Does being a starving aspiring academic count as being a starving artist?

An ode to creators

As some of you might know, I left my corporate job last September. It’s actually almost been a year, which is super crazy, right? Since then, a lot of joy, poverty, doubt and sometimes regret has been experienced. I think the overarching feeling though has been gratitude.

Gratitude. I have thought about this for most of this year. Grateful for the joy found in Christ. Grateful that I am here and that I get to try. Grateful for family and friends who hold and anchor me. Grateful for the love that surrounds me. Grateful for passion and purpose. I am just grateful man…yet, there are days when I forget.

I have been thinking about what it means to cultivate joy on days when I am not as grateful, or the things I am grateful for are a little foggy. To me, the cultivation of joy is a deliberate remembering. It is about conjuring up memories of your why’s, and forcing your mind to meditate on the things that have been good. When it’s been darkest for me, I am deliberate in remembering why I wanted to leave my job. I think about all the anxiety I felt while at work, the meaninglessness of it all. The time it took away from church, my loved ones, my passions. I think about how I felt like it was stealing my joy. Then I think about the freedom I felt starting work with an organisation I actually cared about and how that was what I always wanted to feel. I think about the resolve I have had since then to do work that I care about – to work on being the version of myself that I can actually like. To apply for PhD and write that poetry anthology and join organisations that are doing cool work and be a part of book clubs and read and, and…

I recently read a book called Man’s Search for Meaning by a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He is a psychiatrist who does an amazing job assessing the mental conditions of the prisoners in the concentration camps, analysing some things that allowed some of them to survive. The resounding theme of this book is about how people need to learn to suffer well. About being clear that if there is a purpose and meaning to life, and suffering is a part of life, then there is meaning and purpose in suffering. We may not know what that purpose is or how it will ultimately shape us, but we have to concede that if premise A holds – that life has meaning and suffering is a part of life, as much as joy is-, then premise B must hold as well. The author contends that ours is not to try search for the meaning of suffering but to ensure that we are worthy sufferers, that our suffering is not wasted. Not to trivialise this man’s very very gruesome suffering by creating a false equivalence to my smol smol pains, I do however want to draw lessons and parallels from his argument.

I think most of us know of, or even personally know some suffering artists. Art, it seems has always been viewed as a passion project and therefore not well remunerated or even rewarded if the artist is not world famous. I mean, we’re all acquainted with the “starving artist” trope. We know very well that most artists either find alternative employment to create stability in their lives while moonlighting as artists at night. Or they compromise on their art to make it marketable and therefore mainstream so they can be successful. But some artists don’t bend or compromise on their vision of what they’re creating. And if they don’t make it big time, they end up poor and struggling, left only with the art that they so believe in.

Now, there is a lot to be said about caring for oneself and your family, knowing when to “grow up” once you’ve come of age. Knowing to prioritise your responsibility to your family, the church and to society. I acknowledge that we don’t live in vacuums and therefore cannot make decisions only with ourselves in mind. Yet, even with these priorities at the forefront of our minds, putting the effort in being responsible humans, still, some of us are artists. Not in the literal sense – I wish I had some worthy talent to explore since I am a mediocre poet at best. And no, I am not fishing for compliments or sympathy for that matter – but in some sphere we find ourselves bound to. We chase and chase and chase, hoping to finally get to the point where our hard work and passion are rewarded. Hoping to do the kind of work we care about. Some of us are the pragmatics who think about how to make our art more accessible, or we work by day and artist by night.

Personally, if you know me then you’ll probably know of my interest in financial inclusion and fintech. I absolutely love it. I love reading about these, writing about them, researching them, talking about them – seriously, ask anyone! Yet these spaces, this work, has not been the kindest to me. I have struggled finding work in the space. I mean, I am now struggling to find funding to go do my PhD in the area! Yet I truly and completely believe that this is the work I want to pursue and dedicate my life to. I truly believe in its ability to transform people’s lives and I want to be a part, if even a small part, of making this come true. So I pour and pour and pour myself, hoping that at some point something will land. And all this dedication and effort to a space that doesn’t seem to love me back has made me believe that in some way, I am a starving artist! No, think about it, what really is the difference between a starving artist and me? Ours is a passion pursuit. We’re driven by a belief in the work we do, and a dedication to doing it in the best way possible. We’re driven by this unrelenting drive towards, well… something. And we won’t give up because we believe that at the end of it all, something will give. But we know that even if it doesn’t give, the process is worth it. Creating the work, and seeing it become something to marvel at, is worth it. If that’s not a struggling artist, I don’t know what is.

This post is sincerely written for those like me, the starving artists putting one foot in front of the other on the daily. Those who know not to question their suffering but are finding ways to make the suffering count. Those daily working on ways to cultivate joy, to stay grateful and not give in to cynicism. I see you. I recognise all that you’re trying to become and I celebrate it. I celebrate your ability to try. I am with you, I am you. We march on, because we believe in the work and the talent God has given us!

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