The question “What do you do?” can be socially awkward, even painful. Particularly if your art falls into one of the more ‘niche’ categories like haiku or speculative fiction writing, anamorphosis or painting with body fluids. Especially if you’re just starting out, or just thinking about starting out. Maybe you’ve been hiding your creative light under a bushel for years, working diligently at a job you studied a degree or trade to land, or one you just ‘fell into’, all the while daydreaming about life as a street performer or braving the open mike section at a poetry reading.
How we earn a living doesn’t define us and can often misrepresent us.
When “What do you do?” is intended and or interpreted as a capitalist question rather than a humanist one, it can be a conversation killer. If you want to introduce your true self to people, start by identifying with your passion; for writing, dancing, sculpting, tattooing … then the fact that you dig ditches to support your art becomes more interesting, even admirable …
Think of famous artists who not only held, but maintained, their ‘day jobs’ post fame—the poets T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens worked in banking and insurance respectively, composer Philip Glass plumbed and drove taxis, Charlotte Bronte’s work as a governess directly inspired ‘Jane Eyre’ and novelist Bram Stoker, continued to manage a theatre company even after the success of ‘Dracula’.
Over the years I’ve held a diverse range of occupations to support my writing--from waitressing to administrative work, from picking strawberries to early childhood education, I’ve facilitated creative writing workshops for the general public, within the education system and for people with psychiatric disabilities, tutored adult literacy and numeracy, I’ve cleaned, cooked, milked cows and packed frozen fish.
My writing tastes are also wide ranging. I enjoy writing for children as well as adults. I write short stories, personal essays, have a particular interest in the Japanese short form haiku, and speculative fiction writing … but poems are what I’ve written the most over the longest period of time and what I’m best known for. So you’d think after twenty five years and six books I would be at ease answering the question “What do you do?” … and I am, somewhat … depending on who’s doing the asking.
I recently returned from a three month artist residency in Slovakia. Before I left Australia, among the phrases I learned was “Volám sa Jane ja som básnik” which roughly translates as “My name is Jane, I am a poet”. Most people smiled politely at this introduction, some asked questions, and one elderly wine seller gave a little half-serious curtsey perhaps in recognition of the place art (and wine?) held in her culture. For those three months, on a daily basis, I considered myself a working artist, was acknowledged as such, and while I had good days and days that were less so, mostly I woke in joyful anticipation of how I would creatively respond to and honour the title of ‘artist in residence’.
I don’t believe we need to work at our art full time to be full time artists. Whatever else we ‘do’, creative expression in the form of art is an intrinsic part of our identity, of how we see the world and how we live in the world. We are creative beings, creating and recreating the world as we dream it. We are the real organic deal, not automatons.
It isn’t a pipe dream to think you can make money from your art but if commercialism isn’t the driving force, if you do what you do because you just can’t help yourself, money or no, because it is the only way you know how to feed your soul and souls of others, then how can you not heed the call?
And what of the naysayers?
When they ask why, if it’s not a money-making venture, do you do it, when they can’t see the point, show them, again and again …
When they say you’re a dreamer, thank them for the compliment and ask them about their dreams.
Rise to the challenge of shifting their mind and heart set, if only incrementally.
Whether you’re a singing waitress, a plumbing fine art photographer, the security guard who takes flamingo lessons, or that guy who refills the office vending machine and also just happens to be a budding rap artist; be true to yourself and your call to contribute creatively to the world, believe it’s what you’re meant for and others will too.
How will you choose to interpret and answer the question “What do you do?” next time you’re asked?
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