I was raised in a family of lawyers: my mother's father was the attorney general of Louisiana, my father's father was a lawyer. He had six sons, five of them became lawyers. My step-mother and my older brother are both lawyers, his friends are lawyers: lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. The odds that all of them dreamed of being attorneys, that they put on suits for career day in the second grade, that they all actually wanted to spend their days arguing in courtrooms are pretty slim.
When they were children some of them might have dreamed of becoming astronauts, world champion fighters, Olympic skaters, or rock stars. Unfortunately, while our society finds it perfectly acceptable for children to dream, once we hit adolescence, we're expected to think rationally and responsibly. We're socialized into enrolling in college and taking out massive loans. Once we're out of college, we not only need to pay off those loans, but we need a roof over our heads, we need to pay the bills. Not everyone is prepared to gamble with the essentials, and so, most of us take on jobs we don't want and end up on career paths we never imagined.
A career in art is a gamble
or so, we're taught. Art is something you appreciate, admire in museums, subscribe to on Netflix, listen to on Spotify. If you're rich enough, you own it. Art isn't something you make and expect to be compensated for. Successful artists are the exception, the crazy, genius few. For most of us, we grow up thinking that pursuing art isn't a safe career option, and it is if we have that attitude. Unfortunately, our society has that attitude.
In the second grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer or an actress. When career day rolled around, I had a very difficult time figuring out what my costume would be. What does a writer look like? Doesn't an actress change all the time? It would have been much easier if I decided to do be a painter, so I dressed as a painter, but I knew in my heart what I dreamed of becoming. Unfortunately, for a long time, it stayed just that: a dream.
We're not always encouraged to do what we love
I can’t say that I was discouraged from pursing a career as an artist. I didn’t have anyone outright telling me I couldn’t do it or that I wasn’t allowed. The belief that pursing such a life was impractical, irresponsible, and even selfish, was developed and crystalized as a result of my environment. I went to a strict Catholic school and grew up in the suburbs surrounded by winners of material success. (In retrospect, my path to writing freely and fearlessly may have been less daunting if my parents were bohemian hippie types who shamed commercialism and took me to the woods for creative sessions with my muse, but I doubt it. I know artists that grew up with parents that were artists and they dealt with a completely different set of pressures.) At the end of the day, I was terrified of being the only failure I knew. Skipping college or majoring in something risky like acting or creative writing, wasn’t an option.
When and how did I give myself permission to pursue art?
It didn’t happen right away. I went to University, graduated with high honors and got a job the moment I landed in Los Angeles working for a high end talent management company—the only way to get into producing. I thought it would be fun. I thought, eventually, after I put my years in, I’d have a chance to be creative. So, I put my head down and did the best I could.
My boss put Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada to shame. He had a short temper and made me pay for my mistakes in tears. You know that actress from Mad Men, the hot red head, Christina Hendricks? Before she landed her life-changing role, I messed up and faxed her—yes faxed, I’m aware I’m aging myself—the wrong sides for her audition the next day. He called me in the middle of the night to ask me what I had done, and why I had done it, as if I did it on purpose, and then he revealed that she was also on the line with us—a three way call ambush. He made me apologize to her, like I was a five year old. It was so humiliating for the both of us. She felt so bad for me. I felt bad for me. I wasn’t sure how much of his hazing I was going to be able to take.
Besides the long hours, crap pay and frequent reprimands, I was quickly beginning to realize that even if I did land a job in a production company after five years, even if I did get to one day call the shots, chances are I wouldn’t get to be that creative. The actors and writers I was assisting: they were the ones making artistic choices.
I realized I had made a huge mistake. I was itching to get out there and see what the other side was like. I had always been the one writing stories, performing on stage, why had I chained myself to a desk? I hated that desk.
That night I went to a western themed bar on Sunset Blvd. I got so plastered on blue drinks, I left my credit card at the bar. It turned out to be a game-changing mistake. The next day, I went to retrieve it and saw a bunch of scantily dressed co-eds holding resumes. I asked the manager for a job and he hired me. Just like that, my fate as an artist was sealed.
When one door closes another one opens
While working as a host and welcoming guests with the signature greeting: "Welcome to Saddle Ranch! Ya'll ready for some steaks?", I met other actors, writers, and comedians taking a massive gamble with their lives and having a blast doing it. They encouraged me to sign up for an acting class and while I was there, I met my first friend. She was smiley and optimistic, like a flitting butterfly of positivity—the complete opposite of me. She could tell I was lacking faith in my recent major life decision and she recommended I read The Artist’s Way—a twelve week program that re-programmed the way I viewed myself and my relationship to what I really wanted in my life.
The Artist’s Way
gave me the most important thing in the world: it gave me permission to give permission to MYSELF and not wait on it from my family, friends or the world. It gave me permission to do as I pleased. It changed me forever. I could have benefitted from the knowledge I gained in that book a decade before, but you don’t always get to choose the timing of things, and who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have been truly ready to receive the information. Wisdom confirms what you know through struggle. I had to take the lousy job, I had to see how unhappy it would make me to figure out what I truly wanted.
