On being a terrible warning rather than a good example

Yesterday I posted a picture on my Instagram. This picture:

Each of those sheets of paper contains the name and history of a current writing project of mine. Just writing – no directing, no dramaturging of other people’s work. Some I’ve marked Active – they’ve got a deadline attached, or they’re currently under consideration somewhere, or they’re spec scripts that I’m actively working on. Some are Dormant – they’ve not got any current deadlines and I’m not awaiting any outcomes, so they’re resting for now until the next opportunity to do something with them comes along. My rationale for laying them out this way is that I can see everything clearly at a glance, and I can easily add notes every time there’s a new development. Some I’ve been working on bit by bit for several years, some are quite new.

Shortly after posting this, I found myself doomscrolling a thread about the glorification of overwork and how we shouldn’t be using social media to demonstrate how busy we are. My first instinct was to think that I shouldn’t have shared the photo. My second was to contradict that, because I don’t do this to glorify it. I do this because I care about painting an accurate picture of how an artist’s life (or at least *this* artist’s life) works, and this – the sheer ridiculousness of having to keep 21 different pieces alive in my head simultaneously – is it.

I don’t know whether this is typical. I often get the impression it isn’t, when I hear other writers talking as if they work on one piece at a time, or about the difficulty of generating ideas. But I don’t actually know many other playwrights who don’t have a non-theatre income source that means they can choose to spin just one or two plates at a time. And the ones I do know who are in that position are generally more successful than me, so they spin fewer plates because they work on larger commissions at higher rates.

To a certain extent, this suits me. I think. In a way. I don’t know what to do with my brain other than exhaust it. Doing something I’m good at, something I can get wrapped up in, keeps a lot of psychological and even physical pain at bay. Switching from task to task is draining but it’s also exciting in a way that focusing on just one thing for a long period isn’t. My capacity to care deeply about each individual project is apparently unlimited, and that care masks the effect of the switching.

In other ways it doesn’t suit me. Theatre paying so poorly that I need to juggle so many tasks is a problem in and of itself, but it’s also a great way to ensure that I’m too busy to keep on top of tasks that I dread or am not good at. It’s a great way to put myself back into the burnout cycle that I only ever managed to break during the first lockdown. It’s exhausting. I can see why people who don’t have my compulsive (a term I use accurately, not lightly) need to do this, or whose choices are in any way more limited than mine, might stop. And I can see why anyone considering walking this path might find it useful to have this information so they can make an informed decision.

The unfortunate truth about working in the arts is that if you choose or need or want to work on just one project at a time, it’s very unlikely that you’ll make a living from your art alone. I say “unfortunate” not because I think having a money job makes an artist any less of an artist – I say “unfortunate” because I think it’s sad that our work seldom attracts fees commensurate with the work involved, and also because there’s a general perception that a good writer is a commercially successful writer who doesn’t need a money job.

Personally, I really like my “day” job (in reality mostly an evening job). I get a lot out of teaching. I love constantly revisiting the basics of my art form, and sharing the joy it gives me. I think it’s an honour that I get to help people find the art in themselves and love it. But I’m aware that I have a responsibility to present an accurate picture of what life can be like if you choose to make your art your income. You can love the art in yourself and not make it your full-time pursuit. Shakespeare had other income streams. Garrick was also a venue manager. It’s more important to find a balance that suits you than to fit someone else’s ideas of what artistic life should be.

And if balance isn’t something your obsessive brain does well with, it is – or should be – ok to acknowledge that and advise that it’s not a healthy way of doing things. Descriptions of my own practice are not necessarily advice. See me as more of a cautionary tale.

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, director, dramaturg, spoken word artist and acting coach. https://ko-fi.com/jenbitespeople View all posts by jenbitespeople

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