What if I told you that in ten years you will achieve your dreams? Bestselling book. Oscar winning screenplay. Exhibitions in the best galleries. Earn a massive income as an artist. Consistent creative fulfilment. A body of work you can stand over with pride and satisfaction. Insert dream here. But what if, no matter what you do in the meantime, nothing will change the due date of this dream fulfilment?
What do you do?
Ten years is a long time. Do you give up? Go get a real job like your peers? Do you beat yourself up every single day of that decade for being too lazy, unproductive, not smart, wise, deep, special or even thin enough to deserve the future you envision for your creativity and your life?
Or, do you wait patiently, hone your craft, chip away at projects, make new connections, incubate ideas, put yourself out there regardless of the pace of your progress and simply live a life that informs your artistic practice?
Well, it might not take ten years. It might even be shorter for some; it might also be much longer. The point is that the artistic life isn’t exclusively one of sudden leaps forward and big breaks. It can appear to be as such for a lucky few, but for the majority of us it boils down to persistence, passion and patience.
I’ve often thought of the pursuit of creative ambitions like a very long train journey, only I’m not inside the train. I’m hanging off the side, sometimes for dear life and sometimes enjoying the winds of excitement and opportunity blowing in my face. Often the dust and grit of failure and rejection gets in my eyes or leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but I keep hanging on in the hope that I reach my desired destination any minute.
I have friends and colleagues on this bizarre journey with me too. All of us start at roughly the same point. We all cling on for as long as we can. Sometimes a friend gets a seat inside the train and I applaud their luck and success. The longer I’ve spent on this journey the more friends I’ve seen let go. It gets hard to hang on after a while with little to no sign of a comfortable destination, or even a pit stop in sight.
There are other tempting stops along the way that look like steady income jobs with perks, benefits and security. Some unexpected detours that look like relationships, families, or physical and mental health issues which make clinging onto this uncertain journey difficult to impossible. A lot of these friends, many of them more talented than me, have let go of the train and loosened their grip on creative pursuits in favour of stable careers in other fields.
There are times when it feels like either I’m the only one still hanging on, or perhaps I should have gotten off sooner. But after over a decade since I left a passionless job in banking to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, it’s only now in the past few years that I’ve started to see the fruits of perseverance.
Every artist knows it’s next to impossible to earn a living and pay your bills without some form of side hustle or day job to supplement the artistic work. Some of us get steady paid work and strike a balance by becoming coffee-break artists, or early morning writers. A lot of us artists find ourselves in shadow careers that are semi-related to our artistic practices. This can work out fine if we budget our time and energy between the day job and the unpaid development of our own artistic practices, but we often find ourselves working within shouting distance of our dreams while depleting all of our energy during office hours with nothing left in the tank for writing in our spare time. Holding an umbrella over the sandwiches on an outdoor photo shoot, standing silently in a hallway on a film set guarding a light stand while actors and the director get to work next door, or booking artists to exhibit at a gallery while your own paintings lie half-finished at home.
In January 2020 I found myself burnt out from such shadow work, hoping for some sort of break from the demanding freelancing in order to give my novels and screenplays the attention they desperately deserved. I was working nonstop as a shooting producer and director on TV shows. I was earning a living in film and TV. I had achieved what many struggle to do, and I had a lot to be proud of and grateful for. However, when I looked around, almost a decade had passed with what felt like very little creative output to show for it. Where were my projects? After all of the dedication and long hours.
I thought I was hanging onto the train. Working in the film and TV industry, a million miles away from the banking job of my early 20s, but here I was in my early 30s and I had yet to get the major opportunities, funding and time I needed to create the art I was born to share.
Being too tired at the end of each day to write “Fade In” on a new screenplay, I chastised myself for not achieving more with my free time and felt the sting of failure with every rejection that came my way. At the risk of too closely echoing Joseph Campbell’s ladder metaphor, I was hanging onto the wrong train. A similar train, but one veering off track towards a destination I never set a course for. If only I had some time off work to prioritize my creative pursuits…
I’ll be honest, when the pandemic began it took me some time to find the silver lining of losing my income from in person work in film and TV. Once the initial terror and pain of what the world was going through sank in and the lucky survivors in lockdown could move forward, all I could do was sit at my desk each morning and open my laptop. Something I couldn’t do consistently with the hectic shadow career schedule I found myself in pre pandemic.
In that time, I wrote, learned and grew. I built a community with other artists and writers online. I developed my neglected podcast and started another one with a writing partner colleague that took off over the pandemic. I had actual time to work on funding applications, take classes and begin new projects and collaborations via zoom. I even began a new novel which I received Arts Council funding for, I obtained a screenwriting mentorship and got accepted to a screenwriting lab in America.
One of the most significant things I did was dust off a screenplay I’d began some years previously but put away due to rejections and just being too busy to execute this ambitious idea well. An idea I had more passion for than anything else. This script, along with a lengthy application, got me my first screenplay development funding with Screen Ireland. A massive step forward for my writing career. This achievement was a testament to holding onto my creative pursuits. I was right to believe in this project, and myself all this time. It would have been so much easier to never reopen that script, it would have been so much easier to let go. But I held on.
Eventually freelance work had to return, and it did so with a sudden dizzying influx. More time had passed and there was no Oscar winning script in sight, but I had recommitted to my journey. Recalibrated my course. I had seen what was possible in just a short time of dedicating myself and my time to my artistic practice. Now I could see when I was veering too heavily off track into freelance work and not spending the time on my own artistic development and projects.
I’m still learning how to strike a balance between freelance work and nurturing my craft. An eighty-year-old poet once asked me about my writing and I told him I did a little bit of this and that, but that I was just getting started. He told me he was just getting started too.
So if we know these things take time, we have choices to make. What if we never feel like we truly "arrive" at our destination? Perhaps arriving isn't the point of it all. The time will pass on our journey no matter where are going or how try to get there. Instead of berating ourselves for our pace and output along the way, let's choose to remain patient, persistent and passionate.
I’m just getting started.
Conor Dowling is a writer, filmmaker and podcaster from Dublin who moved to Wicklow in 2018. Conor holds a MSC in Film Production from Staffordshire University, he’s directed numerous short films, and the comedy feature film The Light of Day. He is the co-creator of the hit podcast Fad Camp on The Headstuff Podcast Network. His screenplay Dara McCool was selected for Stowe Story Labs and awarded a Screen Ireland bursary to take part. He is a mentee of Oscar nominated writer Will Collins (Wolfwalkers) and he is currently working on his Arts Council funded horror novel Monumental.