“I guess it came down to not letting other people decide what was right for me. Everyone’s needs are unique. My happy is different from your happy.” – Lisa Fischer
Sometimes we get caught up in thinking there is only one way to do things. One way to become an artist. One way to be successful as an artist. It’s a quick trip between “I’m not being THAT kind of artist” and “I’m a failure.” A very quick trip indeed. And then it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to – I should stop being an artist.
That kind of thinking used to plague me all the time. I’m not that kind of playwright, thus, I’m a failure. I’m not on Broadway? Failure. I’m not being professionally produced? Failure. I’m not published? Failure.
The problem is that when it comes to the arts, we’re often only shown one path to success. And that path is very specific and very narrow. I hear it all the time, “have you ever had something on Broadway? Have you done anything I’ve heard of?” That’s the path to being a playwright I grew up with: you’ve been produced and published in a professional theatre and people have heard of your plays.
And yet, it makes total sense that this path would not work for every person who wishes an artistic career. The path is specific and narrow. We are varied unique individuals. There is just not enough room on the path for all of us. But we often don’t see the fault in the path, we see the fault in ourselves. We spend so much time thinking that because this path is well trod, because the stones are set, that we must take it. It must be the only way. Even if it makes us miserable. We want the path so much we forget what it is we actually want to be as artists. That the art can be the key to success and not the path. And what is this “success” thing anyway?
Fighting to stay on the traditional path of a playwright made me intensely miserable. And I fought for years to cram myself onto that narrow path because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. Even though in the end, I never needed the traditions of being a professional playwright to succeed.
What this means, is that some of us, many of us are going to have to forge our own path. Find our own way. It’s certainly not as easy as the path that is already there. But maybe there’s a path off to the side. One less taken. One less crowded. One more fulfilling. One that allows a different definition of success, which sure is not as glamorous, not as flashy. But if you’re into being an artist for the glamour and the flash? That’s a whole different kettle of fish.
This is what struck me when I read this New York Times Article on back up singers. The article talks about a documentary – 20 feet from Stardom which features the stories of backup singers to famous bands and on famous songs. And what was clear was that there were artists who made themselves miserable sticking to the path, trying to “make it” as singers, and artists who were so happy on their own path.
Lisa Fischer is a back up singer, who chooses to be a back up singer. Because what she wants more than anything is to sing. And she had a chance at the traditional path. She won a Grammy. But she figured out that the art, singing, meant more to her than the path. Singing is what made her happy, and she was able to do that all the time as a back up singer and so that is what she does.
And that my friends is what all this boils down to. It’s not – what is going to make me a successful artist? The real question is: what makes me happy as an artist? And that path is just not going to be the same for everyone.