Regular readers may know that I used to be an actor, way back in my baby career days. Acting is a field where there’s hot competition for just a few slots, rejection is rampant, and opportunities must constantly be created and seized to sustain a career. In other words, acting is largely about hustle, not just talent and hard work and luck.
All very much like publishing.
When I moved to New York from Atlanta my acting career got a whole lot more competitive, but I was lucky enough to land an agent–who called me one day to tell me excitedly that she had secured for me an audition to host a travel show.
This was a fantastic fit for me, as I had already hosted a game show for two seasons. (That’s Atlanta, a local trivia show on a FOX affiliate in…you guessed it, Atlanta. We shall never speak of this again.)
Except there was just one problem: I was out of town in Tennessee with the man I’d been dating, meeting his family for the first time.
“Can we reschedule it?” I asked. I’d be back to the city in a matter of days.
“No. They’re only doing two days of auditions. You have to come back,” my agent said.
Kids, this was long before the days of virtual auditions using the high-def recording device in your pocket. Back then you showed your ass up in a casting director’s office so they could put you on tape (actual tape, yep) that they would courier over to the production office, and you hauled your cookies right on back there however many times the producers et al needed to see you.
This audition was a big opportunity, a wonderful job with terrific perks for a good-size network.
But I turned it down. I wasn’t willing to cut short what was an important visit for me and my boyfriend and take on the added expense of having to reschedule my flight, all for the chance of possibly booking the job, one that might have been fun, but was not exactly the kind of acting I wanted to do.
You Are Not Your Creative Career
Not everyone may have agreed with my choice. In fact my agent strongly didn’t, and ended up dropping me over it. “If you’re going to succeed in this business you have to put your career before everything else,” she told me.
I disagreed. And as much as I wanted to succeed as an actor—and as much as I now have a passion for my present career as an editor—I still disagree. The relationship I was in at the time didn’t last, but even knowing that, I’d have made the same choice—for me my life comes first, and that generally means the people in it.
In our culture, and particularly in creative careers, I think it’s very easy to internalize the message we get that we are defined by what we do. Especially with artists, our creativity is so much a part of who we are I think it’s tempting to believe it is who we are.
But not defining that as my total identity has been key for me to be able to keep my career in perspective for the last thirty years, and realize that old cliché really is true: I work to live; I don’t live to work.
As much as I adore editing and it nourishes my soul, at the end of my life I don’t think I’m going to bask in all the manuscripts I’ve been privileged to work on, but rather on the experiences I had and the people I shared them with.
That doesn’t negate the meaning and fulfillment I derive from doing that work now. It just means that I understand its place in the bigger picture of my life. Editing and writing—both my creative calling—are a key piece of the pie, but they are not my pie.
What Will You Regret?
Last week my husband and I took a long-delayed vacation–like many of us, our first in two years. And I unapologetically shut off from connectivity—email, social media, everything. I didn’t even worry too much about taking pictures—I just wanted to be fully present where we were (Key West) and with my husband.
(But here’s one pic of our kayak trip through the mangroves, a highlight.)
We all get the message these days that posting every day is essential, because if you don’t the algorithms will leave you behind like yesterday’s news. That we have to stay in constant contact or we’ll be irrelevant.
Maybe that’s true.
To a certain degree success in a competitive field like acting or publishing will always involve choices between personal life and professional goals. But I have to decide where that line is for myself. We all do. And my metric for deciding that strives to keep the larger scheme of my life in mind.
Years ago I was deeply struck by a hospice nurse’s list of the top five regrets of the dying she’d heard from countless patients. Here they are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This list really hit home for me, and ever since that’s basically been the framework I use for making decisions about career versus life.
And so far it has stood me in good stead. I feel extremely fulfilled in my career and I’m comfortable with my pace of growth and level of success, even though it may not reach the stratospheric heights of others in my field. But those are choices that I have made deliberately, knowing what I am and am not willing to dedicate and sacrifice to work that may carve my time away from living life in a way that I also find deeply satisfying.
I’m not suggesting any certain path for anyone. We all have to find our own balance. But knowing what that is, I think—really thinking about and concretely defining it—is what can allow us to have meaningful, fulfilling work along with a meaningful, fulfilling life in a way that may insulate us from the many vagaries of this career.
Diversifying How You Measure Your Life
If my identity is not fully wrapped up in my work, then all the many challenges and setbacks and disappointments inherent in our creative field—or any field, really—won’t shatter me. Yes, there may be disappointments and failures, but they comprise only part of my well-being. They don’t define me, so they can’t crush me.
The actor Martin Short, on an episode of the Smartless podcast, talked about how he developed a way of prioritizing his life years ago, when he spent two miserable months between jobs worrying he’d never work again.
He thinks of his life in nine categories, like courses one might take in school. Even if he’s flunking out in one, he says, he can keep his overall GPA high by excelling in the others. So if he flags in category six, for instance–creativity–he may focus harder on category one, self, or category two, partner/family, or friends, etc. (You can hear him explain it fully around minute 11 of this interview, but the whole episode is worth listening to–as is the whole podcast series.)
