The Awful Truth About Your Life in the Arts

by Mark Dvorak

Some people come to the arts by design, some by accident. Either way, your life in the arts begins with a calling of one kind or another, and eventually leads to a point when you look around and realize you're in pretty deep, and a convenient way out is no longer available.

The practice of art is at first a practice of opening. There is much to be discovered and tested, and much to be experienced. Mistakes must be made, and then paid for. With opening comes a filling up, and we often start by filling ourselves up with ourselves. But later, we begin to notice all sorts of other details. Our ears and eyes drink in rivers of minute motions and sounds and inflections. From time to time we find ourselves arrested by color and line, rhythm and narrative, overwhelmed by a swirling, unnamed context of shadow and light. When raw imitation finally begins to give way, we find ourselves glimpsing into something new and mysterious and special. We recognize a place to which we are naturally drawn, but won't find many clear instructions on how to navigate.

Then comes the emptying. It is singing, it is dancing, and it is many quiet hours of private work. It is rehearsing and travel and more practice. It is strange places and sometimes strange people, and the food isn't always so good either. It is layers of heartache and worry, and over time ones very core of vulnerability is revealed and laid bare.

And then we fill ourselves up again. With more images and sounds, but also with caffeine, alcohol, fried food and sometimes other things too. A kind of protection I guess. Then more people, more places, and the circle goes around and around, again and again.

You scan the horizon for the next new thing, and welcome back the familiar, all the while working to keep alive the youthful spark from which your course was first struck. Tonight will surrender to another dawn, Mother Earth will tilt again on her axis, leaving snowy winter in the place where autumn used to be. Cognition and metaphor dance within, coming and going like some ethereal tide. Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along.

And now you're fifty. You don't have a retirement account to speak of, nor do you yet have that summer home by the lake. The odometer on the vehicle purchased just last year is already over a hundred-thousand miles, and rent is due on the first. Your knee hurts and your back hurts, it's cold out, and gas is still over three-fifty a gallon. There are politics of all kinds to deal with, and your guitar needs new strings. It's life in the Arts, just as it's always been, just as it always will be.

And the awful truth about your life in the arts is that you are in the arts. You're not a rock star and you're not a celebrity judge on a TV show. You're not a politician nor are you CEO of a large corporation. You are not a spokesmodel for a shiny new product.

You also don't have a staff meeting this morning. That is, unless you decide to take the paper down to the cafe to sip coffee and think about what's coming up this week. Your sweatshirt and jeans will be fine.

And maybe when you get home, you'll have time to change strings and go over the new piece you've been working on. There are people you'll need to talk to this week and there are people you'll want to avoid. There is writing to tend to, and travel plans to make. There are appointments to keep, and that picture of you in the paper isn't so bad after all.

A few good hours working on your work is all it takes to remind you where you began; where this began. It feels good to hold your instrument again, to hear the sound of fresh strings ringing through the room and to feel again a familiar resonance within. Most people enjoy tinkering with these sorts of things while on vacation or in their free time. It's the thing you get to think about and work on, while the rest of the world is dealing with somebody else's problems.

Your life in the arts then, is about finding your own work to do, and getting after it. Between periodic splashes of attention and money, are longer stretches of grinding it out, week after week, month after month. It's a modest existence to be sure, and often the work is very humbling. Your day-to-day activities in the arts are in fact sometimes closer to those of a garbage collector or a waitress, or a bus boy. You are mostly here to haul things around, serve others, and clean up again after you've finished.

To accept all of this is a choice each has to make. Learning to proceed with care and dignity takes time and effort, but the trail is well marked. In one way or another Bob Dylan, Van Gogh, Martha Graham, Steinbeck, Duke Ellington, Walt Whitman, Joni Mitchell, Beethoven and the rest, have all made this choice and come this same way before you. But you are not them. You're not any of them.

Still others follow behind; each looking and listening, making their way and making their art. Some are young and beautiful, moving like swans, singing like nightingales. Some are dark and distant and puzzling, with tattoos, facial hair, perhaps a porkpie hat, and clothing that is different than your own.

But you're not any of them, either. You can't ever be any of them. 

You can only be you. And that's the truth.


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