I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of dreading Thanksgiving this year. I mean sure, we’ve all got family drama, but my family is usually incredibly understanding. They’ve been consistently supportive of my life choices. They’ve had my multiple partners over for Thanksgiving previously, and my nude modeling career is frequently discussed over dinner.
My family is especially good when they’re supplied with an adequate amount of carbs. Since I’ll be arriving with my famous crescent rolls, Grandma’s traditional sage stuffing, and a chocolate whiskey cake, I’d normally consider myself pretty safe.
However, I have one relative who’s been pretty crotchety as of late. And every time I visit her, we have the same conversation, over and over again.
It starts out innocuously: she usually asks what I’ve been working on. And I, like a fool, answer. Maybe I talk about a particularly good shoot I had that week, or an article I published going live, or selling my first short story. Really, whatever’s been happening recently.
She always responds in the same way: “That’s nice. What’s next?”
Now, in case your family isn’t from the South, let me tell you: “that’s nice” does not mean that what the person heard is, in fact, nice. It’s more along the spectrum between “dismissive” and “a bit disappointed” but, you know, still polite about it. It’s just like that other Southern catchphrase “Bless her heart,” which you can say before the cruelest things and still be considered congenial.
So I, like an even bigger fool, rise to the bait. I start listing out all my plans and goals and possible work for the next several years, from writing fifteen books to organizing my damn closet by color. And of course she’s still not impressed and now I feel like everything I’ve managed to accomplish and may ever do in the future isn’t enough to validate my existence.
Then she usually offers me some tea to change the subject and I try to drown myself in it and go home grumbling about how what I do is real work goddamnit.
Family, right? Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to a repeat of that at the holiday dinner table.
But the soul-crushing response of “That’s nice—what’s next?” doesn’t just happen at Thanksgiving, or just from my cantankerous relative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “What’s next?” in response to sharing a recent accomplishment or creation I’m proud of and want to celebrate. It’s certainly not my least favorite question ever (that dubious honor falls to “So, what do you do?”). But it’s close.
Most people mean well by the question. There’s a perceived magic around being an artist, and they want to be excited about that. Or conversely, they think what artists do isn’t a real job and they’re trying to discredit it (hello grouchy relative).
Either way, the one thing they agree on is that whatever I’m doing, it’s not actually work. And I, bless my heart, don’t want to disappoint them.
So I find myself trying to come up with something that sounds impressive, or at least interesting. I don’t want to describe my dull, daily routine. Nobody wants to hear how I stare at a blank piece of paper all day and put down words that may or may not ever be read by anybody else. Or how I’ve developed a system around moving from the couch to a chair outside for a couple hours a day for some variety. Or that the highlight of my day is oftentimes cleaning my kitchen—I can get a lot of good ideas wrist-deep in soapy water. Nobody wants to hear about calendaring and time management and the minutia of running a business. And nobody—and I mean nobody—wants to hear about answering email.
Thrilling, I know. So instead, I usually opt for the flash-bang description of my latest completed project. Or worse, pie-in-the-sky descriptions of what I hope will be a future completed project.
I think I’ve been doing these people a disservice—and frankly, I’ve been doing myself a disservice as well. Yes, the end result of art can be magical. But there’s a magician behind the curtain doing all the work. Or more accurately, the mundane work is the magic.
Teller of “Penn and Teller” (in other words, an actual magician), says it best about his art form: “You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.” It’s the same with any other type of art. An artist creates magic through unbelievable amounts of hard work.
I want the real magic to be in plain sight: good art is even more impressive when we understand the skill and labor that went into it. Plus it’s a lot harder to disparage art as not “real work” when we show everything that it requires. And it’s also a lot harder to ask dismissive follow-ups about “what’s next” when we can’t write off art as magic that effortlessly falls out of the ether.
Besides, the part that brings me the most joy isn’t the accomplishments. It’s that “dull” routine, day in and day out. That’s the reality that I want to share.
So this holiday, I’ve got a new tactic. I’m still going to talk about the recent accomplishments I’m proud of. But “what’s next?” Well, the next time that I’m asked, I’m going to share the ordinary, day-to-day part of creating art. It’s writing another couple thousand words. It’s booking more shoots and organizing my calendar. It’s cleaning my kitchen. And yes, it’s even email. After all, it’s the only way to make magic.
And if certain members of my family don’t like that answer? Well, at least I’ll have chocolate whiskey cake to distract them.