There’s This Thing About Artists

Claire Widman
Claire Widman

I feel like this is essay is going to be like one of those therapeutic letters you’re supposed to write to someone you’re mad at but never send. I do that a lot, I have over 800 emails in my Gmail drafts folder composed to people I’ve been mad at since 2007. I have one that I wrote in ’08 to my mean boss:

Hello Steve,

Fuck you.

Sincerely, Amber L. Tozer
Marketing Assistant.”

I wrote this thing about artists and I use the word “we” a lot because it’s easier than saying “me and most of my friends” or “me and a lot of people I have talked to” – I know some artists out there will be like “Don’t try to describe me in your think piece you dumb bitch” and to them I say, “Thanks for reading my stuff.” But, yeah, the word “we” can seem a little preachy but it’s just a word I am gonna use to describe myself and people I know, including very successful millionaire famous people and people who are sleeping on their friend’s floor and eating ramen and wondering what the fuck they are doing with their lives.

Without really knowing exactly why we do it, and sometimes we don’t know what we’re trying to communicate, we tinker and toil away at our projects. It’s a never-ending loop of creating and hoping people connect with us.

I’m an artist. I don’t know why I feel gross saying that, maybe it’s because I associate someone who says “I’m an artist” with a douchebag movie character who yells that line at someone who is mad at them for being all fucked up. Maybe I feel like I am truly not an artist because I was a jock who got a business degree and I like Top 40 songs too much. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t “made it” and have spent the last few years barely supporting myself as a comedy writer after many years of trying. But, I am an artist and so are most of my friends. We produce stuff from our feelings, whether it’s happiness, rage, annoyance, confusion or heartbreak – we take these overwhelming feelings and put our perspective behind it and create a piece of work then present it to the public and then we’re judged. We’re either loved or hated or nobody gives a shit. 

Sometimes our work is incredible but we’re not good at business and the public never sees or hears what we create. Or maybe we’re mediocre but know the right people and are good at schmoozing and before ya know we’re a household name. Some of us experience years of success followed by years of nothingness, we become a has been and can’t find our way back to what we once had. And, the best is, when we work our ass off and when the success comes, we deserve every bit of it.

Without really knowing exactly why we do it, and sometimes we don’t know what we’re trying to communicate, we tinker and toil away at our projects. It’s a never-ending loop of creating and hoping people connect with us. It’s a lonely and scary process, but we keep going. We’re broke, sometimes paralyzed by our fear of financial insecurities but we figure it out. We’ll work mind numbing part-time jobs that allow us enough freedom and time to work on our art. We’ll live like animals, sleep on couches and in our cars and we’ll skip meals if we have to. Most of us hate asking for help, it’s embarrassing and often question if what we’re doing is actually ruining our lives. What kills me the most is when normal people say “You need to get a steady job.” Like that has never occurred to me, “Huh? What’s that you say? A steady job? One of those things you go to, do some stuff, and get a paycheck on Friday? Well, ok! Let me just change my entire personality and nervous system and I’ll get right on that. Thank you for the unsolicited advice, it warms my heart.”

As a creative person, it’s hard to explain to people, who choose stability over everything, what it’s like to want – I take that back – “want” isn’t a strong enough word – they don’t know what it’s like to HAVE to work on a craft. When you ignore this nagging little gift you were given, it’s like you’re starving a baby who you could easily feed. You’re just watching this baby die and you feel horrible about this crime and put yourself in a mental prison. Every time I’ve tried to quit, I HAD to come back. I’m very envious of people who work a job, make a decent living, maybe have some kids, watch their favorite TV programs, take one or two vacations a year – and are content. That is a great life as long as you feel good about it. I’m envious, and If I could do that I would. But, the way I’m wired, along with a lot of my friends, we HAVE to keep creating and connecting with life and others in a deeper way. And, so we do.

