I'm making progress in my art but feel like it's all a dead end

I've had some successes and some design internships, but I think I should move to Australia.

Published July 31, 2008 10:01AM (EDT)

Oh Cary, I hope you can help me!

I am 27 and live in a house, rent-free, that my parents own. I maintain a small amount of financial independence by paying for the utilities on said house. A few years ago I was living in a different city while I was waiting tables and trying to make my art and design dreams come true on the side. Although I lived closer to my parents then, I felt more adult and better about myself because I was financially independent. I moved here with my younger sister so she could attend law school, with the intention of making a life/career for myself here. Needless to say, that has not happened. I have had a lot of small professional successes but nothing that I could ever live off of. At one point I found myself working in an accounting department for over a year, at which point I woke up and realized that I had to forge a creative career for myself or I would die by throwing myself in front of a dolly loaded with file boxes.

So, over six months and two dead-end design internships later, I am still unemployable and don't seem able to employ myself. The economy won't be doing better anytime soon and I have been rejected from multiple jobs for lack of experience, although the staffing agencies I am signed up with seem to think I am capable because they keep putting me out for jobs! Things are getting dire: I have no job and no income besides my piddling freelance gigs, and Mommy and Daddy are begging me to tell them what they can do to help me. My mother insists that I go back to school. I am starting to warm up to the idea by seeing friends my age going back to school. And by realizing that clearly my job skills aren't cutting the mustard, and even if I did find an employer that appreciated my talents, I would never be able to leave -- because it would probably be the only one that ever wanted me! And I do not want that. I want options. Millions upon millions of options. So a master's degree it must be.

But (and here we come to the problem) the place I most want to go is in Australia, where I have dual citizenship and can work and go to school free. My mother is Australian and came here when she was young, intending to go back, and she never did, which of course caused all sorts of strife and heartache for her and her family. My mother has been vehement about neither my sister nor I ever going abroad because she is simply afraid we will not come back. A reasonable fear, I guess. But stifling! It's possible I have no genuine interest in living abroad, but because the idea has always been forbidden I want it very much. So this has been an ongoing argument in my family -- me threatening to go or just showing an interest in going out of the country, and my parents and sister telling me all the reasons why I shouldn't and breaking me down until I just want to be left alone. And so I give up the idea. We're a close-knit bunch.

But the big problem is that I have a dog. I adopted her when I moved to this city, when I was in the newlywed phase and never wanted to leave my new hometown (which I still love very much even though I feel ready for a change, if just for change's sake). I love this dog; she is like an extension of my personality. She follows me everywhere. I have never been away from her for more than 10 days. She is very attached to me. And I do not hesitate when I say that I am a very good and responsible pet owner. I had an old roommate who would leave her dog with me at a moment's notice and exhibited other behavior that I felt at the time wasn't right. I told myself I would be a better dog owner. And I have been. But if I want to actually go abroad I would have to decide whether to take her with me (and in Australia there is a mandatory quarantine, and it's a looooong plane ride), which, honestly, does not sound like a good time for her or for me, or to leave her with my parents. My parents love her as much as I do and are always jokingly but kind of seriously asking me to let her come live with them. And then in the next breath they criticize me for being willing to leave the country and abandon her.

So I know that they would never let me traumatize her by taking her abroad. They would insist that she stay with them, and she would be very happy there and well taken care of. But my entire family has made it clear to me that I would be irresponsible to do so, and I get the idea that I would never live this action down, should I ever do it. I would miss her very much, but I also understand that she is a dog, and she will not be "thinking" of me every minute I am gone. She will be OK without me for a couple of years. She is still young and will probably live for 10 more years.

The irony is that before I had a dog they had all sorts of other reasons why I shouldn't go away, but now that I do have her she is their best defense.

The whole point of me going abroad, and fulfilling a lifelong dream, is to declare my independence from my parents. They don't want me going anywhere -- I mean, just having a discussion on the subject makes my mother start crying. This is not emotional manipulation on her part; I know that her feelings and fears are genuine. Nevertheless, I have felt controlled by her phobias for much of my life and I do not want to continue on this way. I have faced the fact that I cannot live for her happiness, in the same way that she couldn't live for her mother's. But I am not a robot! It eats away at my soul to make my mother that unhappy.

