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“Follow your bliss”: the essential artist’s experience

He and I make time for at least one coffee chat every time I pass through his town, sometimes even a work date, if we can swing it. It’s rejuvenating like whoa. He is both peer and good friend, a rare combination that means we can enjoy each other’s artistic triumphs with unjealous joy. I can tell him personal truths that make me cry, and I know that if I follow the story with a sort of shaky “that would make a great play, huh?”, he won’t think less of me. And though we work in different fields, we can share bits and pieces of our working lives that are similar enough to be useful.

On my most recent visit, he was telling me about the film he had co-written that had done well at a kinda big-deal film festival. There was one late-night showing, but it was full. Industry people offered actual industry opportunities to my friend and his writing partner; it was great, he said.

But the moment that stood out for him was when the entire theatre erupted in laughter at a joke he had written. My friend’s face got all soft in a way that had nothing to do with the can of beer he was cradling. That joke was his baby, you could tell. “There was plenty else in the movie that I had done,” he said, “but that was my favorite bit. I wrote that joke myself, and they loved it… if I do nothing else creative in my life, I will always have that moment.”

He was quick to say how weird it was, to feel so strongly about one little joke, but I thought, no, that’s not weird at all. And as he smiled and glowed in that remembered moment, I thought how such moments are essential for artists to have.

Look, we all know—even if we’re still struggling with the how-to's—that business is important, the hustle and the grind, the planning and visioning. We know, too, or we’re learning, how to bring forth the art, to get good at the craft. All of this takes work, and I’m willing to do it. But I can’t lose sight of my own moments, when I know that my work is affecting someone, deeply, when I know that I’m on the right track:

  • That one time in 2010, in Winnipeg, where an audience member spoke out for the first time during Phone Whore. That freaked you out, didn’t it, I say toward the end, and someone answered, from the audience, “YES.”
  • The first time I told my story, about a caller who probably passed away, at Stand-Up Tragedy in London. The room was quiet while my voice cracked.
  • The time two women came up to me after a performance of the lesbian monologue from The Pretty One. "That was us,” said the one, while the other woman clutched her hand and grinned and wiped away tears.

It’s not weird to hang onto those memories. It’s essential. Because while hitting one’s Patreon goals or getting good reviews or running these Fringe marathons are important and perhaps necessary objective outcomes, they are not what keeps me going. They’re external, and therefore not enough to fuel the fire.

I need the feeling that suffuses my bones when I see that my work has landed and stuck. I want that vibration that passes between my soul and someone else’s. I want to look out at a particularly challenging point in a play, and find someone’s eyes on me, focused and intent. They want to see, even thought it’s hard.

There are moments like that, and my friend’s story reminded me to keep those strong in my memory, to not dismiss them just because I can’t put them down in my artist CV or quote them on a poster or trade them in for money. Because when there is no real way to know whether or not I’m “doing it right,” then at least I have this to set my creative compass by.

“Follow your bliss” ain’t just for hippies.

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