***I know this post could apply to any kind of artist, but for this post I am writing it from a writer’s perspective. Not all these things happened to me.
All artists feel failure. It comes with the territory. It comes with being an artist in any idiom. And it, perhaps, is felt more keenly, sharper, deeper, than in any other career. Maybe it’s due to the emotional investment that often comes with creating something: a character, a painting, a script, a novel. Maybe it’s that these creations often take longer than preparing a financial EOY report, or an executive proposal, or a law brief; that often you are giving 110% of your emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. Even if you only sit at a desk to write, there is a physical investment and sacrifice made that often extends into other aspects of daily life.
And I suppose ‘sacrifice’ is an important word because there is much given up in the bargain to be an artist, especially a writer, a career that can often be lonely as most writing happens in solitude. In the early hours. After the candles have burned out. In comfortable locations. In coffee shops. In secluded cabins in the woods. But you’re usually left to your own devices with your own thoughts.
If you’re lucky you get to work with actors and a director so that you’re able to engage with humans – creative ones, at that. You’re able to collaborate. To connect. If you’re very lucky a theatre decides to adopt you and produce your work which means your collaboration circle expands and the time spent in the work extends. If you’re supremely lucky, you make money off the work via box office percentages or commissions, or fellowships, or awards. If you’re extraordinarily lucky then the final product fulfills everyone’s hopes and isn’t stymied by a director’s ‘vision’ or a producer’s ‘decision’.
It’s a lot of if’s. The pool is crowded. The industry is given to demographic trends, shifting and shaping their choices around what is in the mode. You are often expected to create the narratives that align with your culture (note that these narratives are often myopic, one-story culturism). There’s not enough money. There’s not enough slots.
And if you’re a person of colour you are expected to innovate, investigate, and placate all while having answers to the most narrow-minded questions about your work that no White writer would ever have to defend. You have conversations with people who decry that diversity is ruining their own careers while ignoring the brown face they are talking to. You have conversations with industry professionals who don’t want to be honest with you about your work even if you give them the green light leaving you to question whether you or the work is even worthy. You have conversations with friends who verbally support you, but don’t show up when it counts. You suffer from bouts of professional envy watching people you think are less skilled have careers that skyrocket because they catered to the Dominant Culture’s demands even if it means setting your community back. You get angry watching the same hackneyed narrative about your (sub)community and consider just giving in and getting off your moral soap box so you can pay off bills, debts, and student loans. You get depressed from the empty promises of support and development that never go anywhere.
On a good day you can compound all of this and carry on with the work.
On most days you don’t even want to bother because how many plays are too many? How many rejections are too many? How many fruitless meetings are too many? How many years are too many before you finally accept what you think the universe is trying to tell you?
And if you’ve been blessed by the fates, or have managed to fool them, you never have to worry about any of this stuff.
But 90% of writers are not blessed by the fates. We aren’t lucky. We work our asses off. Sometimes for years. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. And the hardest vagary to deal with is whether we didn’t ‘make it’ because we lack the skill/talent or for some unknown industry reason.
So when a writer decides they want to take a break or even to quit, it’s understandable. It has to be understandable. Everyone has a limit – no matter how strong and capable.
It is a writer’s prerogative to quit the business whether anyone else understand their reasons or not.
It is also a writer’s prerogative to start writing again whether anyone else understands the reasons or not.
I made the mistake two years ago when I came back to NYC in announcing on Facebook that I wasn’t going to be writing anymore. After 4.5 years in London focusing 90% of my time on writing I discovered that I didn’t think I was suited for it. I have had some very minor successes none of which went anywhere. After 10 years (far too long for me) and with no commissions or awards or fellowships and with no productions I was happy with save one (and this is more about me than the productions…usually), I didn’t see a point in continuing to write and produce work that was going to be ignored.
I was lucky to meet with two agents during my brief sojourns into NYC during my London hiatus (when I was trying to replace my NYC agent) who told me flat out they wouldn’t be able to do anything for me and that my work wasn’t up to snuff. I should have been angry. I wasn’t. I was relieved. Someone had confirmed what I had suspected. You see, I never moved to NYC to be a writer. My career choice has always been to act. Writing was an accident. A very happy one as I’ve met the most amazing people through it. But I think my demographic got me further and more than I deserved to as a writer with no rep of work and no training (I was privy to proof of this on one occasion).
In London I got some eye-opening training from one of my professors at Royal Central as well as from mentors like Tanika Gupta and Stephen Jeffreys and Liz Coughlin. Theatre and artistic directors engaged with me in meaningful ways and made me think about writing and my mission as a writer in a way that no one had before. I was given opportunities and supported.
Sadly, they all dried up and disappeared for reasons I can’t even begin to understand or explain. That was upsetting and disappointing. It was heartbreaking to discover the pervasive need to be polite to the point of dishonesty. But I did discover a love of dramatrugy and that I was actually good at that. Better at it than writing.
And then I decided to step onstage again and realised that, that was where I needed to be. I remembered why I fell in love with theatre and what made me move to NYC in the first place. And I remembered that acting made me happy in a way that writing never did.
So I moved back. I put all my focus on acting again. And decided to stop writing. And wrote a Facebook post about it.