When we finally find our voice/niche/style we get a little confidence, if we’re lucky, people to start to notice. Whether they are fans or powerhouses in the industry, we start to get a little momentum and feel thankful we’ve stuck with it. But, this is just the beginning of another phase. A phase where we have to work with people who can change our lives. The ones who can get our work exposed to the masses. They are the talent agents, the managers, the development execs, famous friends who are now producers – the people who can shoot us to the top. Depending on what kind of souls these people have, they are either very encouraging and kind and change our lives or they are demons from hell like the boss I drafted that email to.

After awhile, rejection from industry people isn’t so painful, and if we’re in the right headspace it can be used as fuel to keep trying. Some of the coolest people I’ve met in the industry have been the ones who have rejected me, they were honest and encouraging and wished me well and gave me solid advice. Some of the people who have hurt me the most are the ones who go on and on about how much love my work, and we’ll have meetings and fancy lunches, then all of us sudden they just stopped responding to me. It’s a big mind fuck.

I have had to really bulldoze over my emotions when it comes to the political and business end of getting my work exposed. I’ve heard horror stories from friends and have experienced some very painful let downs. We’re fucked over, people steal ideas, men in power use their position to get sex from desperate female artists, desperate female artists use sex to get leverage on powerful men, egos collide and projects fall apart just because someone isn’t getting enough credit or money. You spend years developing an idea with a network or production company, then one day they’re like, “Um, never mind. Byyyyeee!”

I guess as an artist the goal is to get do whatever the fuck you want, how you want, with people you love. It’s when you’re desperate when all of your power is lost. The art is no longer fun, you say yes to jobs because you have to. You work with assholes because it’s a “good opportunity” and a paycheck. But, no matter what we have to keep going. Hopefully all these shit experiences are needed for whatever lies ahead. I’ve seen my artist friends go through hell, come out of it swinging and create something magical inspired by the hell they were in. They write books, they make movies and music and TV shows, they start teaching, they reach a “fuck it” point and do that thing everyone tells them they’re crazy for doing. It’s all very beautiful when you think of the horrible stuff a creative person goes through to keep creating. It may seem selfish but when you’re listening to a song you love or watching a movie that blows your mind – whoever created that had to go through hell to make it. They weren’t selfish, they were driven. Imagine if your favorite artist, the one who made your favorite movie, or the one who wrote that song you listened to over and over again to help you get through that hard time, would’ve quit right before they made that magic…to get a steady job. Their music and movies wouldn’t exist!

I wanted to write this because a few months ago, I hit a pretty big low. The kind of low where I was complaining and crying and hating the industry. I made myself a victim with tunnel vision, I couldn’t see a way out and it felt so good to blame everyone else. But now that I’m out of that super stinky funk, I think maybe I was learning a lesson about perseverance and trust and learning to just sit with whatever I’m feeling – because whatever bullshit is going on – it’ll pass and everything always changes. And, I have to remind myself to be patient with people who don’t understand why I choose to do what I want over stability. I have to be careful about who I vent to because when I talk to a normal stable person who starts giving me advice I feel like pulling their hair and screaming I MADE A MISTAKE BY TELLING YOU MY PROBLEMS BECAUSE WE HAVE DIFFERENT BELIEF SYSTEMS.

I guess my message is:

To the people who don’t understand the artist in your life – pat them on the back and wish them well and buy their work if they make something.

To powerhouse industry people – you can make or break people and you have a choice in how you treat people. Don’t be dicks ok thank you so much, also please call me.

To the artist – don’t ever quit you creative and crazy motherfucker. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Amber is a stand up comic, writer, and actress. She has built a Twitter following of over 40k users, and her tweets have been featured on shows such as Jimmy Fallon and Ellen, among others. She co-created #nitTWITS, a Twitter-based web series, which features writers and performers from SNL, Modern Family, The Office, and Conan. Amber has written for Cartoon Network’s animated sketch series MAD, and Adult Swim’s Moral Orel. Tozer has also made appearances on Last Comic Standing, and in the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival. She sold her animated series “The Tozer Show” to FOX ADHD and was recently at the prestigious 2014 Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland and will be featured at the High Plains Comedy Festival in Colorado this summer.

More From Thought Catalog