This question comes up hundreds – no – thousands of times in one lifetime. At parties, walks in the park, from strangers, or new friends. They’ll all ask… “So, what do you do?” I answer as honestly as I can, “I write, I sing, I teach a bit, some volunteering, you know…” What I can’t know is how somebody is receiving this information. Many make it known that they think that this sounds creative, or even exciting. Others might want me to qualify this statement, for instance, to say that I’ve published two novels, or that I only teach part time, usually for agencies and more recently in my own home – TEFL. Nobody asks straight out how much money I earn, but I can see that the ‘value’ of what I do is often judged in monetary terms.
I was rather delighted years ago by a policeman who described my then lack of a full-time job, but busy schedule singing and writing, as “gainfully unemployed”. At the other end of the scale someone close to me recently stated that I’d “never worked” since they’d know me, a devastating blow to my self esteem. A full-time Masters degree; a play; a published novel; a batch of songs; some teaching in secondary and at home; my creative writing class (voluntary) for the homeless – do they all count for nothing? Why? Probably because my efforts don’t always generate an income, and I am not seen to be partaking in the daily grind of a regular job.
It made me think of all of my friends who are creative – singers, musicians, writers, actors – are they not allowed to describe themselves as ‘actor’ or ‘writer’ if they’re not currently in paid work, or generating money somehow? What about the legions of artists who have gone before – Keats, Van Gogh, Dickenson, Kafka, Poe… all died undiscovered as great artists, many in poverty, and often ridiculed when they were alive. For every one of these, there are thousands more who will remain forever unsung – talented, in every sense of the word, but maybe not at promoting themselves or making money. The lesson, if there is one, is to accept that the creative urge is an essential part of human experience and expression. We write and sing and ‘make’ because we must, because we are gifted (or cursed) with something within us that seeks the light. A bud that struggles through the dark winter soil to greet the first rays of spring and then blooms in the wasteland or the depths of a cruel season doesn’t care about the environment, or whether you buy it and put it in a vase. It just blooms.