Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work.
How do you know you’re an artist?
Before I go any further, let me just clarify that I’m using the term as a catch-all phrase for people with a creative avocation, be they writers or sculptors or dancers or painters or photographers or musicians or any of a hundred other related endeavors.
Answers will vary, of course. For some people, they just know, and that’s all they feel they need. For a lot of years, I felt that way, myself. I was a writer because I was, QED. Even when I wasn’t writing. I realize in retrospect that it was more aspiration than identity, but when people asked me what I was, that’s what I told them. Then I served them another drink and slept until two the next afternoon before having brunch and going back to work.
The first hint that I was mistaken came at a Bumbershoot festival maybe ten years ago. I was wandering the book fair and I met Joshua Ortega, who had self-published his first novel, Frequencies, and was in negotiations to sell it to a major house (relatively unheard-of in the early 2000s). We got to talking, and he told me this:
“A writer is someone who wrote today.”
Suffice to say, I had not written that day. Or probably the day before. Unbeknownst to me, I was still a dabbler at that point, a dilletante who enjoyed mucking about with prose when the notion struck or the muse got to whispering. I believed that art was produced in divinely-illiuminated bursts, which produced great works like Athena springing full-formed from Zeus’ aching head. Or something. I hadn’t produced any great work, so I didn’t really know. But that’s what I thought. The notion that it was something you plugged away at on a regular schedule seemed crazy to me, like having a square job. That was supposed to be the whole point of being artistic, to get away from that kind of thing. Right?
Not long after that I went through a period of prolonged unemployment. I decided it was time to start taking writing seriously, so I started doing it four or five days a week, first thing in the morning (it was also, coincidentally, around this time that I was first introduced to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which I would read as a warm-up and later as a reward). During this period I wrote probably three hundred single-spaced manuscript pages, and developed my prose style significantly.
Then I got a job again, and while I still wrote (the ms got up to almost 500 pages before I abandoned it), the siren song of life with money in my pocket rung loudly in my ears, and my avocation was downgraded, once again, to hobby.
The bar was not always a hindrance, though, and it’s thanks to my longstanding gig at ToST (RIP) that the lesson I had started learning when I was unemployed finally began to sink in in a meaningful way. There are a couple of reasons.
First, ToST was a music venue, and while many bands are essentially hobbies for the people in them (or a way to get laid, or both), I met and got to be friends with a lot of professional musicians, by which I mean people who actually made their living (such as it was) playing music. Many of them had even had some success along the way. Say what you will about musicians (and I have), these guys were gigging five nights a week, always in several bands, constantly practicing and developing new projects.
What really crystallized it was a series of late-night talks with Michael Shrieve, who lived around the corner and played there Monday nights. We talked about a lot of things those nights (my Indie Writer Business Plan was conceived there), about life and things that had happened to us, about the changes the new opportunities for self-distribution might make in the way artists make money, and about being people dedicated to our artistic avocation and what it meant in terms of living our lives. One night, Michael said to me ( and I’m paraphrasing):
“School didn’t work out for me. What I wanted was to play the drums. I was living with my parents, who would get up every morning and go to work all day, and I thought to myself that if this is what I want to do, then I should do that too. I should treat it like my job. So I did. Every morning when my parents got up to go to work, I got up and practiced the drums.”
Later I went to the Clarion Workshop, where the lesson was hammered home, both in the testimonials of our instructors and guests and in the actual nuts and bolts of the daily grind there. The pressure to produce (self-generated, for the most part) meant working when you could, for as long as you could stand to, then squeezing out a little more. But more important than that was giving us the space (and the perceived necessity) to work all the time, to write and read and critique and talk, and for long enough to train our bodies and brains to actually do that. And this under the tutelage of a succession of badasses who had made this their life, and every one of them said one thing over and over: you have to do the work.
So, going back to the question and the quotation with which we began. How do you know when you’re an artist? The conclusion I’ve come to is simple: You’re an artist when you treat your art like your job, and you show up for work whether you’re feeling inspired or not.