen that movie, so how about something new?
Let’s make a deal — you’ll start with ten minutes a day. If you want to play music, play your guitar or ukulele ten minutes a day. Don’t get cute and aim higher than that.
Ten minutes a day, kept religiously, will you get you exponentially further than committing to an hour a day but showing up once a week. The minutes practiced will be close, but you aren’t practicing minutes. You’re practicing art, and the idea of a practice is that it’s done daily.
You’ll get better over time. If you show up and don’t try to get worse, you can’t help but get better. The better you get, the more you enjoy your practice. The more you enjoy your practice, the more you’ll want to practice.
One day, maybe you’ll make enough money to support yourself with your plumber songs. Maybe you’ll no longer need your side hustle.
Or maybe you won’t — maybe there isn’t a lot of demand for toilet songs, or in my case, self-help articles written by someone who’s holding their shit together with their teeth and duct tape.
Either way, no matter the financial outcome, you’ll keep doing your art because that’s what you came here to do —if you were here to make money, this article would be called, “Now You’re a Hedgefund Manager.”
You don’t have to tell your parents you’re going to be an artist.
Parents who worked hard to escape poverty will find it hard to understand when you tell them you’d like to return.
You’ll explain why it’s not a return to poverty, how one day you might make it big, and in the meantime, you have a backup plan. All they’ll hear is that you have a backup plan.
“All right sonny, just don’t quit your day job,” they’ll say, and they’ll pat you on the back like an idiot.
That’s the best you can hope for. The worst is discouragement and outright verbal abuse.
Your parents might see artistry as a step backward. Maybe painting and singing were for hippies and outlaws in their world. My 77-year-old dad still watches Gunsmoke every day and doesn’t understand why I don’t work in a factory.
It’s not his responsibility to change for me, and it’s not mine to change him.
Don’t try and talk them out of their concerns. It’s so much better to create your own community and find support that way.
It’s better still to be your own biggest supporter — after all, you’re the one funding this whole operation.
Go make something!
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