I love this idea because it puts more eggs into our baskets as creatives. It means that even if we’re struggling creatively–or in any other area of life–it’s not the end of the world. You can still give your attention to other areas where you may be thriving more at any point in time, and overall maintain your equilibrium and joy.
That seems pretty healthy to me—and it also feels essential for nourishing the parts of ourselves that we draw on in our creative efforts and that often allow us to achieve them: the experiences we have, the people we know and relate to, our feelings, and our own core well-being.
How about you, friends–have you given deliberate thought to what your priorities are in life, and where your creativity and your writing career fall among them? What are your categories? What might you think of or regret in your final days? What truly gives your life meaning? It doesn’t have to be a single answer or area–each of us is so complex, and so much more than just our creative efforts, even if they are a big part of who we are.
Loved this post! I struggle with this all the time, but am proud to say I passed your “regret” list test. Guess that means I’m better off than I thought! Glad you skipped the audition too!
I think we all struggle with it to some degree–especially when so much of what authors are told is around efforts dedicated to our careers. My mom once told me that we make a life one choice at a time, and that feels true to me. Sometimes I choose my career priorities, and sometimes I choose other priorities. That’s all we can do, I guess, isn’t it? Glad you passed the “regret” test. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Paulette!
First off and most importantly, holy hell your arms look fantastic! But more on point, I feel so the same about life and priorities. I look back on all that time I wasted worrying about things before it was all really in perspective and kind of shake my head. So much of this is about getting older and wiser, and as much as I wish now that I’d thought that way in my 30s, it just wasn’t possible. Also, you quote Martin Short! He talks about the life categories in his memoir, and the whole book is just delightful (I must say).
Well, haven’t you just made my day. 🙂 And perhaps my trainer’s! (All credit where it’s due.) Excellent point about age–I do feel that way more and more as I get older, although the audition story was in my twenties, so I’ve always been oriented this way to a degree. I used to struggle a lot with “what is the meaning of life?” type questions, and many years ago concluded that it’s people–for me, anyway. The people we choose to share our lives with: family, friends, loved ones of all stripes. So that’s always been my litmus test for decisions–putting the “people” consideration first. That doesn’t mean I always choose something personal over work–just that I weigh each situation, but there’s often a finger on the scale on the “people” side.
And I didn’t know Martin Short had a memoir! Buying it now. I ADORE him, and I adore your subtle Ed Grimley ref. 😉 If you like him check out that Smartless podcast episode–he just seems like such a decent, grounded soul. Plus it’s funny as crap. Here’s my favorite celebrity-sighting story from my New York days–this was the nineties, in his heyday. I was standing on Fifth Ave across from the Plaza hotel at the crosswalk, and kind of staring across the street sightlessly (as one does). Right as the light changed I suddenly realized the person I’d been blindly staring at was Martin Short, and I started grinning and I couldn’t stop–a stupidly large grin took over my face. I think I must have looked like a jack o’ lantern. But he started smiling back too, just as big, and as we passed in the middle of the street I said, “I love your work–thank you so much.” And he said thank-you very sweetly and just kept up that big smile, and we passed and that was that. It was awesome. 🙂
Love seeing you on here, Erin.
Oh all so true. I love this one and am now thinking about my own categories.
Definitely health is one. I’ve become super grateful, no matter what else is happening in my life, if my health and my Crohns is letting me enjoy it all (which isn’t always the case).
Also add travel, Hubby who I am grateful for every moment we get, and uplifting and connecting with other writers, and friendships and family 🙂
Thanks for getting me to pause, think, and appreciate this morning.
Health! Lord, yes–especially the older I get, and the older my and my friends’ parents get, boy, does that one resonate. I’ll bet it really slides home when you are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease–or anytime challenges make us mindful of not taking our good health for granted. Travel…yes, I’m trying to instigate more of that, often inspired by you. 🙂 And loved ones…for me that’s so high up on the list too. Love this, Lainey–thanks for sharing!
This is just what I needed to see this morning. Thank you so much for passing on the wisdom you have gleaned – I will have to look at Martin Short’s categories for life and make my own. What a great way to look at things!
I thought so too! And he seems like such a grounded, decent human. Love his perspective, especially in a business with so many similarities to our own. Love to hear your “categories” if you delineate them, Kara. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Many people bemoan having a day-job and not being able to write full-time. But I love it because having a day-job accomplishes much of what you talked about. It takes the pressure off your writing and creativity. It’s diversifying. It adds variety. If the job is interesting, it encourages you. And it relieves financial pressure which can strangle creativity. Oh, and having the rest of your life in order helps too:)
Ken, you speak my very heart. 🙂 You really have stated here so much of what I’ve always felt–the pleasure of having a fulfilling “day job, diversifying and adding variety, and yes, the financial-security aspect. My editing started, actually, as a way to offer me all that for my acting career–and then lucky me, I discovered it’s actually my true passion. But even so, I have other priorities and pursuits that offer me elements of what you stated. Thanks for weighing in–love this!