If you decide to pursue a creative life there will always be obstacles
Finding a way to support yourself financially as you hone your talent and find your audience is the most obvious of them all, but the bulk of your challenge—if you’re anything like me—will be mental. Fighting fear of failure and self-doubt is the most difficult and common battle for artists. I have yet to meet a writer, actor, comedian, photographer, or painter that hasn’t at one point, threatened to abandon their craft because of it. It’s important to be positive and inspired, and stay positive and inspired.
Surround yourself with positive people
that support your dream. The last thing you need is someone telling you you're crazy, or whatever you're doing won't work. Chances are the naysayer is projecting their own insecurities onto you. What you're doing takes courage and they're intimidated. Don't bother saying anything when they criticize what you're working on, when they spit words of doubt, and never repeat their negative tangents in your head—ever. You won't be able to convince them and it's not your job to.
Better yet, sometimes it's best to keep your dreams to yourself, put your head down and do the work. Their permission is useless. Even if they give it to you, you still have to do the work, and remember, you're not pursuing art to prove anything to anyone, you're doing it because you love it.
Fill your head with good thoughts
The one constant in my life has always been books. You can pick them up and put them down when you please, and they won’t stop returning your calls if you lean on them too much. In addition to whatever fiction book, and writing book I’m reading at any given time, I always like to have a book for inspiration and motivation on deck. Here is a short list of my favorites. Some are geared more towards artists and some are more self-helpy in general, but all of them will remind you why you took the big risk in the first place.
*Titles are links to Amazon. If you are able, please buy from your local, independent bookstore
1. The Artist Way – Julia Cameron
Please, Dear God, read and do the work in this book. When I say it changed my life, I'm not kidding. I wouldn't be sitting here writing a blog, working on my second novel. I wouldn't have ever gotten to know what it was like to perform stand up on stage at The Comedy Store, or put together an amazing show with a very talented group of comedians at Second City. I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun in my life if I didn't learn from this woman know that it was okay to have fun, to "follow your bliss". To this day I still go on artist dates and write in my journal daily.
2. Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert
I love Elizabeth Gilbert. I loved her when she shared her adventures in Eat, Pray, Love. I read her book Committed before deciding marriage was not totally antiquated—yet. And I read Big Magic when my inner artist needed a kick in the pants. Creativity is hard to understand. How do we get inspired? Where do our ideas come from? She has some interesting answers. I love that she debunks the "tortured artist" myth. We can be happy and create meaningful art. I always feel warm and fuzzy reading Elizabeth Gilbert. She makes this whole process feel like magic.
If you like her books, I suggest her podcast Magic Lessons where she takes aspiring artists and matches them with successful, famous artist. We listen as a mini mentorships unfold. Her voice is so soothing! Give it a listen.
3. You Are a Badass – Jen Sincero
If you're scared of self-helpy, life building books, this one is for you. Jen Sincero has a no B.S. approach, leaning on her foul-mouth to connect with not so easily convinced readers. I've heard these principles before, but it was nice to be reminded in her fresh voice.
A couple of other books like it that helped open me up to the concept of "vibration", and "you get what you put out there" kind of thing, are Wayne Dyer's Manifest your Destiny and Esther and Jerry Hick's Ask and It Is Given. Unlike Sincero, the concepts are pretty woo-woo. The spiritual language might turn you off at first, but if you apply these whimsical principles to logic, it makes sense. It all goes back to playing soccer as a child, if you can't imagine the soccer ball going into the goal, how are you going to get it in there? You have to know what you're aiming for and you need to be excited about it. On a macro level, It's important to be completely and totally aware of your motivations, a.k.a. lose the ego, gain the world.
4. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
An incredibly succinct (sometimes one sentence per page succinct), no nonsense approach to breaking down your creative blocks and getting to the business of your art. The War of Art reminds you that this is not all personal, you are the conduit for ideas: get out of your own way and do the work. Great to have on your desk and skim through to get a quick boost.
5. Choose Yourself – James Altucher
I ordered this book after reading about it in the NY Times and I was very happy I did. The book is based off of Altucher's blog and as a result, it isn't as succinct. Sometimes he goes on personal rants, but it achieves what it sets out to do: to get you to stop making excuses and make sure your art is successful. If you're unsure about self-publishing or investing in your ideas, he will give you the tools to go out there and take the risk. He also has a podcast out that I have enjoyed listening to.
6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson
This one isn't geared just for creatives, but it does hammer in that message we all need to hear: stop giving so many fucks. All artists have to first create for themselves. If you're constantly worried about how your work is going to be received, you need to check yourself: your work isn't about you and your self worth. Get a hold of his concepts, let his straightforward, no-cuddles approach sink in and apply it to your art. You won't be disappointed.
Not everyone is going to agree with my list and that is quite alright. I may not agree with everything said in these books either BUT I take what does work and create my own set of principles to help guide and motivate me.
I LOVE reading new self-helpy, inspiration, whatever-you-want-to-call-them books, so please leave a comment and recommend them to me and my readers.