Every plan I have for this move -- starting school halfway across the world -- involves saving money first. It takes a lot of $$ to get to Australia and back these days. So I want to be prepared. And what's the best way to save money? Living with your parents. And there's the rub. How can I possibly be asserting my independence from them while also asking them to house me while I save money waiting tables, and take care of my dog and my boxes of stuff while I am away? Is that completely ridiculous and hypocritical? I see no other way to do it. I have painted myself into a corner by getting a dog. I do not regret it at all because she so happy with us and the whole family loves her, yet I can't help feeling tied down.

I feel that my only two options are to forge on ahead with this plan, ignore my self-loathing for abandoning my beloved pet, tell myself it's OK because I am only doing this one selfish thing, and it's for a good reason, and we all have to be a little selfish sometimes, and I only get one life to live -- or to stay here for an additional two years, go to a similar program here (which seems subpar but costs the same), and continue to live on the cheap in the House That My Immaturity Bought. I don't really want to do the second one. Mostly because mentally I have already checked out of living here, in this city, and especially in this house.

So ... I am ready for those words of wisdom.


Dear Anonymous,

You are engaged in a project and you are making progress. But you speak of your project as if it were a failure. It is not a failure. It is a beginning.

What is this project? It is the building of a creative career.

You say, "I have had a lot of small professional successes." You say you have had two internships. But you say the internships were "dead ends," and the small professional successes were "nothing that I could ever live off of." Perhaps you thought, in each instance, that the internship or the small professional success would lead to a full-time design job. If so, your expectations were not realistic. What happened is this: You completed your professional assignments. You completed your internships. They were not failures. They were successes. They were completed. You finished them.

Now you move on to new assignments. Eventually, over time, your assignments grow in scope and become more numerous. You become more skilled and better known. You acquire business skills along with your artistic and creative skills. You build a creative career. You do it step by step.

You are in a great and enviable position. You have time. You have support. You have family. You are loved and cared for. You are at the beginning of your creative career.

And yet you are poised to upend it all by moving to Australia.

I understand that you are impatient and dissatisfied with your life. But going to Australia would be a symbolic solution to an actual problem.

You don't need to go to Australia. What you need to do is deal emotionally and creatively with your life right here and now. I suspect that aside from the very good school that is in Australia, the romance with Australia is related to your struggle with your mother. Her story has a great pull on your psyche.

This is the mistake we creative people make over and over again. Because creatively or spiritually we are in the forest, we think suddenly it is time to live in the forest. So we sell the house. We translate our inner lives into practical action that makes no sense. We wake up in the forest but we have left our paints behind.

We need to be working this stuff out in the medium that has chosen us, be it paint or sound or words. We get into trouble when we are not working these things out in our art. Our lives get out of control because we mistake the symbolic for the actual. And we need to work hard, exhaustively, on this symbolic material, or it will continue to present itself as actual; we will be hallucinating.

The truth is, we have to live in the practical world just like everybody else. We do our work, we make a modest income, we get up day after day and face a new and strange world, and every day we get a little better at it.

I think what you need is a plan. Your plan is concrete and has a time limit. Say it is a one-year plan, with a goal of doubling your income from creative work over that time, and developing the infrastructure that will allow you to grow and prosper in the design business. That means establishing ways of getting more work: using contacts, advertising, etc. Just set yourself a one-year goal.

And then you begin your lifelong practice. Year by year, maybe you make more, maybe less. But every year you do a little better. If you need more education you can go back to school in your area.

We build slowly on our accomplishments and we stand in line with everyone else and we work honestly and bravely and sometimes exhaustively for little gain. We keep at it day after day because we know that even if we are not getting what we think we should get for what we are doing, we are doing what we are meant to be doing. We build our business as we go.

You are in a great situation now. You are able to start something that is wholly yours, exactly what you want to do, and make it grow. You do not have to make a great living yet. You can take two or three years to get it where it will support you. Your parents are willing to help you. Your start-up costs are low. Your month-to-month costs are low. You are in an ideal situation.

You want a feeling of independence and self-sufficiency. The way to get a feeling of independence and self-sufficiency is by attaining those things concretely. You become self-sufficient and independent by taking certain actions. The feeling will come from the proof, from the tangible. You do not have to go to Australia to achieve that. You can be independent in the house you are living in that is owned by your parents.

In two or three years after you have this thing up and running, then you can go to Australia. You can take your mother with you. I'll bet it would mean a lot to her.

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