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Why I Will Never Be a Starving Artist

Read this article on HowlRound.


I graduated from college with a playwriting degree, and one year later, I hadn’t written a single new play. I was ready to call myself a failure as a playwright. Get up, move on. My inspiration had dried up, my motivation was gone and I couldn’t have come up with a decent idea for a new piece if you paid me. And I certainly needed the money.


It’s not as though I was lacking in experiences to be inspired by. My first job out of college was as an intern for an online entertainment magazine in Brooklyn, a position which, among many other things, allowed me to write theatre reviews. They didn’t pay me for it. It was the only unpaid position I applied for in those last few months of college, the only internship so valuable I was willing to work without pay. Because I was a new college graduate in the midst of a recession with a Theatre degree and middling-at-best connections in the theatre world, they were the only ones who offered me a job. Go figure.


In my year at the magazine, I got to expose myself to all the New York theatre scene had to offer, from ten-seat tiny white box productions to Broadway shows with celebrity leads. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by inspiring works of theatre. And yet, struggling to make ends meet between several part-time gigs, I couldn’t bring myself to be inspired.


After the tech company that ran the magazine went under, I got a job doing marketing for an Off-Broadway theatre. I thought, “Finally, I get to be in the room with people who make theatre happen, seeing it all come together. Surely this will be inspiring.” But not only was it a part-time job where the pay was atrocious, my boss was also constantly trying to nickel-and-dime me out of every cent she could while working me to the bone. Frustrated by the lack of respect and of opportunity, I left theatre.


Fast forward a few months later to me working a corporate marketing job and an approved application to move into a much nicer apartment at the end of the month. Sitting on the subway anticipating my usual irksome trek back to Brooklyn, the words came to me. A few turns of phrase, a monologue, a witty snatch of dialogue—by the time I was home, I had written the first scene of my new play on the Notes app on my phone.

I fiercely admire driven artists who are inspired to generate work on an empty stomach, not knowing if they’ll be able to make next month’s rent. But we do ourselves a disservice when we imagine that the “starving artist” is the only model for young theatremakers getting their start in the big city or elsewhere.

Adrian Polglase, Olivia Lantz, Miranda Burns, Elsa Grace, and Hannah Maxwell (left to right) as struggling millennials in Shooting in the Dark by Natalie Sacks. Photo by Natalie Sacks.


Six months after that fateful evening, I had my first staged reading of the play that became my New York City playwriting debut in a 24-hour play festival, which I never would have thought I’d be accepted to. Shored up with the stability of a well-paying job, a non-decaying apartment, and a supportive network of friends in the city, I can write again. And the future looks bright.


We’ve all read one of those articles that debates what’s better for artists: a job tangentially related to the art you want to make, while struggling to find time and energy to do what you really love, or a completely unrelated day job that allows you the freedom to care about your art completely in your free time. And I certainly don’t want to say anything bad about all those arts administrators out there, but I certainly know where I stand in that debate now.


I fiercely admire driven artists who are inspired to generate work on an empty stomach, not knowing if they’ll be able to make next month’s rent. But we do ourselves a disservice when we imagine that the “starving artist” is the only model for young theatremakers getting their start in the big city or elsewhere.


We know that playwriting is almost never a lucrative occupation on its own, and thousands of talented writers all over this country are quietly eking out their existence as public school teachers, lawyers, bartenders and more. And those of us who get our writing in after our nine-to-five jobs are no less dedicated or significant than the guitar virtuoso in his crumbling Brooklyn loft.


So can we stop talking about starving artists, as though commitment to the craft can only be proven through stockpiles of ramen and cheap vodka? How about we celebrate the young woman who tr

udges out to class three times a week after a full day of work in the office to earn her MFA? Or the high school teacher whose opening night is completely sold out because all of his students came out to support him when he debuts his first full-length play? And what about all of the writers out there who are also parents?


The romance of writing isn’t negated if you’re not constantly inspired, despite all the odds. You are no less of a person if you don’t want to starve for your art, and how you choose to make it all work is no one’s business but your own. Be proud of the writing you do, and if it isn’t happening as quickly as you would like because of your other commitments, that just means you have more time to reflect on your work as you create it.


I have never felt so much like a playwright as I have since I got a full-time job outside the arts. And I never would have had the inspiration to write this blog article without it.