Creative Process: Actuality
Words by Sarah Stone Innerst | Photograph by Shannyn Higgins
Sometimes the creative process is interrupted (enhanced, broadened, & understood) by the realities of life.
I married a burgeoning actor during his first paid gig in Milwaukee, and it was culture shock. It wasn’t the fact that one day he took me to a local coffee shop and I realized we made horrible coffee at home. No—what shocked me was how hard Josh worked for fifty dollars per week.
My picture of a life in the arts had previously been a white-collar community in which Josh and I would rub shoulders with famous people who’d want our phone number. They’d invite us to learn golf-playing at their country clubs and tell us about their weekend trips to Paris, and I was fully prepared to accept all cocktail party invitations while Josh and I changed the world together.
Since that initial shock—and amid the habitual struggle to make a better cup of coffee—I’ve overcome most of those illusions of grandeur. I’ve watched Josh apply for internships, go to grad school, endure auditions, and take rejection. He’s learned that being in theater involves grueling days of intense movement, fancy voice work, and mental instability. I’ve started to think of artists as laboring blue-collar workers.
One day, I was asked to start writing a little bit here. And someone noticed I was handy with grammar, so they asked me to write a little bit there. Someone else liked how my personality shone through in my writing, and suddenly I fell into a regular gig as a freelance writer. I’m pleasantly startled that people in this little reading community enjoy the words I string together, but none of my process is ethereal and artsy—I’m just doing what I’m asked to do with a skill set I already possess. Is this art? If it is, somebody goofed. It’s hard and takes a lot of time.
People in the arts have more in common with an ant farm than a cocktail party.
PROCESS IN REALITY
Like so many other artists, being good at what I do doesn’t quite pay for my quest to make a better cup of coffee. I have to have a day job to help pay the bills, and writing is my escape to get me through the week.
Josh’s acting has kept him busy enough that he’s never needed to get a second job. That’s the dream, right? All an artist wants is to get paid enough to do what he or she loves so he or she can drink better coffee and change the world!
Josh was once told it’s unwise to choose acting as a career path for the sheer love of acting. No matter your career choice there will come a time when you stop loving it—even for a little while—and then you’ll have to seriously reevaluate your priorities. You hope to do what you do because you like it and you’re good at it; it’s a job that you’ve chosen. This concept doesn’t belittle an art form or a passion, it just takes some of the false romance out of it—it’s a job. It’s a different job. Sometimes it’s tempting to quit this job, but you don’t do it because it is, after all, a job.
He’s been an actor in the theater for almost eight years. The more he’s worked as an actor, the more he would tell you he sees himself less as an artist and more as a craftsman. Most artists are craftspeople; at the end of the day your work has little to do with artistic expression and more to do with just showing up and working until you’re tired and then going to bed and marveling that you’re lucky enough to wake up and do it all over again, coffee cup in hand.
But don’t forget to infuse this daily grind with a heavy layer of joy. You enjoy your job; it’s why you chose it—or maybe why it chose you.
PROCESS IN WORK
Process is 100% different for every craftsman, artist, and artisan. These careers have very particular elements of work, and personality has a heavy hand in developing product. For some people it’s very ethereal and artsy-fartsy, and that works for them. Even Josh has been in that place before, but his process, like mine, is currently very practical.
Most of my writing is weekly and relates to food. When I get ready to write I open a blank document on the computer, brainstorm there for a few days, open a new blank document, and write the first line of my article. That first line seldom changes and the article is usually written in a day. I let it age for a couple days, refine it, and send it in. There’s inspiration involved, but it’s mostly in finding and honing a topic to interest my community of readers. The rest of the creation is stamping out facts, building structure, and patting the piece into a story that inevitably reflects my personality. This process is tedious; this process is laborious; sometimes this process is ridiculous. But the end product is always worth it.
When first starting an acting job, Josh has a process that goes beyond just memorizing lines. Because he works primarily with classically-based texts, this involves understanding heightened language, form, and the context of the piece. This process is largely mechanical (doing your homework, showing up, saying “yes”) and the skeleton is similar from character to character and from job to job. What changes is the community: new cast, new company, new director —each bringing a different energy to learn and adapt to. These changes in community cultivate weird relationships, and different energies take time to get acclimated to, but good work often comes out of tolerance and flexibility.
Just like making good coffee takes patience, practice, and quality ingredients, the practical side of creating a body of work always takes time and skill. And the more you work the better you become at your job.
PROCESS IN GROWING
Growing in our respective arts as we pursue them together, neither Josh nor I foresee ourselves changing the world at large; we’re more interested in affecting our local culture rather than a global mass. Acting has helped Josh keep an active eye on the big picture and how he fits into the larger story of life, impacting the tangible community around him. Writing has helped me understand that art is hard work, and the harder I work to carve out my story the more rewarding it is when it affects someone’s life for the better.
There’s a lot of will involved in doing your job every day and not becoming burnt out. When it’s time to stop, you’ll know because you’ve finished it or it’s finished you. Then, consider switching to tea for a while and see if you’d like to come back to coffee later.
Is there a secret to doing life as an artist? Probably not. Josh credits his gainful employment to the fact that he does the best work he can, is respectful of his coworkers, and shows up on time (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s Keynote Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012). Feel free to needlepoint this concept onto a pillow.
I’m learning that the secret to good coffee is in every person’s opinion. I like a medium roast, freshly ground, brewed as a pour over, and drunk black. Feel free to make this for me because I’m still struggling.
Theaters are communal. Newspapers and magazines are communal. This is why we matter; this is why we do what we do: to affect the culture within our reach for the better. Josh and I want to touch our respective spheres of influence, sometimes working side by side, allowing family and good friends (and the coffee that brings us together) to be a priority.
Today our cocktail parties are brunches with friends and our weekend trips are to the grocery store. This blue-collar life is not what I imagined we’d be living, but it’s ours and I love it. I love it because hard work makes better coffee.