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How to Be an Artist without Totally Losing It

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By JoAnneh Nagler, Guest Blogger –  The first thing we usually think of when we hear the word ‘artist’ is ‘struggling artist’ or ‘starving artist.’  We tend measure ourselves against two crazy extremes—either by our willingness to starve, or by the multi-million dollar success of the very few.  

We were all schooled in the adage do what you love and the money will follow.  In fact, this is the biggest lie that ever hit the cold hard earth.  There’s no guarantee that our work is going to immediately kick-start in the traditional, money-defined sense just because we love it.  Truly, we have no control over outcomes, and since art is something we are inventing from inside our souls, the world is usually not yet clamoring for it while we’re inventing it. 

What that means to our lives is very simple:  if we want to make art over the long-haul—meaning, have a life of artistry—then we need to put supports under our feet. 

But who in the world received that kind of instruction?  I certainly didn’t.  What I got was a message that artists struggle, they give up their art to raise families or take day jobs, and the only people who get to be artists are the privileged.  But look around:  there are millions of us creating art with ambition.  So we need a new milieu, a new way of thinking about living an artist’s life.  

The good news is, we really can learn to become healthy artists.  We can learn to balance time, day jobs, money, family, work ethics, and motivation with making art.

We’ve been culturally brainwashed into thinking that ‘a real artist,’ is supposed to be ‘tortured’ by his or her art, then instantaneously discovered at the drugstore counter, then somehow be magically gifted by a fairy godmother with artistic work ethics.  But that’s ridiculous.  It’s like expecting that we can jump in an airplane, without ever having learned to fly, and take off without knowing how the gauges work.  We would never do that.  Yet that’s what we expect of ourselves as artists.

So how do we balance all of it?  How do we learn what we need to learn to live a healthy artist’s life?

First, we have to give up the myth of starving as a motivator.  Artists don’t do struggling well.  We are sensitive creatures, and struggling runs too much electricity through already-delicate circuits. 

Then, we need to learn some simple tools.  I talk about these tools in my book—easy things we can apply as we’re learning how to get our hands in our art regularly.  We need to under-expect, and work steadily, not in big bursts.  We need a day job we can live with, one that doesn’t promote angst.  We need clarity in our money—not so we can be good little citizens, but so we can fund the art we love.  We need simple time-mapping exercises, easy motivational tools for beginning, as well as a framework for measuring success based on having our hands in our art work, versus what we earn.  There are skills we can apply to make all of these things work together.

When I was writing my first book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan, I worked one hour a day, four days a week, by the timer.  I definitely believed the American hype that more is better and faster is necessary.  I didn’t think I was doing enough.  But I began to apply what I call the ‘two-thirds rule:’ I mapped out what I thought I could accomplish in a week of writing, and then cut it by two thirds.  Why?  Because everything in life takes three times longer than we expect

Four hours a week, it turned out, over the course of six months, got a lot of serious work done.  Slow and steady gave me a way of beginning; a way of getting my hands dirty with my art each week.

Does that mean that I automatically sat down in my allotted hour and instantly became motivated? No.  But I kept at it—recognizing I was learning a new skill—until I had some chops.  By working each week, I started experiencing the self-esteem of doing my art, and that drew me back into it. 

Art is unlike anything we do in our American linear timeline. It is not populated by the urgency of things like email, running out to pick up the kids, or rushing down the freeway to get to work.  Though our art haunts us, it is not an immediate, do-what’s-urgent process.  It asks us to do what’s important first.  It asks us to set aside blocks of time to discover and explore. 

We often think that if we had a completely open, no-day-job life we’d automatically be motived to sit down and do our art.  But that’s not true.  I know dozens of people who don’t need a job, and don’t have kids to raise, who still can’t get to their art work.  Our regular life and our day job are really our gifts, then:  they hold our feet to the fire with schedule until we gain the strength to beat back distractions and show up for the work we truly love. 

We need—all of us—to move towards a new definition of what it means to be an artist:  a life with art at the center, surely, but one that’s lived in a balanced, decent way.  When we live like this, we are creating the path to happiness for ourselves.  We are structuring the foundation—building it, stone by stone—upon which we are going to build our joy.  

We are showing up for all of it:  artistry, relationships, family, money, day jobs—being fully engaged in every arena of our lives, using every one of our gifts out on the field.  That is how we build a heaven on earth. 

JoAnneh Nagler is an author, painter, musician and yoga teacher.  She is the author of How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt or Your Creative Compass, and the Amazon Top 100 Book The Debt-Free Spending Plan.  Find her at www.AnArtistryLife.com.

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