The other day, a student of mine made a reference that very much reminded me of, well, me, the person I was twenty-two years ago. It was as part of a conversation about looking for work. She didn’t want to be another starving artist, living in some basement apartment somewhere, “smearing paint on a canvas” while waiting for a big break. I thought that the idea of a starving artist had all but died out in the era of bling-bling.
But it made me think for a while about the choices I’ve made with my life and career in the years since the middle of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. As I talked about in a posting a few weeks ago, I once said to my AP English teacher Rosemary Martino that I didn’t want to be a starving artist “like Edgar Allen Poe” all those years ago. Now a student had made a similar — although better developed — reference. I think I understand better the momentary look of shock on my teacher’s face now.
It made me wonder if the quality of my life and career would be better these days if I had embraced the promise Martino saw in my writing back then. I mean, I was already a slightly malnourished six-foot-one and 160-pounder at that point anyway. The inner struggle to put thoughts to paper creatively would’ve been much easier at seventeen than it is as a forty-year-old.
Maybe so. But until Noah or one of his progeny design a time machine, I can’t rewrite my history in order to make me embrace what I now see as my calling. All I know is that those words I uttered in March ’87 have stayed with me for nearly twenty-three years. The question of finding and following my calling has always been juxtaposed with my need to eat and pay the rent and other bills. How do I do both without dropping one of the balls that I’m juggling?
The issue for more than half of my adult life was finding my calling. Along the way, I spent the summer of ’88 unemployed, the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless and three weeks in May ’91 losing sixteen pounds for lack of food. Not to mention six weeks of unemployment in ’93, walking to Carnegie Mellon many a time in the snow with holes in my sneakers in ’94, and two and a half years of underemployment from December ’96 to June ’99. I was a starving writer long before I saw myself foremost as one. When one doesn’t follow their calling and doesn’t follow a typical path to making a buck, the tendency is insufficient funds.
The point is, we as Americans in a post-modern, post-industrial world have to get paid and pursue our dreams in order to succeed and survive. For educated folk like myself, “we have to get a little bit crazy,” as Seal would say. If it takes a pay cut or less job responsibility to find the time to write, then maybe that’s what it takes. Or maybe it’s a bunch of all-nighters (non-consecutive, of course) with your manuscript, only to drag yourself into work for a full shift the next morning. Or maybe it’s risking your spouse, your comfortably uncomfortable way of life, your financial present, for a more fulfilling and profitable future. Maybe it’s all of these things, maybe it’s none of them. There isn’t a single formula or one simple path to both, not as an artist and certainly not one as a writer.
Creative abilities, even genius, may well drive people mad, but most folks in pursuit of their calling aren’t fools. No one, including the starving artist, wants to starve. Some of us, though, have a desire for much more than the ability to get a job, any job, and hold one long enough to see our own kids graduate from college and meet someone they truly love. Even with the responsibilities of adulthood, we shouldn’t give up on our own aspirations, for it’s those things that we reach for (although not at all costs) that will help others — including the most important folks — in our lives pursue their own calling.