So many people struggle to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and I’ve always counted myself lucky to be passionate about music and singing. But did I really know what I was driving toward? Not really.
I’ve spent my life training as a singer, all the way to the Master’s level in classical voice, but only now that I’ve really begun figuring out who I am as an artist, do I realize just how little I really knew about what I wanted to do with my life all that time.
I knew singing was a calling that I couldn’t give up, but for so long I didn’t think I could do it professionally because I didn’t fit into any of the existing boxes that singers are supposed to fill. I didn’t want any of the careers that I saw around me. There was something unique to myself as an artist that I just didn’t understand yet. I studied opera in college as a way to keep singing while earning my Philosophy degree, and by the end I thought opera was what I really wanted to do, so I went to conservatory to earn my Master’s.
Short story long, when I didn’t get into the conservatory’s opera program, I applied for an entrepreneurship award to make my own project. I won, created my first solo show, and became completely disillusioned with the world of opera and any world in which I had to wait for other peoples’ permission to participate in their art. But… what was I? What was my art?
It has been a long road of a few years since then, with a foray into some weird side-gigs like starting a surf hostel in Portugal, Eat, Pray Love style, after fruitlessly trying to start my own collaborative, traveling cabaret company and being generally lost and confused about who I was as an artist. I didn’t create anything for almost two years.
But then!… Some things happened that ultimately led me to discover my calling and my unique identity as an artist and I want to share those things with you.
Let me first say that it is really hard pioneering your own genre… but it’s so worth it! Sometimes it is a struggle to talk with artists who are on well-worn paths and who’ve been making progress in their fields since they were young and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Obviously, their artistry is original, but they just fit into categories of artists that already have a long history and a pretty set career path. Sometimes I feel so behind in my career with so little to show for my journey. Like, hi, I have a master’s in Classical Voice but have never sung professionally because I just don’t want to spend my time trying to get hired to do someone else’s project. That’s not where my creative fire lies! But how do I make my own opportunities?
Most of the time, I recognize that being true to myself as an artist, unsatisfied with what is and deeply committed to what can be, is the only way I can live, create, and be happy, and the most impactful way I can make a difference in the world through art. Everyone’s art has meaning and validity, and some of us just have different paths that take longer to carve out, through brush that hasn’t yet been trodden.
So, if this resonates with your experience, here are some of strategies that helped me carve my path and discover my artistic identity, and that will hopefully help you figure out where your artistic truth lies:
Make a list of your passions.
If you’re an artist, I’ll assume there are some things you’re pretty passionate about in life.
After going to Edinburgh Fringe last August, I was determined to write a one-woman show to bring to the Fringe the following year. I did a little research about how to get started and ended up making a list of things that I was most passionate about. This list included Outlander, period dramas, fantasy, time travel, sci fi, singing music from lots of different genres, spy things, action stuff, burlesque, cabaret, and philosophy. Ok… so how could I build a show around all the things that make me most excited? I came up with a bunch of different ideas over time, each morphing into the next, starting with my instinct and working on the parts that felt wrong or nagged me. I worked to develop the idea as it progressed and talked about it with friends, family, and strangers for months as it morphed into thing after thing, until I finally settled on a concept that felt like the one.
Side note: It is ok to have ideas and then move on from them! I have often felt self-conscious when talking on the phone with my dad or meeting with friends and having a different idea or project that I’m working on each time. People might think you’re flighty or can’t commit, but now that I’ve finally found a project worth dedicating my time to, I realize that none of those ideas were worth my commitment. Having and working on them was necessary, though, in the journey to the idea that is worth it.
This might not be true for everyone! Some artists just make whatever is in their minds and then move on to the next project. But those of us that aren’t prolific and have a hard time committing to a project can benefit from understanding that sometimes you’re just holding out for the idea that is your calling! It’s ok to slow burn your creativity, as long as you don’t confuse that with avoiding creation due to perfectionism.
