#ArtistTherapy: Are You Legit?

"I don't feel like I can call myself an artist because..." Oh yeah. Been there. Still there in some ways. There's the difference between being an "author" and a "writer." There are the questions when you may introduce yourself as an artist and someone will invariably ask "So what have you published?" "Where have you shown?" "Where have you played?" "Where may I have read your work?" And then you mention an obscure magazine/location you get back a dead stare and realize this person was putting you on par with NYT best sellers and people who've played at MSG or shown at the Met.

When I came back to work after my first residency in WY I was bright-eyed and psyched up! I felt legitimized as a writer because I was away, in the boonies, treated like an artist, and given space and time to write while others made sure I was not bothered and wholly comfortable. It was and is an artist's dream. So, I come back to my full-time job and while speaking to a friend her boss came by her desk and I said "Hey!" still high off of the residency. My friend's boss greeted me and then I guess at some point I blurted out I had been away for a month on residency. "Oh so you write?" she asked.


"Have you been published in the New Yorker?"

Picture me deflated. In those four weeks I had been legitimized, one comment negated all of that. It is not a good feeling when a comment can do that to you. But the reality is, especially as an emerging artist, it can. Now imagine being a published author and having someone ask about your sales. I was in a Book Expo line and heard two people speaking. One guy was asking the woman about her published book and she mentioned that she sold several thousand copies. He was not impressed. He said "That's it?" And she was pretty darn cordial considering that response saying she thought she did pretty good.

But there you have it, the need to feel legit, validated by your publications, your resume, your connections, your sales, and so on. This will never end. The business side and those on the outside will continually not get that, for artists, the product and the act of producing are the things that drive us and keep us going. Yes, we want to be published and shown and have others see and absorb and ultimately (hopefully) get our work. But that getting into a literary journal you respect and has a circulation of 500 or 1000 may be just as exciting as being published in Tin House or The Paris Review. That being shown in your local library can be an honor as much as showing at MoMA. Or playing at a bar where the crowd really digs your music and you can interact with them can be as satisfying as a larger venue.

The feeling of being an impostor as an artist because you may not have sold a lot or published widely or produced much due to whatever reason can be as debilitating as anything else in terms of moving forward. If you love what you do, if it's calling you nonstop, if you're growing and learning from it and people do get what you do you need to find the support (not the deterrents) to keep going. As I and guests have said on the Minorities in Publishing podcast: Find your tribe, they will support you. You have to legitimize yourself by continuing to create and then the rest of it will come through as well.