Drawing Strength: Lessons from a born-again artist

Welcome Art of Hustle’s newest guest blogger, Alanna Coby! According to Alanna, you do, actually, know how to start on the path towards a successful career as an artist. It just doesn’t always seem that way. Find out how this San Francisco writer and performer started something without realizing she started it, and what she discovered to be key to the journey.


“Start” is such a simple, deceptively minute little word. Any time I’ve received warranted or unwarranted advice from anyone–teachers, mentors, friends, strangers on planes–since graduating from college in 2008, it’s what I’ve been told to do. “Start something. Anything. And see where it takes you.” Other than “Get your driver’s license. What’s the matter with you?” it was the most common advice I received. And every time someone said that to me, my response would look like this:

This, I have learned, is not entirely true. This not-knowing-how-to business, I mean. Then again, it’s not entirely false, either. As a sentient human with a desire to eat and live in some form of bolted-to-the-ground housing in an expensive city, how do you consciously and effectively start to create the life you want to make when you are interested in a career that will likely not make you any money?

I am an artist. I went to school and graduated with a degree that didn’t make me a prime candidate for a job at Google or Facebook. In fact, every morning at 7am on the dot I stood behind the counter of the coffee shop I worked at right out of college, covered head to foot in orange juice and the nervous sweat that always broke out whenever I went near the steaming wand, and watched as people in the exact same graduating class as me boarded the Google bus to head off to their lucrative day jobs.

Have you seen the Google bus? There is nothing else in the world that can make you feel quite so much like you’ve wasted 4 years and several hundred thousand dollars on your liberal arts education as that thing can. It’s like an enormous wi-fi mastodon lumbering through the city every morning at 7am with a big sign on its side that says “Ha Ha Sucka: You Studied Theater.” It wasn’t that I wanted to work at Google, not at all. But watching these young people with their iPhones and one-handled briefcases board the bus each morning as I stood next to the juicer, I felt like I was watching people who at the very least were able to measure their success. People who were going forward, towards things like houses, retirement, Mountainview.

Thing is, there isn’t a handbook out there that guides young artists towards starting successful careers in the arts. Becoming an artist isn’t the same as creating a career for yourself in most other professions—if it was, the handbook would read like this: 1. Go to the school. 2. Learn how to do the work. 3. Pass the tests. 4. Receive the degree. 5. Find the job. Starting on the path towards a successful career as an artist is not quite so straightforward. It’s a slippery, funky path, one in which success is almost-entirely based on a willingness to just start doing the work that you want to be doing. And you do, actually, know how to start on this path. It just doesn’t always seem that way.

I started something without realizing I had started it when I was unemployed for the very first, and likely not the last, time. I had a disastrous internship experience at a local theater, so bad that I left it before my year was up never wanting to work in (or go to, or see, or look at) theater ever again. And as I rode the great tidal wave of misery that accompanied my swift departure, the first and only job I found was at a non-profit in need of a data processor.

Life Equation: If you are paid $10 an hour to merge duplicates in a system that can only be used on Internet Explorer for 40 hours a week, what is the probability you will hate your life so totally that you will gain 25 pounds and not pick up a pen for 8 months? Answer: Extremely likely.

When the company finally laid me off I went home, ate a sandwich, and started to draw. I still don’t know how this happened. I’d never really drawn anything before, and I certainly never thought that the drawings I was doing were any good. Perhaps it seemed like a good use of my suddenly ample amounts of free time. But it was precisely because I didn’t think that I was any good at drawing that it somehow worked for me.

For the first time in my life, whenever I sat down with my notebook I didn’t feel like I had to be “good at” drawing in order to draw. I just drew, en route to the Employment Development Department (I’m writing that out for any of you readers who work at Google and may not know what “EDD” stands for), after breakfast, before bed. I’d gone to school to study theater and had always identified as a writer, but I wasn’t auditioning, and I wasn’t really writing. Instead, drawing these funny little sketches that I dubbed Ugly Comics felt like the most honest, most interesting, most fun work I’d ever done. That was in 2010.

Over the next two years I was a ticket seller, an usher, an assistant in a theater, and a babysitter; bare-minimum positions available to me for which I was just barely over-qualified. But for the most part, or at least most consistently, I drew. And something in the starting of my Ugly Comics project began a trajectory of other projects, other processes. I started and eventually ended an art collective. I took acting classes. Then I started showing my drawings to people; I taught a workshop, I made a website. Without meaning to, without realizing it, starting the Ugly Comics series is one of the most creative, and the most fulfilling, projects I’ve ever begun. Mostly because doing them, and thus being consistently creative, has inspired me to make more art, to start more projects.

So what’s my point? I guess my point is that you should probably work at Google if you know how to and/or would like to be a financially stable individual. It’s also that starting is hard, but it will happen if you let it. There’s no right way to create, no wrong way to express yourself, and there is no safety net beneath you every time you start the plunge into a new project. The trick is to find a way to not care, to not even wonder if there “should” be a safety net. As an artist you have to trust that the fall, no matter how great, is always better than doing nothing at all, even if you land somewhere you never anticipated. So start something. Anything. And see where it takes you.

BIO:Alanna Coby is a writer and performer living in San Francisco, CA. Since moving back to her native San Francisco, Alanna has worked and performed at Brava Theater Center for Women in the Arts, co-founded Revel Art Collective, and performed at the Literary Death Match. She currently works at American Conservatory Theater. Check out her website, www.ugly-comics.com for more on Ugly Comics and the Ugly Comic Revolution, and make sure to check out Ugly Comics on Facebook at www.facebook.com/UglyComics.


Have you also discovered the power of adopting a “just get started” attitude? Or are you ready to start something new? Share your experiences, thoughts, and comments using the comment box below. Any questions, of course, are also welcome. You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate Alanna’s good advice. Share this post using the buttons below.

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11 responses to “Drawing Strength: Lessons from a born-again artist”

  1. Lily says:

    It’s so true. You really don’t need to know what the “finish” looks like in order to start, although it’s very confusing to lack a strategy yet not actually want to make a strategy either, because what matters is creating from a place of inspiration. Because it IS the journey, dang it! although it’s very annoying that that’s true.

    • Hi Lily! Thanks for your comment. So glad you share this experience of enjoying the journey. Totally agree about the strategy bit. It’s certainly an important component to have as well. The way I see it, the process is the impulse to explore and enjoy, and the “finish” is akin to having a map or game plan to get you there – wherever there is. Both are equally vital at various times. ~Anthem

    • Alanna says:

      Yes! And the process is the point. But it’s hard to remember that while you’re skipping down that path…and falling flat on your face half the time. Thanks for commenting, Lilz!

  2. Talis says:

    You, my lady, are my hero. I LOVE your work, your brilliant mind and your passionate heart. So proud of you!

  3. Kelly Mercer says:

    Alanna, thanks for sharing and helping us free ourselves from that intimidating ‘start’!

  4. Natty says:

    Great story so inspired

  5. […] again, Ugly Comics founder, Alanna Coby, visits with us. You may remember her from her wildly popular essay on the subject of “starting.” Shortly after it went live, it was reposted over 150 times all over various social […]

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