At the beginning of her book, The Film Director’s Intuition, which I’m reading right now and highly recommend for any kind of creator of fiction, Judith Weston mentions that she didn’t save anything for later when writing her first book. She poured everything she had into it and trusted that after that journey, she’d have learned so much, that she’d have even more to give the next time around. Everyone has a different way of working, but pouring everything you have into a project instead of focusing on proliferation is a totally valid way to work if that’s who you are as an artist. I have noticed, also, that now that I’ve found my passion project, it has opened up the floodgates of other creative ideas that are in line with who I am as an artist, and I now feel more capable of being prolific because I know more clearly what I want to create!
If you have a hard time figuring out what you’re passionate about, think about the artists and works of art that inspire you most, and start making lists of what you love about them. Once you get started, you should get keyed in to what excites you and it’ll start to flow.
Come to terms with your fears.
A major factor in my journey was the huge moment of realization that I wanted to be an on-camera actress. I remember wanting to be an actress, like Hilary Duff lol, when I was a kid. As I got older, I had all kinds of doubts about how acting didn’t come naturally to me the way singing did, and there were lots of beliefs I held that told me I just couldn’t do it. For the previous 10 years, I had also been holding a subconscious belief that I could never act on screen with the way my throat looked (I had a visible thyroid nodule). I had never even noticed this belief before, but as soon as surgery left me with a finally normal looking throat, I had a rush of realization that went something like, “wait a second… I can act on camera now! And I really want to!” Suddenly, I became deeply aware of my desire to act on screen, particularly for TV, and this internal shift I had after surgery finally told me that I could do it (even though I could have done it all along). All of a sudden it shone a light on the fears that had been keeping me from pursuing what I really wanted to do. “TV is the kind of art that affects people and the world!” I thought. “This is the golden age of television and this is what I was missing!” I decided to do what I had been doing on stage with music and storytelling, but adapt it for the screen.
You don’t need a major surgery to show you where you’re holding fear of failing at the things you’re most excited about. Start paying attention to the artistic endeavors you have the most doubt around. What kind of art excites you? Are you telling yourself you could never do that for some reason? Are you ignoring the nagging voice in the back of your head that is calling you to something that scares you? Often, that fear is actually of facing and potentially losing the thing we want most. So start paying attention to where your fear lies. That may lead you to your true artistic calling.
Take actions in order to learn.
Those of us who are carving out untrodden artistic paths have a lot of challenges to overcome in order to pioneer our genres. There are no systems in place to support our individual journeys, so we have to create them. The absolute best thing you can do is take small actions every day toward your vision. You might not have any idea what to do or where to start, but it doesn’t matter. Grab onto any concrete idea and start to follow that thread. I had absolutely no idea how to make my epic musical fantasy time travel tv show, or even how to explain it, hence the long description. I still don’t, but I know a lot more now than I did six months ago when the idea initially crystallized. Take a small action, any action at all, whether that is asking someone or even Googling a question about how an aspect of your project is accomplished, reaching out to anyone you know who might have insight, joining online forums, or sitting down to just create a prototype. One of the things I do when I’m feeling stuck is just free-write a script (sub the form of art you’re working on) for whatever I’m thinking of. It may never see the light of day, but it helps me move my vision forward and in times of need, and can also be used to help explain the idea to others. Let actions be your learning process, take daily steps, and you’ll get there.
I’ve been sitting on various ideas for how to actualize my project for months, but after hours and hours of prototypes, podcasts, audiobooks, and conversations about screenwriting, music, and independent producing, etc, I finally settled on my next big actionable step: a podcast version of my TV show that will allow me to use the resources I have to find the resources I don’t have, yet. Don’t stop pressing at the corners of your doubt and finding out the answers to your questions every day.
Don’t get discouraged by how hard it can be to express your uniqueness in the world when you’re doing something unexpected and new. Just keep digging at the truth within yourself and taking action to put it out into the world. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to do it with passion and truth.
Finally, don’t get sidetracked by things you feel you should do that don’t ultimately feel truthful to your deepest excitement, passion and truth. Don’t cut corners with your authenticity and do things because that’s how they’ve been done in the past. Pioneer, pioneer, pioneer! And cultivate community, because that’s how you’ll progress. Share your insights with the world and don’t give up!