I grew up in the sort of home in which I was told that I was ‘creative’ from a very early age. My drawings and stories and poems were praised and treasured. I recently sorted through boxes of them in my mother’s house and scanned some of the more impressive works. As an example of my early work, I think this drawing really speaks for itself. Note that my teacher marked it ‘Excellent!’
The idea of myself as a creative person is so integral to my sense of self that it has often shaped my choices as an adult. In my twenties I scorned jobs that did not engage me creatively. I moved away from the field of law because it seemed dry and boring. When I discovered the colorful madness of ‘underground’ New York I was thrilled and dove in as quickly as possible. In the midst of attaching paper flowers to the ceiling of a loft with fishing wire, I was swept away by the beauty of imagination in action. This article in the New York Times featured the woman I was working for at that time, and it perfectly sums up the ethos and magic of that community.
“a tight-knit community of makers and performers, who share resources — from bolts of fabric and guest lists to manpower — and some ideologies, the most urgent of which is a do-it-yourself mentality that defines a good time not as passive entertainment but as a participatory event.”
It was after a year of living the life creative that the financial pressures of reality began to intrude on the world of imagination. I am privileged to have parents who can and often have supplemented my income. I was able to indulge in this fantasy far longer than most people would be able to, but I did eventually feel compelled to move in the direction of a more reliable form of income. Many creative people make it work without family help. They hustle much more than I did. Maybe some of those creatives are also more creative, more talented, better at marketing themselves, more connected. There is a whole world of people who make a living through performance, event production, lighting design, directing, and many other creative pursuits. At that point in my life I lacked the confidence to believe I could be one of them. I went back to school. I tried to be a first grade teacher. I did not succeed. I worked for years as a full-time nanny, a role that certainly involved creativity, but was not connected to a larger community.
When I chose to once again pursue a creative career I did so from a more adult perspective. I networked. I sought opportunity everywhere. I did big jobs and small ones. I had side hustles. I was always looking for my next project. I built my digital rolodex of producers, performers, venues… I joined groups. I reached out to people I admired. I had some marvelous successes. I created things that I loved and that other people loved. You can see lots of information about my work on my portfolio site. This image, of Ms. Tickle performing at one of my History of Burlesque events, fills me with pride.
I was truly engaging my imagination. I was living the life creative. There were moments that were spectacular, but the truth beneath my self-promotion was that I was drained and deeply unhappy. The financial pressures were overwhelming. There wasn’t enough work and it didn’t pay enough money. Every moment was taken up with anxiety. When I landed a dream gig I found that although it took up all of my time and energy it only paid two thirds of the amount I was paid as a full-time nanny. I loved working with creative people and I loved defining myself as one of them, but I was also digging myself a hole of debt that I couldn’t get myself out of and becoming more and more unhappy every day.
A month ago I took a job at a start up. It is not a creative role. I have difficulty even admitting to people I have worked with in the event production world that I am doing such a job. It seems like a way of saying I have given up, that I am not creative after all. The stability of a job with a good paycheck, benefits, and a 9-6 schedule in an office, is marvelous. My friends tell me I seem healthier than I have in years. I fear that I don’t know how to define myself if I am not working creatively. My mother tells me I will of course always be creative, but the attribute seems meaningless without the output. I couldn’t sustain the life creative. Perhaps I will return to it again in some more stable future. I wish that I could value myself more in this new role, as a stable adult who rarely finds glitter stuck in odd places. I am hoping that being able to define myself as happy will compensate for the loss.