My parents showed up to my art school graduation just in time to catch me finishing off a joint in front of the writers’ building. That should sum it up, but there’s more. The processional was a parade of costumes and nudity and debauchery not heretofore seen, a cornucopia of bongs carved from fruit travelled the graduate seating area like the wave through stands of a minor league baseball team, and men walked across the stage fully nude (aside from their sneakers) to collect their diplomas and hugs from the deans and college president. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to, and certainly the first with a live jazz ensemble.
My two years in art school were like a dream – learning and teaching and learning my love for teaching, beautiful and obscure reading lists curated by experts in their fields, not being the only person that always fancied a drink after 10am class, excellent marijuana (in the days before it was legal), and hundreds of smart, hip, good looking and SINGLE young people all in one place. I thought that this was what it meant to be a writer – writing and talking about writing eighteen hours a day, or maybe sixteen minus the meat market gossip. But one very important thing that we never talked about while living in this writers’ wonderland was how we would support ourselves while we were doing all this writing (once the student loans ran out, that is). And how would we support ourselves?
Once the graduation hangover wore off, this question came clearly and urgently into view. I was living above Sunset Boulevard in a studio apartment with a partial view of the Hollywood sign and boric acid stuffed into every crevice to keep the cockroach infestation at bay. It wouldn’t take much to keep current on the rent, but I had a cat to feed and an appearance to maintain – cheap denim and last year’s boots simply would not do in this neighborhood of aspiring actors, artists and musicians.
I took the first job I could find, as the hostess in a restaurant downtown where my friend worked as a waitress. I will always remember this job as my first compromise. It was a “fine dining establishment” with strict dress code for front of house staff and major implications for my appearance: my nose ring was replaced with freshly pressed blouses, my rumpled rocker hair replaced by a blow dryer and lip gloss, the six heavy hoops dangling from my ears replaced by a heart shaped ruby pendant.
The slow decline had begun. This job was my first step onto the hamster wheel of contract, temp and part-time jobs that would define my first year out of grad school, and that would ultimately convince me that a full-time workaday life didn’t sound so bad after all. I worked as a research assistant for the school district, worked as part-time office support in a college registrar’s office, and worked (VERY briefly) as an SAT tutor, a Spanish teacher at a for-profit college, and a telephone survey taker for local Native American gaming tribes. I supported myself well enough to move into a clean and cockroach-free apartment just on the wrong side of the tracks from Silver Lake. I dressed well and ate well and didn’t rely on credit cards for much. I set my own schedule for the most part, and for the most part could get away with drinking during the day, going out often for very late nights, and squeezing in ten to twenty hours of solid writing time each week. But, I had no health coverage, did far too many drugs, and even in the downslope of my twenties, relied on my parents for far too many things (like all of the nice clothes I was wearing, every vacation I took, and much of the food I ate). It was time to face the music and get a real job.
As the old adage goes, those who can’t… can always find a job in college administration. I had a masters degree, teaching experience, that smart sounding “research assistant” title, and just enough administrative knowledge to get me in the door working at a local art college. I convinced myself that even though my job had nothing at all even remotely to do with my MFA, I was still doing something “cool” because I was working for an art school. After all, there was a lot of art there, and I was doing my own little part to facilitate the creation of this art. Didn’t that make me an artist by association?
But what I was doing was not cool, and furthermore, it was making me less of an artist with each passing week, not more. I was doing paperwork and making calls and sitting at a desk typing out emails and spreadsheets for eight to ten hours a day. I learned about office etiquette and campus politics. I learned to get to sleep early and to pack a healthy lunch and afternoon snack, learned to limit my heavy drinking to the weekends. I learned to care about whether proper procedures were followed and whether the proper forms were filled out. I learned to look interested even at the most tedious of meetings, and learned to make non-offensive small talk with colleagues in line at the cafeteria. I learned to be, in a word, boring.
The most important skill I learned in this job, though, had nothing to do with office politics or the wide-ranging interpretations of Casual Friday. It was how to not feel so bad about the choices I was making in my life. I learned how to not feel guilty when I would go home at night and look at my laptop and think that staring at another screen was about the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I learned how to not get depressed when I didn’t have the energy or investment to try to get my first book published, the artifact I had spent three years perfecting only to let it sit on my desk unread by anyone except for my loyal ladies workshop or the occasional suitor. I learned how to not hate myself for selling out, for wanting that pair of Prada shoes and for telling myself that my soul could not be fulfilled without some stability and a savings account.
It sounds sad to me now, laying it out like this, but I’ve come a long way since that first career track job. My salary has increased to the point where I can afford the fancy PPO health plan for my and my family, and I’m able to show some gratitude to my parents for all of their help over the years by buying dinner every now and then. I work for a university that, while not exactly a force in the art world, enacts an educational mission in close alignment with my own value system. I understand that in order to be successful it is more important to be my true self than it is to mimic what I think a successful person might look like. And generally speaking, I appreciate how lucky I was to fall almost by chance into a career path that almost perfectly suits my personality.
This spring, it will have been eight years since my graduation from art school. This isn’t a nice round number calling for a reunion or any special brand of nostalgia, but just as the birth of my daughter has me strolling down memory lane in all of the other old neighborhoods of my life, my art school experience is no exception. What is exceptional, though, is my inability to come up with any clear understanding of how I now view the experience. Was it a good thing, or was it a waste of time, money, and hope? Am I a failed artist, or an administrator at heart that never belonged at art school to begin with? Or am I something else entirely?
Throughout the course of the last few years I had convinced myself that art school had been for me nothing but a very fun and very expensive detour. And then I started writing this blog, and I started to rethink what it meant to be a writer. Maybe I truly am equal parts artist and administrator, and the last eight years have been a journey to accepting this middle ground. Or maybe I needed the stability I’ve created in order to bring my daughter into the world, and the creativity that she inspires in me is just what I needed to set me back onto the artists’ path. It has cost me a lot of time, money, and disappointment to understand this, but being an artist is not about hanging out with other artists, a reckless lifestyle, or dressing a certain way. It’s about a need to create and doing the work to satisfy that need.