Pitfalls in the Artistic Life

Posted on 18 January 2011

I’m not writing this to scare people off from becoming comedians or writers of comedy. I am writing this to help people understand what they may face when they choose a career in the arts and to understand that they are not alone. I also hope the wider public learns some compassion.

Suffering for Your Art

People are told that they must suffer for their art. I do not believe this. This “axiom” often serves as an excuse not to care about the difficulties artists face. It’s also seen as a cosmic trade-off. “If you are going to be richer and more famous than I, if you are going to live a freer, more interesting, and creative life than I, then you better have suffered for it.”

I remember one young woman at university who was crying to me that she hadn’t suffered enough to be a real artist. She went out and found a way to make herself suffer in order to be worthy of her own aspirations. This is a horrific state of affairs and we have to change these attitudes.

You are not required to suffer for your art. You do need to be prepared to face suffering, since living the life of an artist may bring some your way.

Skill and Luck

Skill is the surest path to success in your chosen art form. Skill is achieved by regularly and steadily practising your art, observing others who have achieved longterm success, receiving instruction from seasoned practitioners, frequently thinking about and discussing your art, and paying attention without judgement to current trends.

Skill will not guarantee success. A certain amount of inborn talent is needed, though I wouldn’t worry too hard about that. Few people understand the workings of talent. Networking and being seen are very important. Luck and timing are hugely important. You can’t control those, but you can make sure you are ready with your skills when they hit. What this means, practically, is that you have to be prepared to weather a lot of disappointment for what could be decades.

Comedian and actor Steve Carell made his film breakthrough at the age of forty-three. Local comedian Denise Scott first appeared on television at the age of thirty-five. The art of Anna Moses was discovered when she reached the age of seventy-eight. These days the mean age for professionally published authors is their forties. Some people achieve sufficient success to support themselves. Some people achieve sufficient success to feel some satisfaction in their efforts. And some people with genuine talent, charisma, and skill, who completely deserve public attention, are overlooked.

Which one will you be? There is no way of knowing. You will simply have to decide where your cut-off point is for pursuing this path. Sometimes hardwork, patience, and persistence pays off.

Other People

Other people’s jealousy will dog your heels regardless of how successful you are.

Many people dream of living the “easy” life. They dream of having easy money, easy status, and numbers of people looking up to them. Many people like to believe that if they had the right luck, fame could be given to them in the field of popular arts, without spending the time to develop their skills or complete a work. The New York Times reported in 2002 that eighty-one percent of all Americans felt they had a book in them.

If you are part of the small percentage of people who actually puts in the work to create and perform, you are already at least one step ahead of all the wannabes. Until you are noticeably successful, this can put you in the way of meanspirited jealousy.

People of lesser skill and more power may at times actively cut you off from opportunities and experience. I’ve seen technical groups where the one artist is overlooked when a logo or poster is needed, because someone else in the group with more power wants to be the creative hero, even though they have little skill.

More insidious is the stream of put-downs some people may dish out that you aren’t very good and what you’re doing isn’t very important. If you are just starting out, it’s hard to know if perhaps those people are right. Often times beginners aren’t very good, that’s what beginning is all about…you learn.

Groups of people (the audience) can be equally harsh, particularly for comedians. In comedy you don’t get polite applause if your material isn’t working. At best you get silence, at worst you get heckled, booed off stage and sadly, once in a long while, physically threatened. And what works one night may not work another. Similarly, your material may be good, but your audience isn’t ready for you. As mentioned before more than one comedian has had to wait years for their material to win its way into the public heart.

Particularly problematic is the jealousy of other artists. When you are trying so hard to succeed, it’s easy to become angry and frustrated with other people’s success, especially when it seems undeserved. They had no more control over the luck fairy than you do. More useful, if you can manage it, is to form a support network that may include a few of the lucky.

A support network will keep you from drowning under put-downs and poor reviews. A support network will also be able to pass on opportunities. Groups tend to get luckier than individuals. Groups get asked to do TV shows. However, you will need people in this group who know how to keep relations functional, helpful, and peaceful.

Family

More than one artist has had the crushing experience of being cut off by family for following the artistic life.

