Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sustaining a Life as an Artist

"You need to figure out what kind of life you need in order to sustain your art," said fiction writer Thaisa Frank last Saturday at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

The college offers an MFA in Writing and Consciousness - one of three graduate programs I was recently accepted into. Frank spoke on a panel of four local writers and artists to a room full of eager students, many of them from the adjoining Creative Inquiry/Interdisciplinary Arts program. My good friend -- taiko performer, visual artist and blogger Yurika Chiba (art here) -- also attended the event, called 'Sustaining a Life as an Artist'.

It's an interesting question that plagues every artist & writer I've known: How to prioritize one's art as central, how to shape a life around it, and how to support it. Successful artists have found a way to do that, usually requiring much strength and sacrifice. The alternative is to suffer, squeezing all that creativity - bursting forth like fireworks - into an imagined future with more time or a few scheduled moments consistently on the periphery of one's life.

Theater director and writer Ellen Sebastian Chang recommended, "Burn your boats! Create the path where there is no turning back." She was partially raised by her grandmother, who told her to make peace with each day at the end of it and "you will have a life." Chang added that she strives to create something artful every day.

Each presenter acknowledged the economic challenges inherent in an artist's life. Some have sustained artistic lives with day jobs, food stamps, artist grants, commissions -- even selling drugs.

Joanna Haigood, artistic director of ZACCO Dance Theater, encouraged us to "embrace and get comfortable with not knowing as a good thing." She spoke of other vulnerabilities besides where the money will come from, like facing the unknown with the visibility and critique that comes with getting one's work out there. Exploring movement and spatial environments through aerial flight and suspension, she has learned (and teaches others) to face fear as a friend.

Performer and choreographer of Circo Zero, Keith Hennessy, wasn't the only one to mention the importance of being a hybrid. He asks himself "how far I can expand the work as an artist, or [the concept of] what my art is." A self-proclaimed post-structuralist who, along with other panelists, deeply examined his work with respect to race, class and sexual identity, he argued that there was "no authentic self in a complex sea of 'yous' that is constantly changing."

Co-author of Finding Your Writer's Voice, Frank asked, "What type of writer are you?" She distinguished herself from the other panelists because her work isn't collaborative. Though she writes alone, she insisted on the importance of an audience for reflection: "You can never see your own face except in the mirror." Rather than being a hindrance to her writing, Frank said raising her son led her "through that path of language", and that language "can either be a barrier or a swinging door to direct experience."

The following day I met a grandmother at a birthday party. She stated that the last time she painted was when her water broke before giving birth. How many of you have given up/suppressed/denied your creative selves to pay the bills, raise the children, do something more practical?

Lately I awaken before dawn with whole narratives, dialogues or images flowing effortlessly through. Getting them down on paper before conscious/rational/critical mind breaks in, or before the email-checking/bill-paying/grocery-listing/to-work-driving takes place, is my daily challenge. It's partly a matter of disciplinary practice -- carving time with diligence.

But making art central is also connected to the deeper issue at the heart of choosing and sustaining an artist's life: believing the effort is worth it. Writing each week, submitting stories for publication, seeing my work in print, starting a writing group, getting accepted to graduate schools -- all are recent outside reflections that affirm this path is worthy of pursuit.

Dear reader, 
What is your secret struggle, and how do you find ways to sustain what drives you? How do you breathe creative space into each day and make peace?


Tenaya Amelia said...

Great post Nicole~ Are you going to be attending CIIS? I got my Bachelor's Degree there in '06, great school with lots of interesting threads coming together~

Best of luck with your decision! Danced with Rosangela tonight @ City Ballet in SF~ Amazing and magic!

Wishing you all the best and keep up the writing!


Nicole Zimmerman said...

Thanks Tenaya. I'd love to hear more about dancing with City and Rosangela. Are you going to Bahia this summer? I'll announce my grad school decision soon! ;)

Thanks for signing up as a blog follower too.

Tenaya Amelia said...

I'm excited to hear your graduate school decision~

Dancing with Rosangela was incredible (as always) and I'll be going to Bahia for the Intensive next January 2011 for a month~ {{{!}}}

Are you on Tika Morgan's email list? She often hosts Rosangela when she comes to the states. You can send Tika an email via her website and specify that you want to be on the Rosangela list:

Be well~

Christin Geall said...

I sense you've made your decision by now...But my secret is having a VERY supportive partner.I wouldn't have even undertaken such a life without his support (or maybe I would have, but with a lot more compromises). The trick is teaching growing children the value of your work (particularly when it doesn't always look like working).

Nicole R. Zimmerman said...

Thanks for responding, Christin. (I just saw your post now, 4 months later!) I agree, having a partner's support is essential. Knowing mine believes in my work often keeps me going. I love reading a first paragraph or page to her--there's something so special about sharing that first glimpse.

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