What’s In a Name?

When do you earn the right to call yourself an artist?

Is it when you sell your first piece through a gallery downtown? When you land a publishing deal? When you stop doing weddings and finally land that gig with Time Magazine?

Or does it come earlier? When you first finish a painting? When you write a poem that gets an unpaid spot in that literary journal? When you write your first song and sing it to the person who means the world to you?

As an unpaid, published writer, I say it is the moment you lay claim to the title. I know there are people who will argue, but it’s something one of my favorite people told me when we were kids. He was and is a visual artist, a painter. When he asked me what I did I told him, “I want to be a writer.” He chuckled and responded “you don’t want to be a writer, you are a writer. You just don’t get paid for it. Own that shit.”

I repeat these words to every aspiring artist I meet. Our passions aren’t always what pays the bills. But, this was true for many artists during their lives. Poe was more famous as a literary critic than he was a writer. Van Gogh spent parts of his life as a preacher, an art dealer and a book seller. But both of them were passionate about their work and believed in their own potential.

This needs to be me, but this also needs to be you.

A paying gig does not an artist make. 

We all dream of being able to pay the bills with our art, of reaching some sort of, if not fame, respect for our art while we are still alive to feel understood. This isn’t going to happen for all of us. This isn’t the reality for many of us. But this would only be the icing on the cake, wouldn’t it? The real reason we create has little and less to do with money and fame is really simply a matter of our need to get something out. To speak, to show, to create.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a photographer. It started with a book of Gordon Park’s photos which I flipped through in my elementary school’s library. Near simultaneously I wanted to dance. I went to one dance class with a friend because her parents paid for all of us to get trained for the talen show, and I fell in love. I enrolled in both dance and drama the very next year. Writing came the same year I started drama. I wrote my own monologues and short one acts for groups and one I started I couldn’t stop. I wrote my first critically acclaimed poem when I was 12. And by critically acclaimed I mean I got an A and the entire class loved it and wanted me to give them copies.  For so many reasons I let them all slip through my fingers. My father wouldn’t allow me to take photography when I was in high school and even if he did there was no way we could have afforded a camera. Aside from the year I spent working at a camera store when I was in college I never got the opportunity to truly learn and hone that passion. I did what I could with point and shoots, Polaroids and disposable cameras, and every time someone said they liked one f my pictures I blushed, but I never admitted that it was a dream of mine to go on location and shoot for National Geographic. That’s actually still one of my many dreams. So when another friend saw a picture of me with a DSLR around my neck (borrowed) and heard me complain about the photography skills of my girlfriends who completely messed up my pic where i was supposed to give the illusion of licking the national monument and he said “so what, are you supposed to be photographer” I brushed it off with a quick “No”. But why? Because I don’t have respectable tools? Because none of my photos have been published? As many years as I have spent lusting after the title – 22 years to be exact – why can I not claim it?

Acting and dance came free, but just the same, I was only allowed to choose one of my electives per year. So between my love for art history, African history, writing, dance, theater and photography I had a hard time getting myself into the worlds of those artistic disciplines. Why though was I only allotted one of those classes when some years I was able to take as many as three electives? Because my father didn’t believe that any of those could lead me to a successful, stable life. He signed me up for computers. Every single year. And I still can’t tell you the difference between ROM and RAM. But that’s what Dad said, so that’s what I did. And because I was sheltered and naive, I listened. I listened again in college. And again when I graduated and wanted to look for alternatives to the very stable and very respectable career of teaching.

And now I have been teaching for ten years with very little to show of my creativity. And when people ask, somewhere along the way I became bashful and started to say, once more, I want to be a writer. Though I never let my students say it, I began to say it myself. I am too old, I tell myself, to start anew. To make waves in the art world. Too old to catch up. And I’m 32!

So I got rid of that mentality. I remembered the words of my friend from over a decade ago, and I tell people and social media without hesitation that I am a writer. An artist. I am not paid, not yet, but I am a writer. No publisher, no critic, no one can tell me that I am not.

We all have these stories. You could have had someone refuse to assist you with college if you had chosen that art major. Your parents could have sent you to science camp when your little heart would rather have danced. You could have forced yourself to tap tap tap on a computer keyboard when your heart of hearts knew you’d much rather play a tune on a piano.

So start now. Claim the title. Whenever you make up your mind that this art is not simply a hobby, that it is a vital part of your self, you call yourself by that name.

Poet, Dancer, Musician.

Now, if we’re going to be honest and do this correctly: I was born a writer. And it is beyond a doubt that I will die one as well.

-em

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