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On having a backup plan

As a young artist, my dad always used to encourage me to have a fallback plan. The deeper I got into my creative work, the more looming this nebulous thing became.

Fallback.

What did it mean?

I assumed it meant there was no effing way I’d make a living in theatre and dance. Or it meant that I would probably fail, so I should have something else ready to occupy my time and pay the bills.

Over the years, it got so I wasn’t able to think about my creative passions without Plan B sidling up beside it, like a plus-one at a party. I didn’t necessarily invite the backup plan, but there it was, drinking rum punch.

Eventually, that connection solidified even more. Like: if I am creating, then a backup plan must be present.

This caused a series of problems.

First, it assumed that the creative work was not the backup plan. That these were two distinct, and probably antagonistic, entities. It implied that the backup plan would pay the bills and the creative work would not. And buried in all of that was the assumption that paying bills should be part of my creative work’s job description in the first place.

But, should it?

In the history of Melanie Makes Art, which began when I was a toddler, making money has almost never been part of the motivation, drive, and urgency to express my human experience in various forms.

Granted, Paying Bills becomes prevalent in life at a certain point. But why did it get suddenly and fervently get mushed together with creativity like an incredibly high-stakes blind date? Jane, meet Susan. Susan, meet Jane. You two will be moving in together now.

This doesn’t mean income can’t be part of the motivation to do creative work, or that motivations can’t change over time. But the danger comes when unconscious associations happen in our brains without our consent. Beliefs like these limit us in ways we aren’t aware of, because we can’t even see them. We don’t know they’re operating or how they got in.

And yet: there they are.

Somewhere along the way, Art + Backup Plan got linked in my brain. And Money was the unexamined bassline rumbling underneath it all.

So, for fun, let’s just sit for a moment and give a new idea some space:

Creativity can exist separately from a backup plan.

God, what could it mean for us?

If our creative work was free from backup plannery:

  • We could just do our creative work. Like, actually focus on it. Without feeling like we’ve left the stove on or forgotten our kid in a Target parking lot.
  • We might feel super motivated to kick all kinds of ass.
  • We might also discover we’re terrified. That the backup plan was our security blankie and, now that it’s gone, we’re really wigged out.
  • We might feel pressure. Uh oh, we’re actually on the hook for producing something.
  • The problem of paying bills would still exist and still be a thing we need to figure out. But it’s over there now. A little further away, like at least three inches.
  • We might feel lighter and looser, or we might feel untethered and lost.
  • We might fail at our creative thing and be mortally embarrassed and/or disappointed.

Okay. So nobody dies from cutting the lil’ imaginary umbilical cord between Dreams and Plan Bs. The sky does not fall. The earth’s crust does not crack.

But all of our problems don’t suddenly solve themselves, either.

In fact, we may have more problems. Raw feelings like fear and pressure to produce and vulnerability. Which might attract some tag-along barnacles like resistance and futility. We might have to encounter failure. And then we might wonder what the point of creative work is.

So, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually get some pay-off from this backup plan thing.

Plan B keeps a whole lot of complication at bay. It lets you have one foot in and one foot out of your dreams. It allows you not to fully commit, or to risk, or to fail. It’s a back-alley permission slip to not be 100% authentically you and, as a bonus, you get to blame someone else for it! Thanks Dad. Your backup plan crap kept me from being a really successful artist.

Oh dear.

Now, what the hell do you do?

For my money, you find a really comfy spot on the couch and settle in for a spell. Because this is officially A Lot To Process. In unpacking the unexamined connections between Plan B and your dream, you’ve also had to confront a bunch of big feelings about letting those two things be separate, and in the process realized that the payoff from not fully committing to your creative stuff may be holding you back, but that committing to it might mean failure and humiliation.

Here, have a muffin. Still warm.

Okay.

So, here’s the real stuff. I only personally know one or two artists (and by know, I mean, like, I’ve met them in person a couple of times) who don’t have something resembling a side gig, day job, or patchwork of various forms of hustle in addition to their artistic practice. In fact, even the artists I know who can live off their art and solely their art still earn income from projects that are more work-for-hire than their own pristine artistic vision.

There is no Artist Rule Book in which it’s stated: Thou art not a real artist if thou hast a side gig.

So, reframing the backup plan as a standard issue day job is a possible strategy.

But. It’s not really about that, is it?

It’s about the commitment piece. Fully inhabiting your unruly, creative, authentic self. Without reserve. Both feet in. No backup plan.

There is no fallback to being 100% You.

Even though being you is, at times, terrifying, expensive, confusing, complicated, inconvenient, upsetting, boring, exhilarating, unappetizing, exhausting, and about sixty-seven other very descriptive words.

Can I posit here that it’s not your creative work that needs to be divested from the heavy burden of The No-Fail QuikPay Securify Backup Plan 2000, but…you?

That your trembling, beautiful, tender-unfurling-leaf of a self just needs to be allowed some real breathing room? Without the pressure to deliver or perform? That you get to be an artist because you say you’re an artist and that self-defining is your right (and possibly your superpower)? And that the expansive, airy quality of running around naked with no backup plan has its own unexpected payoff, I promise?

You as naked, authentic person might fail. You might feel pain, or you might cause it. You might fully commit to a thing that just stops appealing to you at a certain point along the way. You might change your mind seventy-eight times. You might have dozens of false starts and never get a project off the ground and give up completely and sell the farm and dye your hair green and say fuck it all, I’m going to live on a boat and homeschool my children.

All of this is totally okay. I believe it’s what scientists call Living.

But, we can choose to live without burdening ourselves unnecessarily. And punishing ourselves for not carrying that weight “well.”

C’mon.

Set it down. Let’s go skinny dipping.

 

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