It’s no secret to the creative children of the family (you know who you are) that they field many more questions about “what they do” than the lawyers, doctors, financial analysts, teachers and the like. Part of this is natural: people approach with wariness things that they don’t personally know or understand. When this manifests in interrogation-level questioning, though, a healthy curiosity becomes excessive, insensitive, and detracts from rather than contributes to the success of the creative person in question.
As I’ve made the transition to freelance and to work that actually allows me to (gasp!) sometimes express myself, I’ve had to justify my decisions and the rationale behind them countless times, which frankly eats away at my energy stores and my capacity to do my work. There are phone calls from family members that I actively dread because I know they will be full of questions I shouldn’t have to answer. I dread them even more because I know my brothers don’t ever field the same questions. No one ever says, “Have you made it as a college student yet?” or “Any news on the investor relations front? How long are you going to keep doing that anyway?"
Allow me to settle this once and for all: Creative people have already thought of all the downsides and the reasons why it might not work—that’s one of the hallmarks of our creative nature (that everyone wants a piece of, ahem). The optimism we carry is less a reflection of how out of touch we are and more a necessity for achieving creative success (see How To Sustain A Creative Life, point 6, deluding yourself). Great optimism is not a rejection of realistic thought—just a way to harness the power to shape our outlooks to bring about our eventual success.
I had a long conversation with my brother a couple of weeks ago, a phone call I lovingly refer to as “The Great Interrogation of 2016.” We went over all of the above (the inspiration for this post, duh) and also somehow emerged 1. without killing each other and 2. with a greater degree of clarity and understanding.
To be the creative black sheep of your family is to develop a thick skin in order to protect the soft, fleshy, fragile growing thing that is your creative work from the misunderstandings, (generally well-intentioned, adding to the absurdity) criticisms and assumptions of the people close to you.
Here’s a handy guide to answering a few of the inevitable questions you will receive. And, since questions are a two-way street, a few introspective ones you might want to show to your family members (wink).
Frequently Asked Questions of Creative People:
So, how long are you going to keep doing this?
It's not a phase--this train line has no end point. I am going to keep making things and prioritizing that in my life until I’m dead.
(Note: I had to put this in a context my brother could understand: I told him if I had a choice between A) having a stable office job, finding a partner, having kids and not being able to make any creative work again or B) having all the creative freedom I wanted but forgoing the ability to have children, workplace stability and a conventional family life, I would choose Option B.)
Haven’t you been saying that for years?
(My brother asked me this one.) I had to clarify that I may have been producing creative things “forever” but the fact was I had never tried to make a living doing something creative before. I had always had office jobs (in very progressive workplaces but they were still office jobs) prior. I jumped into freelance (i.e. the first time I’ve tried to make a living solely off my creative work) less than a year ago. That helped put things in perspective.
What’s are your metrics for success?
There is only one: Am I happy and do I feel fulfilled by the work I’m doing?
What do you do all day?
Uh, you know, all the same things that other people who have clients in any other industry do: sales sales sales.
Scout and reach out to potential clients, keep up on what’s happening in design, seek inspiration from new experiences/people/places/travels, put together promotional items to mail and email, LinkedIn stalk, learn to use my go-to tools better, seek illustration and literary representation (i.e. PhD in rejection), put together estimates, invoice, answer emails and phone calls and then also actually create things to build my portfolio and share with people who follow my work.
Your family is not a bunch of horrible trolls that live under a bridge and throw rocks at passerby, so where do these questions come from?
There is a great amount of misunderstanding about the nature of creative work and likewise, the nature of the people who do it. The archetype of the crazy artist, wearing all black and chain-smoking cigarettes all day while splattering paint all over the place is just a silly cultural caricature of a trust fund baby who suddenly decided to do art. For the rest of us, the real work of making a living creatively: the practice, resource allocation, self organization and motivation and strategy that it requires, often goes unacknowledged. A creative career is a small business, plain and simple.
There is very rarely such thing as overnight success. More often it’s years of sacrifice and skill-sharpening. Not to mention unlearning the systems we are all forced to grow up through and realizing the breadth of what is actually possible out there.
But back to questions:
Introspective Questions for Your Family Members to Ask Themselves:
1. Do I ask my "less creative" children/siblings the same kinds of questions as my “creative” children/siblings and with the same frequency?
2. What is my curiosity and/or worry based on? What do I actually want to know? What is my intended outcome for the conversation?
3. Are my questions getting in the way of productive and supportive communication with someone I care deeply about?
4. Do my actions contribute to or detract from my kid’s/sibling's ability to be successful on their own terms?
5. Am I projecting my own regrets about not taking a more creative path myself onto my kid/sibling?
We hear this same line over and over: "I just want you to be happy."
Here’s a hard truth: if you really mean it, it can’t be conditional.
“I just want you to be happy, as long as you’re also financially stable.” At many points in a creative career those two things are going to be mutually exclusive.
Them’s the breaks.
“I just want you to be happy, as long as what you do professionally fits into my idea of what is respectable and legitimate.” Creativity is by definition pushing the envelope.
At the end of the day the point is for everyone to be fulfilled by what they do and how they choose to live. In the pursuit of that there here are some more questions rather than answers:
How can we get to points of greater understanding so we can better encourage and support each other?
How can we constructively examine the internal biases we have that get in the way of that understanding?
And how can we put things in clear terms to maximize understanding?
Get to work, people. And let me know how it goes. #blacksheepmatter