Raise your hand if you love talking about your career during the holidays.
Great, for the one person who loves it, you don't need to read this post. Enjoy the rest of your day! For everyone else, here's my love letter to you:
Dear Courageous-Creative, or alternatively, Bound-for-Home-and-Bracing-for-Impact,
Here's one thing we all know to be true. In an attempt to be supportive this holiday season, our well-intentioned families, old friends and holiday party acquaintances will ask us, "What are you working on now?" or "Are you in a show?" or, my personal favorite, "What do you do?"
We will grin and bear it. We will stuff that bacon-wrapped shrimp along with our real answers down our gullets and nod in fake enthusiasm that, "Yeah I'm just auditioning. It's been a slow season. January will be better!" It's not that they are offensive questions in and of themselves. They just aren't the right ones.
Your family and friends don't mean to quantify your life in mere numbers of shows or amount of awards or dollars in the bank, but nevertheless, what else are they supposed to ask? How else can they understand what the hell we're doing with our time? We live in a society that ranks and weighs and lists those who are "succeeding" and those who are "failing" within some kind of prescribed, universal standard of success. Money = good. Prestige = good. Money + Prestige = very good. The problem is that, if you have chosen this creative path, you don't believe in a prescribed, universal standard. You believe in what's real and nuanced and right in front of you every day. If there was a better question being asked, you could say:
I'm so excited about this new one-woman show I'm writing. I only have the first few pages, but when I sit down to write I feel free and enthusiastic in a way that I haven't felt in a long time.
I'm not sure what I want to do right now, but I can feel my journey unfolding and that feels productive.
I'm having a really rough go of it. I'm down on myself in a way that isn't useful, so I'm looking for a community to depend on.
I'm excited to wake up and get going in the morning. That to me is the biggest success I've ever achieved.
I'm ready for a change, and I think next week I'm going to make a big move. It's risky, may not yield financial results and I'm pumped as hell.
Some days, I feel alive. It's pretty great.
Those are undoubtedly more interesting, more accurate answers. So how do we get to that conversation during the holidays?
I'm going to posit this: it's not our community's job to facilitate this conversation. It's ours.
If we're sick of the uncomplicated, dull, shallow questions, we gotta pull out our inner politician and pivot. We need to answer as if they asked the right question. We need to see that they, too, have something beautiful and nuanced lurking inside them, and maybe it would only take a surprising conversation to bring it out. We need to illustrate just how vibrant life can be when we value creativity and passionate pursuit over bottom lines and resumes and exciting news to tell the neighbors.
I'm not certain I've always been asking the right questions, but when I meet someone new, I have started the uncomfortable practice of replacing "What do you do?" with "What are you passion about?" Every time I do this, the person I'm speaking to gives me a confused look and pauses.
I'm going to posit this: We get to know each other and have better, more worthwhile conversations, when we pause.
Maybe the person I'm speaking to thinks I'm a weirdo, but after they pause and think about it, they always end up saying something dynamic and compelling. If, as artists, we begin the transformational process of believing that "success" has to do with how much we're growing, how deeply we're living, and how much love we give out to the world, we will begin better conversations. I believe, as artists, it's our job to begin better conversations.
What would happen if we entered into this holiday season thinking less about what questions we're going to get and more about what questions we're going to ask? How could we alchemize our anxiety into compassion by simply asking others the questions we wished we were asked?
Because you know I love lists, here are a few more questions I think we should ask everyone around us during the holidays:
What was your biggest challenge this year?
What was your biggest surprise this year?
When did you do something this year you didn't know you could do?
What was the scariest thing you did this year?
What did you realize wasn't true this year?
What do you feel when you think about the next year of your life?
What are you most enthusiastic about pursuing this year?
What do you want to cultivate more of in your life this year?
Who do you want to serve this year?
What's your biggest hope for your community this year?
What's your biggest hope for yourself this year?
Listen, Courageous-Creative and Home-Bound-and-Bracing-for-Impact, you have it in you to alter the conversation. You have it in you to teach others about real success by example. You have it in your heart to be compassionate and know that everyone struggles, not just artists. You have it in you to recognize that humans are a struggling species. You have it in you to see that the way forward is always together. It may not be easy and it may not be fair, but if we're the ones to start asking the right questions, we may get way more than we give.
Save me a bacon-wrapped shrimp. I love those suckers.