As an actor and write who wears so many different hats, being asked that question over many years left me wondering what to say. Did I have to say “administrative assistant”, if that is how I make most of my money? Could I answer “artist” instead? What if someone wanted proof? My mind felt so tangled around these issues and when I was at a networking event or going home for a family reunion, I often felt a sense of dread creep in when it came to conversation. How do I define my life in a way that is true and authentic? What if people judge me? My self-worth and sense of purpose took some big hits as I waded into the depths of what it means to do a certain job for a living and at the same time, feel like I had a completely different purpose in the world.
In January 2015, Kate and I decided to open this question up to the world. In the span of three months, we interviewed 40 people across the United States about the jobs they do and how what they do for a living affects their ability to build the rest of their lives. The resulting conversations were stunning. We talked to farmers, pharmacists, retail workers, at-home parents, accountants, housekeepers, aerospace engineers, and so many other people who opened their hearts and offered up their stories to us. Though we did find people who didn’t feel conflicted about their jobs, I can tell you that a good number of people we talked to were adamant about the fact that they felt like they were so much more than their job title. Many expressed a desire to be creative and playful in some way as well as the love they had for people in their lives. Looking through all the interviews, it was clear that as human beings, we want so many of the same things in life: to do purposeful, meaningful work in which we feel respected and valued, to love, and to leave something behind. Eventually, we distilled hundreds of pages of transcripts down into an hour and twenty minute long play that explores the lives of 17 of these people.
They say that working through any life experience using creativity is healing, and boy, has that been true with BIG WORK. I went from being in turmoil about being asked “What do you do?” to being so comfortable sharing who I really am with people I meet. Creativity brings clarity. Connection is a powerful antidote to shame and isolation. Art heals.
I’m grateful to reprint this post below as it originally appeared on The Perpetual Visitors Theatre Company’s blog and also let you know that if you too are wrestling with the “What do you do?” question, I would encourage you to learn more about the play, get yourself a copy of the script or listen to the original cast recording of the audioplay today. These stories changed my life and if you give them a chance, they might just change yours, too.
First and foremost, I believe that we must have our basic needs met before we can allow ourselves to make art. For me, when I have been worried about how to pay my rent, student loans, and buy food, it's impossible for me to dive deeply into the sea of creativity and come up to the surface with anything except anxiety and fear. I have gotten to know myself enough to realize that I need a fairly sturdy financial foundation before I feel free to let my artistic mind explore. While I used to think that keeping my day job and creative work separate was necessary, I now know that having a job that supports my art, not just financially, but emotionally, is important to me. Uniting all the different parts of myself and the different roles that I play does not in any way dilute the artist I am, but makes me stronger and richer in my ability to create something meaningful from my whole experience.
Here are a few other unexpected discoveries I made in the process of making BIG WORK, as it relates to my own day jobs and my creative work in the world:
1.) I need the support of my artistic community AND the support of my day job community. And it's there, just waiting to be noticed.
A number of the donors to our IndieGoGo campaign last year were people from my day jobs. In the weeks before, during, and after the performance, I received cards, emails, calls, and texts from so many of the amazing people I've met over the years at hospitals, lumber yards, classrooms, offices...each and every message of love and support of them meant so much to me. Was I terrified to let the people I've worked with, both past and present, see the play and thus me in a completely new light than they had in our workplace? Absolutely. But it has been incredibly moving to have shared something so personal with them and have been received with love and support. If this play was an emotional skydive, then my co-workers and managers were waiting for me on ground level with open arms. To dare to show up and be seen, unsure of how the people in your life will react, and in the end, be greeted with generous love and support is something that I wish everyone can experience at least once in their lifetimes. Now at my day job, I get asked how my creative projects are going, what I'm up to next. After she saw BIG WORK, a doctor I used to work for wrote me an email. "I am so proud of you. It was so well done and thought provoking. I had a great time! Please let me know of all performances. I look forward to more shows." For a long time, I got to watch this woman in her element at the hospital, doing what she does best: working with patients and changing their lives. To get to invite her to see me doing what I do best was, and have her accept the invitation with joy was incredibly moving.
2.) Here's perhaps a not so surprising "secret": my day jobs have financed my creative endeavors-- without my day job, BIG WORK would simply not exist.
The great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about this symbiotic relationship in the natural world:
"When we look deeply into a flower, we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. Without the sun nothing can grow, so it’s not possible to take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be as a separate entity; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain."
The play that we created is my flower, and it contains countless "non-play" elements: the struggle to balance my job, finances, artistic work and personal life was my rain, self-doubt and fear were the clouds, and the joy I felt at making the difficult and scary choice to see this project through to completion was a blazing sun. I needed it all, and couldn't afford to waste any of it. You have no idea what you are going to use from your life to create something meaningful.
3.) I have been infinitely inspired artistically by my experiences in my day jobs.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor and a pilot and a horse jockey and a lawyer--well, you get the point. I hated the thought of having to choose just one thing because I was so curious about all the different experiences someone could have on this planet. The beautiful thing about being an artist who needs a day job? I get to play countless different roles, both onstage and off, and all of them have been invaluable to my creative life. I've worked in a courthouse, a lumber yard, a diner, a hospital, a library, and have even hosted Wild West themed birthday parties for children...from these experiences have come a play about male breast cancer patients, an idea for a web series about historical reenactors, and inspiration for many characters I've played on stage and in film. I cannot wish these experiences away because they are inextricably linked to what I've created. They are part of me and I am grateful for all of them. It's now with wonder that I glimpse my future of working in the world, and not with heavy dread. Who knows what my future day jobs might inspire for me?
4.) Writing, producing, and performing BIG WORK has helped to transform the way that I think about the role that a "job"plays in my life.
I now have very different definitions for my “job” versus my “work" in this world. My “job” will likely change many times over the years, and is what helps me pay my rent, my grocery bills, and my student loans. My “work” in this world is as an artist and creative – it’s a constant throughout the different seasons of my life. At various times in my life, these two definitions have overlapped and crossed paths, but I’ve come to understand they are two completely different things for me. And that realization has made all the difference.