In dance fitness class last week, one of my classmates asked me, “Are you tired of hearing, ‘Congratulations!’ yet?” He had seen my status on Facebook regarding my award from the Kentucky Arts Council, but he hadn’t posted his congratulatory remarks on my wall.
“No,” I replied.
“Well then, congratulations!”
“Thank you,” I said.
At this point in my life, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of hearing congratulatory comments after being recognized as an artist whose work shows a high level of creativity and excellence, just as I can’t imagine ever getting tired of receiving awards for my writing. I can see even bigger awards for myself–a Tony and an Oscar for whenever I return to play- and screenwriting, the Pulitzer a friend and mentor has almost predicted. I’m not afraid to imagine it.
I have a long, hard road to travel before any of that can come to pass, but I am encouraged by the fact that I’ve gotten here.
I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. I believe the word “artist” is a holistic term that encompasses an entire personality and lifestyle that the people who fit in it are born with. Like many a pastor will tell of his call to preach, we artists may run from our call to create. To think out of the box in a culture that–if it’s completely honest with itself–values conformity is frightening and lonely at times. And possibly worse, as a career choice, it leaves you without clear paths and without guarantees.
I have often wished I had been born to be something else. Two of my best friends are medical doctors, and though one struggled to decide on a specialty, the legal pathway to becoming a practicing physician in the United States is clear: graduate from medical school, graduate from a residency program, and pass your boards. There are no other options. Attorneys must graduate from an accredited law school and pass the bar. There is no other way.
Artists, on the other hand, may make connections, attend art school, be discovered, develop a following through blogs or on YouTube, attend more art school, latch onto a mentor, be a personal assistant or go into arts administration to learn the business side, attend informal workshops, get together with other people who also love what they do and just do it while never leaving a day job, boldly set off for a big city, grow big in their own small pond, teach their craft to learn it better, receive all sorts of accolades from artistic organizations, or practice their craft to their contentment without any formal recognition from external sources that they are in fact artists. Forget choosing between two roads that diverged in a yellow wood; an artist may be sorry she can’t travel two hundred.
I was steered toward art. My parents are writers. My father is also a visual artist and also has been known as an actor and musician. When I meet adults who have never been to the theater, I think they’re strange ones, even though I’m in about the 3rd percentile of the American population. As a child, I wrote plays for fun. I completedd my first one in the fifth grade, and not as part of an assignment of any kind. When my middle school art and writing teachers thought I would choose the high school all my classmates were going to, they asked my mom to stop me. They feared that school would stifle my creativity. She made me attend the school with a visual arts magnet program. I went on to receive a Scholastic student art award for painting and to turn down scholarship offers from places like Rhode Island School of Design.
I had fallen in love with AP psychology my senior year in high school, and I thought art therapy was my future. So I chose to attend Washington University in St. Louis, the so-called, “Harvard of the Midwest.” And after counseling internships with every population from abused children in Kentucky to Vietnam veterans recovering from heroin addiction in San Francisco, after completing all requirements and then some for a minor in painting, and just before the I would have to start paying back the loans I took out for my education, the thought occurred to me that I might want to write for a living instead.
I took informal workshops and online classes in script writing and in digital video production. I tried to find a mentor. I wrote the best scripts I could at the time and mailed my scripts to every free contest I could find. I won second place in a contest at the University of Louisville. I wrote to the studio that produced “Ally McBeal,” my favorite show at the time, because I wanted to participate in Writers Guild of America West’s internship program, and those were their instructions. I applied to MFA programs in screenwriting, dramatic writing, and film making. I got rejection letters. I applied for a grant for a digital video project. My proposal was denied. I bought an LSAT study guide. I applied to MFA programs again. I received an offer from UCLA’s Professional Screenwriting Program, a sort of feeder for the MFA. I left my job in auto sales–the most lucrative job I’ve had to date–and moved to LA for a year. Then I caved in to everyone’s belief that I didn’t want to be a screenwriter badly enough to stay there and make it happen.
I came home to Louisville. I decided my skill and joy were in writing dialogue, so I went back to playwriting. I took more informal playwriting workshops. I added acting classes. I volunteered with Actors Theatre. I applied for a grant to adapt one of my UCLA screenplays into a stage play. My proposal was granted. I worked odd jobs until I was hired to write scripts for five different radio stations. I was cast in several plays. I met a young, popular journalist who was actually willing to sit down with me and explore some options about publishing the essays in my journal that I didn’t necessarily need to keep private. I thought about the MFA again. I took business start-up classes. I was laid off.
Three months and one intro to blogging class later, I wrote my first post. I was on the path to a career in creative nonfiction.
I soon got up just enough nerve to approach a local newspaper with a tiny portfolio of clips from the Actors Associates newsletter. The editors have since given me about 30 assignments, and the popular young journalist moved away and left me her column. I saw the power of blogging and asked for a grant to start another creative nonfiction blog. I received it. Some of my posts from the first blog went into the portfolio I sent to Kentucky Arts Council. (And the week after I received notification of my award, I wrote a 10-minute play.)
That’s why I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve gotten here. It’s been hard. It’s still hard. I don’t know that freelance work will ever be steady. Writing is a solitary profession in a social world. Creative nonfiction requires me to bear my soul, and I often question if it’s anything more than cathartic release if it’s never published or if no one reads it. I feel a little selfish and a little guilty about that. I feel the same when I dream about fame–and, more importantly to me at the moment, fortune–from writing because I don’t believe either is the purpose of artistic gifts. They are not o be shared for fame. These gifts are the power to change the way someone feels with just a word. I want to inspire, to encourage, and to entertain. Even in business, I want to help others communicate their passion. But translating this gift into something others can obviously and immediately see as useful has proven a more abstract task than even I counted on.
And aside from all that, there’s still no straight path to being an artist. Millions of others do what I do, and along with all the effort, talent, and marketing, there’s a stroke of luck–or I might say of God’s favor–that influences the outcome, too.
When a mutual Facebook friend saw my status about my KAC award, he said to my aunt, “I don’t know how she’s doing it.” I told her, “I’m trying obedience.” I’m not “running from the call.” Sometimes, when you accept the gifts and talents God has given you, and you submit to pursuing them, good things start to happen for you.
Update: On August 12, 2010, I received the Betty Gabehart Prize for creative nonfiction from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference at the University of Kentucky. I will read my prize-winning entry live on Sunday, September 12, 2010, at Carnegie Center in Lexington, KY.
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