At a party recently I heard a man bemoan the fact that he's tired of answering the same insipid questions people ask about his profession. "How did you get to be an actor?" He said he didn't have the energy to answer the question anymore. His witty friends offered up some potential glib replies: "Just say you were inspired by a dream Dali had." Imagine everyone tossing their heads back and laughing (proudly, because they all got the Dali reference), drinks in hand, the sparkling holiday decor winking in the windows as if in on the joke.
Ok, it didn't exactly happen that way. I haven't been invited to any parties recently. But something I ran across this week made me think about this attitude. It's out there, and I'm going to call it out as High-Falutin' Snobbery in the Arts.
I think people who ask "How do you make a living in the arts?" do so because they have an unrealized dream. Some might just find it amusing and they are curious, but most genuinely want to know how to make it work. Maybe they've had a comfortable job most of their lives and dreamed about being a novelist. Maybe their life circumstances put them in a position where they had to hold down a job sealing envelopes from home, but they've always loved to sing.
When someone asks me "How did you become a poet?" I always pause. Well, I usually gape like a fool, struggle with some words (wow, she MUST be a poet!), and then gurgle out a reply. I'm happy to answer the question, but it is a tough one to answer. I talk about where I grew up, how I grew up, and the word games we played as kids. Being alone in the woods meant tinkering around with sticks, turning my closet into a little writing room, jumping into cold streams, picking huckleberries, inspecting salamanders, plenty of thinking, long walks, and making up plays and performing them. This, plus the people who mentored and inspired me along the way led up to my love of language and my desire to write. I had a childhood of creativity that led me into an adulthood of the same sense of curiosity about the world. I realize I am lucky. Not everyone gets that.
Geez, it's a tough question to answer, but such a great question to be asked. It's an honor, even if it's a struggle every time to explain how huckleberry picking made me want to write poetry. I'm not even sure that's the correct answer, and isn't that just like a life in poetry? No answers, only more questions.
When the fan mail starts arriving from my Poetry/Hooping/Nose and Ear Wiggling/Musical Typewriter Theatrical Extravaganza (ha ha ha!), I'll answer that too, and won't complain about being weary of it. Ever. I'll be grateful, and humbled that anyone cared to inquire at all.