Author’s Note: I’m in the process of writing my first book on how to build and sustain a creative life. This post may be the basis for one section of the book. If you’re compelled, engage with it – tell me your stories, share your experiences, let me know where and how this resonates with you. And thanks for letting me share my process. Lots of advanced gratitude to you for your generosity.
A constant and colorful narrative has been playing in my head as of late. I look around at the world and imagine alternate realities of my life. I imagine having money, not lots of it, but enough that booking a vacation wouldn’t feel like taking out a second mortgage (not that I know what having a first mortgage feels like). I imagine having a normal work schedule. I imagine knowing that one day I’ll have a retirement savings. It all looks and feels so stable from my vantage point. It looks grown up. It looks grounded.
And then I look around at my life – our little rental apartment in Queens, my MacBook Pro from 2007 without a battery because I can’t afford a new battery or a new computer, my bank accounts where I need to constantly shuffle around money to pay the bills on time and I see my reality. It’s very much an artist’s life. It’s feels inconsistent, incoherent, untamed. It has all the trimmings of uncertainty and hand-me-downs that you’d expect of someone disregarding financial stability to favor the pursuit of passion.
Which makes it tricky when you lose your passion. I haven’t loved acting as much lately. Let me be clearer: I haven’t loved the business of acting as much lately. In her play The Understudy, Theresa Rebeck writes, “Being an actor is great. When you get to do it.” This is Truth. But we don’t always tell the truth about what happens to us when we don’t get to do it. The times we don’t get to create. The times we feel oh so very trapped in a system that doesn’t seem to have room for us. These are the moments it feels like the artist’s life we’re living is merely a facade because we are not actually engaged in the point of leading an artist’s life: making the art. We are ideas of identity. We are casings around the gap between wanting and doing.
This is maybe the biggest question of your career. Not only for actors, of course, but for anyone who feels they have a calling they must follow come hell or high water. Because when hell and high water inevitably show up at your door, this big question has to be answered: Do I love this enough? Is this worth it?
I have been asking myself this question for a hot minute now and I think, for me, it’s come down to this: if you choose to really live an artist’s life, one with magic and power and agency in it, you no longer have time to care about stability. Would it be nice to have? Of course. Is it worth chasing anymore? Hell to the no.
The pursuit of stability is unquestionably linked to the pursuit of prestige. For me, I actively pursued prestige by looking to anyone who would cover my insecurity with good reviews, compliments and buoyant optimism. I wanted so badly for everyone else to tell me how it would all turn out well so that I could easily and comfortably make my way from gig to gig knowing that I was always inching closer to “making it.” [Sidenote: Let me know when you figure out what “it” is.] The problem with that is that when you base your entire trajectory on grabbing prestige and stability as fast as possible, you blind yourself to what makes you shine. You’re looking to fill the market’s demands, not your soul’s. Your strengths and nuances get drowned out by the big, bad roar of SUCCESS. The one thing that actually could create stability for you – an authenticity in your work – is the one thing you’ve given up.
I lost my passion for the work because I put my passion into ambition. I have been chasing a finish line for years because the rest of the world agreed this finish line was the best possible outcome – as stable as it could ever get. So if I’m utterly honest with myself (painful though it may be), all of those years, it was never about the work. It was about being the best. And we all know what kind of work shows up when we are focused on “what they’ll think” instead of what we know. Stale, meaningless, blank, boring work.
It makes sense that we crave the stability we think success will bring. We think we live in a world of finite things. We look around and see buildings, structures, order. But that’s not the nature of the world. The nature of the world is uncertain, ever-changing, chaotic. The butterfly effect and all that. What we see in the world as finite is merely a representation of the human search for order. But that yearning comes from our mind – not our nature. Our real nature reflects chaos and change; as Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Our very nature is to contain multitudes and so should our art. It’s in our nature to be thrown off, unbalanced, unhinged. So it stands to reason if our art is going to compel the world in any meaningful way, then it must contain a recognizable reflection of those natural multitudes. And so, if our art (and artist’s life) does not obey the laws of our very nature, we are automatically sacrificing its power and falling short.
If I’m going to be living the aforementioned artist’s life of living paycheck to paycheck, then I better be making more than stale, meaningless, blank, boring work. Not everything I touch will be gold, and I’ll surely look back in a few years at the work I’m doing today and cringe, but at least I will have pursued the glory of the work itself – not my attachment to it, not my benefit from it, and certainly not any prestige or stability it might bring.
Even if the paycheck, the award, the stacked resume do show up, they will never generate enough satisfaction if you’re not doing your best work. Nothing can cover up shortcomings. Nothing can cover up regret. Letting your best work out of you day after day, despite crappy circumstances, despite instability, despite daydreaming of alternate realities is the direct route to reigniting your passion, remembering why you committed in the first place and playing for keeps. And living that life is totally worth it.