A few years ago I lost everything: my home, money, job. Everything. At 40 years old I found myself out on the street, reeling, whiplashed by a succession of quick-fire misfortunes and uncertain about what lay ahead. In the years leading up to that moment I’d dabbled in a variety of careers but nothing stuck. Long before, I’d given up writing, allowing myself to be talked out of pursuing it as a livelihood in favor of more practical, and presumably, more lucrative, professions. Then, suddenly, there was nothing left; all that hedging in favor of the practical had amounted to nothing. And I was set free.
I am now, in the most literal sense, a starving artist. It’s terrifying, nerve addling, rife with anxiety—and I couldn’t be happier or more fulfilled. It’s no coincidence that I failed at all those other jobs; every choice was doomed because none of them could lead me where I was intended to go and did nothing to make me happy. There was, I once thought, so much to lose if I chose to pursue my passion, and yet the things I feared losing most were the things that, I would come to find out, mattered least. I had already forfeited the thing I genuinely treasured, my identity as a writer. In a lot of ways I was lucky: If not for my misfortunes I would have sleepwalked through the rest of my life, barely aware of some lingering but vague sense of incompleteness.
There are nights when I still starve but I am whole.
All artists make trade-offs. It’s an uncertain life, one without a map and barely a compass. It’s possible my circumstances will improve only marginally in the years ahead, that I’ll struggle until my dying days to provide for myself or put a roof over my head, that I’ll never manage to squirrel away enough savings for the rainy days to come. Even now, friends reach out with practical job offers and business opportunities that might provide the stability I’ve gone without these last years, and, to their frustration, I decline each time. I know that even if I were to succeed (which is questionable) I would lose. Though I would love some iteration of stability, I don’t want to or need to be anything more than I am right now. If there’s a litmus test for an artist’s allegiance to their art I have passed it; I’ve made the ultimate trade-off. It’s true, it was imposed upon me. I didn’t shed all my belongings and comforts willingly, but once they were gone I was free to decide, unencumbered, what I wanted to be and I chose this life.
One of the great ironies of this transformation is that, as my life has become smaller, condensed into a single rolling suitcase, my world has expanded in ways I could never have imagined. My circle of friends is in a seemingly endless state of inflation, spanning the globe, from my home in New York to the West Coast to Europe and Singapore and parts unknown. The expansion isn’t simply geographical; the new faces that dot my world belong to extraordinary people I would never have known were it not for this peculiar choice I’ve made. Many of these new people leave me in awe of their raw talent and intellect and capacity to affect real change in the world. These are not the ordinary. And somehow, they view me, the itinerant, the wanderer of dark streets in the long hours of the night, as their peer, as one of them.
So, perhaps the trade-off I’ve made isn’t so unreasonable, after all. Occupying my long-neglected and rightful identity has wrought rewards more valuable than the cash and prizes of the past. There are nights when I still starve—and more of those nights will come—but I am whole. Moreover, I am anything but alone. Writing, insisting that my voice be heard, has attracted the attention of people I admire and respect and have come, in many cases, to love.
An artist’s life is built of crooked timber. We amble rather than march and so sometimes find ourselves lost in the wilderness, and that’s as it should be. Those who march straight ahead only look forward towards their destination; those of us who amble gather the world up in experiences and connections, and while we may go physically hungry from time to time out in that wilderness our souls are endlessly nourished and the scope of our lives gets bigger and bigger.
A few years ago I walked out of my apartment absolutely certain that I’d lost everything. I couldn’t have been more wrong.