Should I move to the city for my art?

I'm sick of this two-bit town, my loafer boyfriend and my dull cubicle job.


Cary Tennis
April 11, 2006 2:01PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I really enjoy your writing, turning problems into art. I have long wanted to write you, but my troubles are so broad -- abusive childhood and all of its aftereffects; self-destructive behavior, depression and debt. I write run-on sentences (also, surely, a byproduct of a troubled past). I am doing what one ought to, trying not to self-destruct, seeing a therapist and taking some meds. I have often been lonely, moving from place to place. I do have friends; I tend to make them wherever I go, though I have trouble internalizing their affection. I married a nice man and then I got bored and left him. I have high highs and very low lows, but have always had my art to keep me going.

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I am now 33 and have been in a loving, passionate and very absorbing relationship for five years. He is a bit of a ne'er-do-well, but he makes me laugh and he certainly loves me in spite of my issues, which you can imagine are not few. I have been supporting us financially the past year with my soul-draining 9-to-5 job, working in my studio whenever I can. He has not been doing anything, but he is seeing a therapist about this very fact (possible attention deficit disorder). Though this past year was difficult, we have been happy together in our small town. I, however, can't face another year of things being the same, the meaningless toil without any progress made in my career as an artist. I can't go on sitting in a cube in a town with so little opportunity. So I am off to the big city, and my sweetheart is very supportive of my leaving. He is also not coming with me, because he has a child (age 7) who lives nearby with his ex. I can't argue with that reason, but I suspect he wouldn't come anyway, as he is intimidated by the idea of living anywhere besides the familiar old town.

I feel angry and disappointed at having to make this choice, because he is supposed to be the love of my life, and it certainly feels that way, so how can he let me go? I guess this is unfair, since I am the one leaving, and yet I feel sad and jealous to see all of my other friends traveling in pairs, going along for the journey. I am otherwise excited (and also nervous) about the big change and the opportunities the big city affords, but this is a pretty big otherwise. I am upset that he will not be there to support me after all this time invested, that I have to go it alone.

He seems to think that if we frame the situation more positively, it does not have to be the end for us. We can simply decide that we are still a couple, and conduct a long-distance relationship for as long as it takes. Of course, I would have to return for us to reunite, as he says he would never consider joining me there.

There are definitely some benefits to us spending some time apart. I would like to focus my time on my work after being so absorbed in our relationship these last few years, and without me he has a chance to be self-sufficient and (I hope) begin to engage himself in all of the projects that until now he has only dreamed about. I don't want to end this relationship, having had so little love in my life until now, but I wonder if it is silly to think I can keep it going for an indefinite period of our no longer living together. What can I do to improve our chances? I feel a sad kind of distance already forming, but this is probably just me, framing things as negatively as possible, as I am wont to do. Should I try one last time to convince him that a four-hour drive/train/bus ride from his kiddo is not the end of the world, or is that selfish and ridiculous? How do I get Mr. Optimism to see the very real threat of this situation (if there is one)? Would it make a difference if I could? Am I inventing this whole problem?

I can choose how to feel about this whole thing to some extent, and I can definitely choose my actions, but I wonder what is wise or realistic. My train doesn't leave for a few months, and I wonder what I should spend this time doing as far as my darling is concerned. Probably not alternately obsessing and moping. Or getting mad.

Self-Fulfilling Prophet

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Dear Self-Fulfilling,

My advice would be to do some more thinking about this choice.

You say it yourself: You do have friends, but you have trouble internalizing their affection. You move from place to place. You have self-destructive behavior. On the surface, it appears you're about to manifest all of that right in front of our eyes.

Presumably you are in therapy to change the behavior that has caused you so much trouble in the past. The first step in changing that is to recognize what it is. You've gotten that far. I think now you have to take the next step and try to do things differently this time.

It is not easy. Having an insight is easier than acting on it. In fact, particularly for an artist, there is a glorious self-destructive quality in knowing what you are doing and doing it anyway, almost as if you are making of your life a performance piece. But I have been down that route, making of myself a walking, talking psychological demonstration project. It appeals to the creative mind. But it short-circuits the craft and hard work that making actual art requires. It is the easy way out.

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I think if you want to grow as an artist you need to build on what you have where you are. So I suggest you make this decision in a new way.

I'm guessing that so far you have made this decision in the old way, the way you're used to: This sucks, I'm moving on. Relying on good old panicky dread. Good old panicky dread, always reliable, always there to get you out of whatever situation you're in that might be too painful or complicated or risky. One more year without enough progress in my art? No way. One more year in this dull little town and the stifling confinement of this job in the cubicle farm? No way.

OK. I respect the feelings behind that. You have a powerful living spirit. You're no idiot. And you're not without ambition. You want to do something with your life and not waste it. You've got a lot of life in you.

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But that one feeling of desperation is not enough to base a decision to relocate on. It's the "fuck this" decision. Fuck this town, fuck this job, fuck this relationship. Fuck it all, I'm moving to the city.

Rather, hard as it may be, and as unsatisfying, I think you need to take stock of what you have, all the satisfactions of your deadbeat boyfriend and your studio, your friends, your knowledge of the town. Do that first, at least. Make a good-faith effort. And see what you can do to fix things up a little. All you really want is a job that pays the bills, right? You're not on some big career path, are you? You want to be an artist. So you need more time to work on your art. That means a different job, but not necessarily a fancy exciting job. Maybe a job with a window. Just get a job where you can look out the window a lot. Find a job that is really dumb. Conserve your energy and your rage. Spend more time in your studio. And tell your boyfriend you can't support him anymore. You can't afford it. If you're going to do your art you need somebody who can pay his own way. He sounds wonderful. But if you can't afford him, you can't afford him. Tell him he's going to have to come up with some cash.

And what about the big city? What exactly is there that you are looking for? If you had studio space, a place to live and gallery representation I could understand it. Or if you were planning to go to art school I could understand that. But what opportunities does the big city afford if what you really want is more time to work on your art? It's usually more expensive to live in a big city and you have to spend more of your time making money to survive. Plus studio space is more expensive.

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It is true that cities are where they keep the art. But if you want to absorb the art of the city, then why not make the four-hour trip to the city to see the art? That way it's an adventure. Also, I think there is something about traveling specifically to see art that focuses the mind. Ask people who live in a city how often they go to the museums and galleries. For most of them, not often enough.

So I seriously think you should reconsider. You've got a good thing right now where you are. You have issues of abuse that you're making good progress with. Throwing away all the support and stability you have could be more unsettling than you realize. Making a big change could cause more problems to resurface.

But maybe when you reconsider you will in the end find that your spirit longs for the city and that's that. If so, at least you will have done more work on the practical side. And if it is indeed not your spirit per se, but just the spirit of "fuck this," then perhaps I will have saved you a lot of grief and heartache.

Either way, I commend you on your journey!

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