Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I hope this question isn’t too depressing for you but I feel like I don’t know where else to go for advice on this. I’ve been writing for ten years now, and I’m really tired of being a starving artist. People are always really complimentary about my writing, and I’m still passionate about it, but I feel like I’m going nowhere. How do you know when it’s time to give up?”
Most writers who stick at it long enough (myself included) will have felt this way at some point. Many choose to throw in the towel long before ten years, so I applaud you for sticking with it this long.
First let me try to address the ‘starving artist’ issue. There are no two ways about it, no matter how much you believe in what you’re doing, being broke sucks. Without getting all moany about society judging people by their material wealth, people notice when you constantly have no money. It’s painful to decline every dinner invitation you receive, look in the wardrobe and see the same old clothes you were wearing five years ago, only put in half a tank at the petrol station, re-gift your birthday presents to other people at Christmas, and find out your parents have stopped bothering to even write down what you owe them.
Being broke sucks.
And it only gets worse with time. Because your friends have more money now. People you were at school with, the ones who grabbed that first rung on the corporate ladder, even the ones who dropped out at sixteen to work in a garage, they’re buying houses now. They have husbands/wives, kids, cars, coffee machines, dinners out. They go on holiday abroad every year.
Whereas you consider a £1 tub of soup from Tesco to be a nutritious meal. You pay an extra 50p for the chicken one on special occasions. As a treat.
“But,” people say to you, “You’re chasing your dreams.”
“Yes, yes I am. If only the human body could survive on dreams and pot noodles.”
“Okay, so you don’t have much money,” they say, “But at least you’re passionate about what you’re doing.”
“If only I could build a house out of passion.”
“Don’t give up,” they tell you, “we love coming to see your shows.”
“Thanks, that means a lot. Maybe you could all do a whip round and pay me a yearly salary.”
Being a starving artist felt noble at first, martyring yourself for your art. But as the years roll by and you’re still living off the good graces of others you start to resent it. Then you outright hate it.
From what I can tell, after being in the world of “real work” for almost two years, the vast majority of people do not love their work. They might enjoy parts of it, they might like their colleagues, they’re probably fond of their paycheck (although they’d prefer if it was bigger) but if they had the option to stay at home eating cereal in front of Judge Judy all day for the same amount of money, they definitely would.
I’ve met very few people in nine-to-five jobs who are genuinely excited about their work. I’m talking about those rare individuals who read up on work stuff in their own time, stay in the office late when there isn’t a deadline and still want to discuss projects with you in the pub after hours. Most of these people are insufferable pricks.
Ultimately, I don’t feel qualified to tell you whether or not you should give up. I haven’t read your writing, I haven’t seen your work, I don’t know how much you love it or how much you want to succeed. And even if I did know all of this, it’s not my place to judge. This is a deeply personal issue and whatever course you choose, you’ll have to live it.
I’ll give whatever advice I can, based on my own experience of the past few years.
Way back in 2009 when I graduated and began pursuing a full-time writing career, I gave myself five years. I would either succeed within those five years and continue, or fail and give up.
Five years flew by faster than I ever could have imagined, and I found myself having the same debate you’re having now. I love writing and people seemed to always love my work. I’m not just talking friends and family either; I hate blowing my own trumpet, but I got fantastic feedback from actors, directors and producers I worked with. I had promising meetings with Artistic Directors and TV people. I had work produced at a lot of great venues.
None of that love equated to success as measured by the average person’s professional standards; procuring enough income to feed, clothe and house myself on an ongoing basis. It didn’t even equate to getting regular work.
On the other hand, in two years of working at my “real job” not a single person in my office has ever said “I love your work” to me, and yet I still get paid every month and am given work on a daily basis.
But I digress, the point is, if we look at my playwriting career from a completely binary success/failure viewpoint I failed.
And so I gave up on writing.
I took a full-time job and became a wage-slave like everybody else. For the first year I barely put pen to paper outside work.
Honestly, it was a relief. I was under no pressure to produce anything and I had money in the bank every month without having to chase anyone.
However, as I pointed out above, there are few people who truly find fulfilment from their day job, and I’m currently not one of those people. I enjoy my job most of the time, some of it’s interesting, some of it’s challenging, and I do it to the very best of my ability, but a lot of it’s just ticking boxes so that someone I’ll probably never meet can stay rich.
So I started writing again; I write this blog every week, I’m writing a new play, I’m making music. All of this happens in my spare time after work. Doesn’t leave a lot of time for a social life but whatever, I couldn’t afford one before so it’s not really all that different.
Can you really have it both ways? I don’t know yet. I don’t think I’ve been doing this long enough to really find out. Hopefully I find some kind of success somewhere down the road, but I may have to redefine what success as a writer really means.
I guess the overall point I’m trying to make here is that nothing is black and white. Your success and failure are ultimately decided by you.
Maybe you don’t make a living as a playwright, maybe you take a day job and continue writing plays as a passion project in your spare time.
Maybe one day one of those plays is a runaway hit, gets turned into a movie and you can quit your day job. Or maybe one of them is produced by a local amateur drama society and you get to take your mum along to watch their low budget production (which she loves, obviously).
Define your own idea of success and strive for that. For me, the act of writing a full-length play that’s good enough for someone else to even want to read is in itself a huge success.
I also try to think of life as a fluid situation. If you’re having reservations about giving up writing, why not call it a break? I found that taking a year off actually made me want to do it more. Some of the cynicism I’d built up about the theatre over the preceding five years wore off pretty quickly once I saw the shit other people do in their day jobs just for money.
You can give up and come back to it as many times as you like. Do whatever’s right for you at this stage in your life. And when that’s no longer right, do something else.
I’ll end with a warning, if you do give up, prepare yourself mentally for the disappointment. And I don’t mean your own; I mean the disappointment of all your family members, friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances and random strangers you accidentally tell you used to be a writer.
I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful dickhead here, they’ll all be disappointed because they hoped you’d succeed, but even though it comes from a place of kindness they still have no right to make you feel like you’ve let them down. They haven’t spent ten years living like a hobo, mailing out scripts into the ether in blind hope and eating their Shreddies with water because they can’t afford milk.
It’s your life. Live it to the best of your ability.
Have a question or problem you’d like to send in? Email email@example.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!
(DISCLAIMER: If you send us a question, you’re giving us permission to publish it! Be sure to indicate what name you’d like us to use as a sign-off when we publish your column, and a just a heads up that we reserve the right to edit submissions for length if needed.)
Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license