Being an artist when you don’t feel like one

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about being an artist on the “off days.” Those days, or maybe weeks, when there’s nothing going on. No shows or new releases, no bursts of success. Like exercising, training happens behind the scenes, and it should be consistent.

Being an indie artist is such a fascinating process. Due to so much change and transition in my life over the past four years that I have been actually pursuing music, my career has started, but it hasn’t really started. It’s start-ing. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been sitting in my room writing out of pure need for years, especially for those four years. There are a lot of people who write just because they need to, or because they enjoy it. Most artists start out this way, and then comes the challenge of making it a career. Music is also a business, and if you don’t find a way to slip into the business side of things then there seems to be a cap on what you can do. This is easier said than done, and it’s something that I’m still trying to get a hold of.

So I was sitting there trying to answer this question about the “off days” for myself, and came up with this little list of thoughts about being an artist in the day-to-day. I wanted to blog about it so that I could come back to it one day. Because this list is not being created from any point of hindsight or wisdom, it’s simply my reflections on the current moment, the right now. So my perspective is narrow, but present!

Why we create

I know that I ultimately create as a reflection of my creator. It’s built into the core of who we are, which is a beautiful thing! We create as a response to things that happen in life, whether literally or figuratively. Our expression is a reflection of what we have experienced, and it bounces off of others by means of story, chord progression, canvas, etc.

Don’t let money overtake your thinking

This is a hard one for me right now. Keep creating even though you don’t know where you will get the funding to make a record, or to do your next project. Even when it feels dramatically impossible to ever have access to those resources. Keep creating even though you don’t know where that next step is going to take you. It’s literally a walk of faith, you gotta keep going even when you can’t see what’s up ahead.

You have some control over your momentum

While we cannot control other people’s reaction to our art, we do have some control over our momentum. The will to play shows, record as many songs as funding and opportunity will allow, share your songs with others, and be confident in what you are sharing is a great step to building momentum. This means that, even on the off days, you’re finding ways to practice and write. Even when it comes to nothing, you just do it.

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” –Junot Diaz, Professor of Writing, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2008

Know when to take a break

I had a poetry teacher once who said breaks were the most important part of his writing process. He would sit at the table for hours laboring over a piece, and then he would get up to make some dinner and all of the sudden think of the best line in the poem. I think there are points when you realize that you aren’t doing your best work and you just need to breathe the fresh air for a while.

Comparison is really the thief of joy

When I negatively compare myself to other artists (honesty moment: this is something that I have a bad habit of doing, and I’m not proud of it), I start to get really down and think: “the world doesn’t need another artist.” Actually, that is correct. The world doesn’t need another artist. But there is that one person who might really need your song. It might comfort, reassure, inspire, challenge, or invade that person’s circumstances, and if you never wrote the song, then that never would have happened. I know this because this is what the artists I have loved for years have done for me. So keep that one person in mind, and at the very same time, remember yourself. Why do you create?

There is value in having your butt kicked

I recently watched the movie “Whiplash,” and was completely mesmerized at the way they handled the open-ended question of how far is too far when pushing someone to do their best work. I can remember times in college when my piano teacher would chastise me so intensely that I would go back to my dorm room and cry. I would get so angry and practice for hours every day. Then, at my next lesson, he had won. I would be playing a million times better, and the joy I got from being able to play like that is beyond words. Now it translates into my writing. I’m not the world’s best pianist, but he definitely whipped me into shape, bringing out the best of the pianist in me.

It’s not the critic who counts

This dude says it better than me –

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

Intense but true. Haters gonna hate.

Always take a moment to remember why

I wrote this list because I was getting frustrated with myself and the way that, some days, I become so frustrated that I forget why I even started in the first place. Cliché’s like “no pain, no gain” come to mind, but there is so much more too it. We write because we write. Sometimes you have a breakthrough and come face-to-face with opportunity, and other times you don’t. But love is why we do it. Why else?

Sometimes we have to wait, and in that stillness and struggle for patience, we could give up. Or we just might end up creating something new.

“I am sure that God keeps no one waiting unless he sees that it is good for them to wait.” – C.S. Lewis

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