Regardless of what a family believes about the after-life, you represent a family’s physical immortality. You also represent what it means to be a part of your particular family: their group identity. If your family wishes to present itself as rich and powerful or upright and hardworking, your deciding to turn to performance could be at variance with that image. If they have an inflexible idea of what it’s like to be their family, your choice could pose a threat and you will face turmoil and rejection.

The sort of fortitude you will have to find to live through the rejection of early performances, the rejection of gatekeepers, as well as your family will be prodigious. Any failures you experience could end up being 100% your own, with no one there to catch you if you end up in the streets. This need not be a reason to forego the artistic life, but you should be aware of what personal strength it may take.

The other end of this spectrum is friends and family unduly pushing you to succeed in order to feed their own egos. This might not be so bad if it is done in a positive and uplifting manner. Some families bully their talented members, chastising them when a performance isn’t up to “standard” and sometimes even chastising them that a good performance isn’t good enough.

It’s useful to find even one family member you can talk to once in awhile whose head is screwed on more tightly than the others. If that isn’t possible, finding an older friend, who feels like family, will help to keep your own head screwed on tightly. Favourite teachers are good for this.

Gatekeepers

Most gatekeepers to public visibility, whether it be editors, producers, venue owners, etc, are overwhelmed with people wanting to cross over into the land of fame and fortune. Everyone needs a place to start and people can start their comedy career at almost any age. Gatekeeping can make it very hard for talented and skilled people to get the experience they need. Fewer people jostling for a few moments on the stage could potentially make it possible for the gatekeepers to behave in an evenhanded manner. Even then you could face difficulties.

Gatekeepers need to make money from their choices. So many gatekeepers will make safe choices and offer opportunities to known artists, children of known artists, or artists doing familiar material rather than original material. To avoid going through their slush pile to find talent, if someone can recommend a performer, they may elect to take this person on. I know of one editor who decided to build up and educate one of her illustrators to become an author.

The gatekeepers who aren’t as chained to big bucks, ie the organisers of festivals, arts events, and awards, still need to satisfy their sponsors and granting institutions. They can potentially carry political attitudes that will make it easier or harder for certain material to get through. With the Helen Demidenko affair, her book was given a literary award because it touched upon politically current material. I wonder what better written books were overlooked because they weren’t as “edgy” or political. On more than one occasion a well known book has been sent to publishers to face rejection, demonstrating the quixotic nature of the industry. One of Patrick White’s classic novels was rejected by major Australian publishers, and Stephen King had one of his bestselling novels rejected by numerous US editors. Charlie Chaplin placed third in a Charlie Chaplin look alike competition.

Don’t believe a gatekeeper when they say, “The good stuff always gets through.” Good stuff and bad stuff gets through, good stuff and bad stuff gets overlooked. Ask me, I used to be the judge for a literary award. You will have to have the personal clarity to determine whether your stuff is any good, and ignore the nay-sayers as you keep looking for that one gatekeeper who gets your stuff and is willing to take a chance. Gatekeepers are human beings, that’s all. Some are better than others at spotting talent. A number do their best in a sea of desperate offers. Some luck out in a hit or miss fashion.

Yourself

You will be facing many obstructions on your path as a comedian and artist. Do not become your own obstacle.

I have watched artists and performers trip themselves up in any number of ways: over-demanding, uncooperative, controlling, etc. An easy way to trip yourself up is to become bitter and cynical. If you present yourself to casting-directors, venue managers, producers and so on with a chip on your shoulder or a pessimistic attitude, these people will see someone who is difficult to work with and refuse to offer you a position.

The most difficult obstacles are discouragement and depression. It’s good to believe in yourself. Sometimes believing in yourself may mean walking away from a career that’s not working and that’s crushing your spirit. I walked away from the publishing industry when I began to have problems with suicidal depression. Doing so opened the door to work writing scripts for animation and comedy. But if it lead to a fulfilling career teaching high school physics, that would have been all right as well. Only our egos tell us that the sole worthwhile careers are the highly visible ones.

Even so, some of us are utterly dedicated to the creative life. If this is you, make it a priority to develop a number of deep friendships. You will need people who can tell it to you straight about the quality of your work. You will need surrogate family who will give you a hug when you need it and cheer you on to your successes. Finally, you will need to make friends with yourself, taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Take care.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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