Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Making it Work.

Make it Work: as seen in the video above, it's the mantra of hit reality competition show Project Runway, but it's also my mantra. And it is presumably the mantra of all aspiring artists, no matter what medium they use.

Being an aspiring artist, whether you're broke and unemployed or working a comfortable but non-fulfilling job, or somewhere in between, means taking limited means and turning them into something you can use. It means stealing away a few minutes here and there to do something you love, and letting those few minutes sustain you through subsequent hours of drudgery. It means creating opportunities out of what consistently feels like nothing. It means doing a lot of really hard work so you can do that one thing that makes you happy.

This is how it is whether you're male or female, but let's face it: in reality, this is different, and generally much more difficult for women. I'm still not entirely sure why it's harder for women. Women seem to do a lot more work than men, and women, in general, are saddled with a lot of responsibilities we didn't necessarily ask for. We are expected to take care of everyone around us without complaint, and make one sacrifice after another. And this isn't the case only with married women or mothers. None of my girlfriends are married, and none of them have kids, but they all feel pressured to be good, giving daughters, granddaughters, sisters, and girlfriends.

Also, women typically have less money than men, because we're still paid less in almost every single field. So we have the trifecta of disadvantages: less time, less money, and less energy to devote to creating. It's no wonder that there seem to be fewer recognized women artists -- there are fewer women's works in the literary cannon, fewer women in music, fewer works by women hung in the halls of museums, right? It's not just me?

I've been thinking about this lately because I haven't had the time or energy to so much as look at my guitar for the past couple weeks, forget practicing or writing music. Right now I'm a graduate student, and I'm working on my dissertation and teaching as well. As a teacher, I of course make very little money; the work has become 'feminized' and therefore undervalued, as is all work that can be construed as carework, or work that is done mostly by women. And like my friends, I also have responsibilities to my family. I have very little time for anything personal, whether it's hanging out with friends or listening to new music. It is horribly frustrating. And I feel even further frustrated by the fact that I'm not alone -- right now things are scary, most of us are worried about money, and my artist friends are on the verge of panic. It's not great times for artistic creation.

But we have to get through these un-great times. Here are some tips and tricks for getting through the day-to-day that work for me.

1. Maintain a space of one's own. In her book A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf argued that women artists need just that: their own room where they can work. Some of us have to share rooms though, and we face other space limitations. But find a way to make a little bit of space for your work, even if it's portable and has to be dismantled and reassembled. The physical work of preparing space, an kind of artistic nesting, if you will, helps get you grounded. I know it calms me down and helps me to think.

2. Try to stay healthy. In these hard times, it's easy to make sacrifices, especially if you're responsible for other people. But it's so important to get the rest, food, and self-grooming we need. We need to be strong for the people who depend on us and, and we need to be strong if we're going to be creative, so try not to cut corners when it comes to eating and sleeping. No matter what medium you work in, your body is ultimately your instrument. So take care of it.

3. Work in bits and pieces. A viola teacher once told me of a great violinist who only practiced during the five and ten-minute breaks he had between giving lessons. "It adds up," she explained. I didn't try this until I was absolutely forced to, and found that she was right. It's not ideal to work in little bits in pieces here and there; it is definitely preferable, for me at least, to have a lot of time to concentrate on what I'm doing when I write or practice an instrument. But I've found that a few minutes a day is a lot better than not playing at all. It's difficult, but if you can learn to work this way, the daily boost of doing at least a little creative work can make all the difference in how you feel.

4. Stay in touch with other artists. I find that when feeling drained and demoralized, as so many of us probably are at this time, it's easy to withdraw. Don't let this happen to you! We all human contact, and we all need some kind of support, no matter what we do. A short phone or AIM conversation with a friend, especially one who is also struggling to create, can make you feel so much better. It can make you feel less alone, it can make you laugh, and it can be an opportunity to talk about the work you're trying to do. And being able to talk about your work and how you feel about it is indispensable for an artist, especially if you're still developing your skills and ideas.

5. Readjust your expectations. This is another one that's hard for me. I have a tendency to berate myself for not squeezing enough school work, personal time, and music or writing into my days. Beating yourself up like this is absolutely counterproductive; instead, we women in all professions need to be realistic with our expectations for ourselves. We need to accept that things are going to be more difficult, and that our work is going to come more slowly. And then we need to learn to be good to ourselves, and to appreciate the progress, however small, we make with each day. It's not about how quickly you get something done, or how much you can produce in one day -- it's about the experience of making something, of being an artist. That feeling is something you can't quantify. Why quantify your work?

6. Finally: Enjoy! With all these adjustments, and with how frightful things are these days, it might be hard, but at the very least, try to enjoy the time you do get for yourself and for your work! Making the time for art typically requires you to do a lot of other hard work. So make the most of that time that you've worked for, and let it make you feel better about life, about the economy, about whatever other catastrophes might come our way, about everything.

Got any other tips for starving aspiring artists? Hit me up: soundoftheatlantic@gmail.com

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