Big mistake. Huge. HUGE!
For two reasons:
- You make an announcement that public and it’s akin to being carved into stone tablets. It’s there. You’ve said it. People have read it. Good luck with that.
- The second you try to step away from anything in the arts is when the muses decide to be bastards and pull you back.
And within 48 hours of my pronouncement, I was contacted that I had gotten into a play development program I had been rejected from for 8 years running.
A few days after that I was asked to write a short piece for a play festival.
I almost said no to it all. But I looked at is a challenge: If I said yes and found I was able to do the work and engage and collaborate then I knew that I still wanted to do the work. If I phoned it in and didn’t care and did the bare minimum then I definitely needed to stop.
You can guess which path I took.
And I was happy to know I was still capable of doing the work and enjoyed it. But I wasn’t sure if it was bringing me any fulfillment. And I was honest about how I felt.
I was honest about my feelings when I was strong-armed into meeting with a new agent who, remarkably, ignored my protestations and decided to work with me anyway. I did give him fair warning that I was likely a lost career cause. But, still, he persists.
I was honest about how I felt about writing whenever the subject would be brought up because I don’t believe in bullshitting people and hiding the truth. And I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about staying on the writing path. I didn’t want to be in the same frustrated, unsatisfied position I was trying to avoid. And I needed people to understand that writing is complicated at the best of times when you’re not even actively sitting down to write.
I have been cautious, perhaps overly so, these last two years and having to make strict conditions under which I will agree to write. I have to. For my own sanity.
Some people get it. Most don’t. And the reactions from most people when I announce I am writing something or some press comes out, is – well – it sucks.
Yes, I do know I am in a position post-Facebook announcement to have the piss taken out of me for saying I was quitting writing but continuing to do it. Once is a cute and clever jab after which I explain my situation. Anything after that is insensitive.
Because it discounts a writer’s prerogative, any artist’s prerogative, to take stock and step back or step away and then to return to it when they feel they are ready. It doesn’t take into account decisions made to put yourself back on that path and in the line of fire.
10 years ago I hated okra and wanted nothing to do with it. Then a roommate made me his okra dish and I fell in love with the slimy little vegetable.
It may sound like a ridiculous analogy. But sometimes all it takes is one opportunity or one person to make a difference and make you question a decision you made. I didn’t make mine in haste, but I also know I am a stubborn overachieving minority with the need to prove people who lack faith in me wrong. Some days I don’t have the energy to do that. Some days I do. As my mother always said: The best revenge is success. But I’m not even sure if I care about any kind of revenge. What I want is understanding. Maybe the jabs wouldn’t be there if I had returned in a few months or years…instead of a few days. Believe me – the irony and humour is not lost on me.
There are days I am not sure if I am making the right decision. But two factors influence me:
- Money. You wanna pay me. I’ll do the work.
- I can’t complain about the industry if I don’t do everything I can to change it through whatever means I am afforded.
What prompted writing this post wasn’t the little jabs my friends were taking, but more the reaction of an artistic director who decided to take me to task after I asked them to write a letter of recommendation for a well-known fellowship. I would think, more than anyone in the business, that industry professionals would understand the emotional ebb and flow of being an artist. Criticising an artist, however honestly, is not the way to support an artist. To point out that supporting the writer who steps away is essentially a slap in the face to writers who are devoting their time and lives to a career in writing is to overlook the obvious: If the returning writer is applying for these schemes, doesn’t that indicate some level of devotion?
What upset me the most is that this AD witnessed the amount of work I put into a project under their auspices. They saw all the time I put in, sacrificing social occasions to do the work. So the reply was flippant, hurtful, insulting, and dismissive. It betrays a problematic of people and places that choose to label themselves as the kind that develop and nurture writers. Surely within that remit is the understanding that some writers often face the dark night of the soul, some take a break and return, some never return. Is your decision to develop and nurture reserved only for those who are enthusiastically jumping through all the hoops? No one is asking for free therapy, but where is the empathy. Invest time into the writer and not just their work. And remember they are humans with as complicated emotions as any one else.
And that is what I am suggesting everyone look at and consider: Their level of empathy when one of their friends decides to take a step back from the stage, the page, the easel, the potter’s wheel, or the camera. Oh, believe me, there is room for taking the piss when someone makes bold announcements then back-pedals. But I would suggest that the follow up to the jab is to find out what has happened to change their mind. Some friendships can sustain the jabs and turn them into light inside jokes. Some become sarcastic digs that grate.
I didn’t delete the original post. I don’t believe in taking back my words. I want to own them. And I want to be reminded of them years later when Facebook reminds me of a post I made once. Hindsight is important. Examining where I was and where I am are very important. It helps gives me perspective. It helps keep me honest.
It is hard enough to decide to enter into the business of being an artist. It is even harder to leave and return to it. And in a culture so obsessed with ‘holding space’ (and I hate that phrase) I would suggest that keeping the spaces warm and waiting for people who choose to return is what is needed. Even if they never get filled again.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to staring at an empty screen to try and write some dialogue for an opportunity for which I am being paid and hoping to change the narrative of my community.
Conditions met. And I carry on.