Hey there! Whatcha up to? Maybe you’re still at university, dreaming of being an artist/writer/musician/actor, but becoming aware that those are not considered ‘proper’ jobs, and that the university career department will try to steer you towards the kind of companies where everyone dresses in grey and they hold dispiriting receptions around bowls of crisps to try and persuade you that tax is ‘wacky’. Maybe you already realised that and became a lawyer/teacher/office worker and now you’re 24 and own a house and go skiing twice a year. Maybe you spend a lot more time talking about ‘the state of the kitchen’ and ‘who ate Marjorie’s mini-Twix’ than you would have thought possible a year ago.
Or maybe you didn’t go to university, you went straight into doing the thing you love. Working front of house in a theatre, or behind the bar in a music venue. Maybe you make zero money and live in a squat and steal coffee from your job in a big evil beverage chain. Maybe you are starting to think this was a mistake and you should retrain as an accountant and stop your parents worrying so much.
Maybe you’re still at school and every time you timidly say you’d like to do something arty, your careers teacher laughs until a tiny tear collects in the corner of their eye and they says what about advertising? (Fact – all careers teachers want to be trapeze artists, in their hearts)
Maybe you are not at school or university or in your teens or twenties or even thirties, and you already did the job and kids and house thing and you’re starting to wonder what about NOW, is NOW the time for your dream to happen? Will it ever happen?
I am 34, and I always wanted to be a writer – always. As a teen, I dreamed about winning the Booker prize. I had my speech all written out. (A lot of people were going to get truth-bombed that night.) But instead of doing ‘arty stuff’, I spent most of my twenties working in offices, and wearing acrylic clothes from Next Womenswear, and eating limp sandwiches and hating pretty much every second of it. I did many courses in other things that were not my dream (Spanish, IT, Chinese, development studies). I was unhappy and bitter. I commuted three hours a day. I didn’t have enough fun. Why did I do this? I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of not having a ‘good’ job, like my friends who had to sleep at the office and buy pants in the morning. I wanted to own a trouser-suit. I was too scared to try things, and make mistakes.
So I want to suggest this: your twenties are the time to make mistakes. If you’re ever going to be a deadbeat living-in-a-squat-making-coffee-for-money artist, then surely 22 or 25 is the time to try this. Why be in such a hurry to get a trouser suit and own a house? You can do that when you’re forty, or fifty, or never (because: London). Many people live quite happily never owning property, or trouser suits. Because let me tell you, professional work is BIGTIME overrated. It’s like 90% meetings and passive-aggressive emails about who moved whose stapler. Some people genuinely enjoy this stuff, so better leave them to it and not take up a job someone else might LOVE (Marjorie for example). It is nice to have houses and holidays and colanders, but it is nicer to not hate what you do every single day.
Of course, there’s nothing to say you can’t have a good job and make money AND keep the art going on the side, feeding the dream, playing your instrument, writing your words, going out and networking. If you can do this – and your job is one that doesn’t crush you with tiredness – and be creative while not living in grinding poverty, so much the better. Grinding poverty is not that conducive to creativity. But then neither is a well-paid soul-sucking job. Find a medium point.
So enjoy this time. Go to terrible comedy nights (the more awful the better). Take a show to Edinburgh and lose all the money. Play gigs to three people. Read your poetry aloud to empty pubs. Take up the ukulele, if you must. Go to really bad plays that make you want to tunnel out and escape, and hang out with people who haven’t given up yet, and realise that doing your thing – music, art, poetry, writing, whatever it is – and doing it badly, or to no discernible effect or success or monetary reward, is better than not doing it at all. We have to ditch the idea that art is only of value if you can make a living out of it, that we must be either an office worker/teacher/lawyer, or a musician/writer/actor. Maybe we can be both. Our jobs do not define us. And maybe, if you start soon enough and are smart, you can find a thing inside your ‘thing’ that makes money (novels, playing at weddings, graphic design, photography) and you won’t need that day job. But do at least try, no matter how old you are. Because the dream will never go away, and sometime you’ll meet a young person who is doing that thing, and they’ll be full of joy and excitement and they’ll have no money but they’ll be so alive, and as they walk away, you’ll quietly say, ‘Once, I used to play (or write or paint or dance or sing) too.’