The First Year Living as an Artist

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Has it gone well?

I ran into my old boss yesterday, from when I was doing environmental management work in the arts, outside the supermarket, loading two overfull pannier bags onto my bike. I left my half-week job voluntarily a little over a year ago to pursue being an artist full-time; she’s also now left to take a personal sabbatical and figure out what the next thing is. “So, how’s it gone?” she asked. And I rattled off a big list of things that I’ve done this year, and as I was doing it, I thought, wow, yes, this year has actually gone pretty well.

I saved up a financial buffer before I left my job so as to cushion the risk of writing and performing full-time, and in year one I’ve managed not to go into it: the first year’s paid for itself. I’m a bit awed. And as part of all that, I’ve published a full book, done a Fringe show, released a game, and plenty more besides. I’m really proud of this year.

The thing is, while it’s happening, it’s barely ever felt that way. Before every performance goes up or project launches, I’m fully convinced it’s going to flop; whenever I submit an application for funding or a commission, I believe I’ll miss out (like all of us, I mostly do); I am  constantly worried about money and where the next contract will come from; after each piece of work concludes, I’m happy about it for a couple of days and then start worrying that I didn’t do it well enough and that I need to do more. I seem to always want to be doing more, and better.

That drive’s a curse! Sometimes the drive for more is what keeps me making work, but it’s a toxic drive, one that eats away at your real reasons for making art: I’d rather be in that place where I’m making art because it makes me, in that moment, happy. But that’s not the world I get to live in yet, or maybe ever. So I’ve made a bargain with my anxious productivity, letting it rule me sometimes so I can find some happiness in other moments, and sometimes in the art. It’s been a good year, and I’m proud, but it never stops being hard.

What I did

  • I launched a crowd patronage scheme for my work. It’s built up to 40-odd folk adding up to £100 a month, which makes a dent in my rent and is an extraordinary vote of confidence: I always know there’s that audience wishing me well.
  • I finished the writing of Everything I Bought and How It Made Me Feel, performed the full theatre show a couple of times, and booked a small tour for 2016. I learned a lot about what theatre touring involves and what my limits are.
  • I released a prototype of Precariat!, my first pen-and-paper roleplaying game, with Adam Dixon, and started playtesting for a full version.
  • I published the verse sequence Drone in the book Our Real Red Selves, from Vagabond Voices, and launched it around Scotland.
  • I spent 4 months in Orkney to research Orkney language, start writing the next book, and support local language writing. We ran a sell-out performance event, Rashy Bulder’s Big Night Oot, which led to Abersee Press publishing an anthology, Orkney Stoor.
  • I spent a week in Glen Nevis writing games for hikers, which were later exhibited at Somerset House.
  • I performed Drone in the Edinburgh Fringe as part of Shift/. We sold well, got great press, and broke even or a bit better (depending on how you factor in rent), which at the Fringe is a huge achievement.
  • I created a funding ritual for Artsadmin, and performed it for the first time at Toynbee Hall. It brought a lot of people pleasure, online and off, and that made me happy.
  • I published my first full-length book, Tonguit, with Freight. That was only in November, so it’s too early to know how well it’s landed, but the first review made me cry with appreciation.
  • I launched the full-length edition of my game Raik. It got featured on two big indie games sites and has had 500+ downloads so far, which is better than I’d ever hoped for.
  • I did lots of smaller things too. I wrote some games for the Wellcome Collection, kept publishing creative essays on arts and politics on my blog and occasionally in national periodicals, created some Twitterbots, made a hypertext about the West Highland Way, I started working for local libraries on artistic projects for reader development, I tweeted a lot, performed at poetry events and theatre festivals, and kept trying to figure it out as I go along.

What’s going to happen

  • I’m touring Everything I Bought in February and March. It’s six dates, and I’ve produced the whole tour myself, which I’ve learned is a thing I will not do again. I’m very pleased with the show and want more people to see it: I think it’s the most accessible and populist performance I’ve made, and that makes me want to tour it. But I need to work with a producer in future!
  • I’m working with Neil to develop Drone to a finished show and with Adam to develop Precariat! to a finished game. I want to get these projects somewhere good and done before I do another big thing.
  • I’ll continue writing the Orkney book, but slowly and carefully: it’ll take a couple of years at least, and I need to find a way to fund further development.
  • I’m co-directing a performance art cabaret, Anatomy. We received funding for 2016 which is enabling us to professionalise it and produce more and better art.
  • That secret project that I’m not telling anyone about yet.
  • I will continue to do small new things when they grab me. I want there to be time for new ideas. I have thoughts for games, I want to learn how to do longer form generative text, I want to write poems outside of my Orkney project, I want to do some silly one-off performances that have been brewing for a while, I want to apply for attractive commissions. But I’m starting to accept that I can’t do it all, and that I should have a long enough life to do plenty.

How I want to be

I’m tired of always being tired, worried about always being worried, and want to work on not working too hard. The joke is the paradox: the work of making your self is also tiring, worrying  work. It would be nice to relax into who you are, but I’m not sure if I get to do that. I do have some ideas though.

If I’m making New Year’s Resolutions, then they are “Say no to more things” and “Take at least two full days off every week”.  Those add up to the mega-resolution: “Do a bit less work”.

Another way of doing that is focussing on what I’m good at doing and finding ways not to do what I hate doing. I’m bad at selling my own work: I can keep up the sales pitch for a week, and then get miserable about it and don’t capitalise on all the labour it took to make the work. This means that I create too many new things all the time, which can be a lot of fun, but isn’t sustainable. I’m also bad at asking venues to programme my performance: it takes me sweaty hours to write pitch emails, and consumes all my energy to deal with the nudges and lack of replies and tour organisation and ugh. It’s weird, because I’m good at producing other people’s work, but I need to stop producing my own: I need to pay someone else to do that. I want to focus on writing and performing, because that’s what I’m best at and what makes me happy, and I want to find ways of paying someone who is made happy by producing my work.

And another way of doing that is understanding how the money fits together better. I’m only a year into being an artist, and the money has worked out, but I don’t know if it will keep working out. I know there is no direct correlation between the effort I put into an artwork and the cash I get out of it. I know that my income is hung on getting two or three big commissions in a year, and that all the hundred quid gigs are just a top-up, and that scares me, because what happens when I only get one — or zero — big commissions in a year? I spent years tracking how my artistic income matched up to my non-artistic income, so that I could take the plunge when it looked like I could live off just doing the art; now I need to figure out how the different strands of art work combine into something liveable. I don’t even know if I can afford to live year on year, let alone have anything like secure accommodation and a pension. My hope is that by paying more attention to how the cash adds up I’ll be able to spend more time doing the things that make me happy and less time doing the things that make me tired.

But these are plans and hopes and those are flimsy things. I used to write a “life plan” at the beginning of each year: I’d set out some goals and think about what it would take to achieve them. I called each “What am I doing with my life?” I would write each out in full and then not look at it til the next year. They’re funny to read now: it’s been years since I did one. Each time, half of it happened and half of it didn’t; my goals five years ago line up very differently to my goals now. I’m not who I thought I’d be, but things are going better than I’d ever planned. I know there are going to be failures, and things that go wrong, and plans that go weird. I know that this is a hostile world to someone who wants to do art in a way that makes the world a bit better, and that that can be exhausting too. I don’t want to work so hard at not working so hard that I’m more tired than when I began. It’s been a very good year, and it’s been hard, and it’ll keep being so, but I’m wishing another good year for myself and a good year for you.

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