I find it really difficult to balance being a student and an artist. It’s actually a topic that I find myself pretty uncomfortable talking about, as if not devoting myself to one role or the other means that I’m not successful at either.
This might be easier to approach if I start with a story. A few months after I got my first ukulele, all the way back in 2012, a family member that I don’t see that often visited, and I played a few songs for him. He half-jokingly said that he was really disappointed because I was good enough to be on the radio, and he didn’t want me to abandon my education to pursue music. I know he didn’t mean it to be insulting, but the message I got was that I was wasting my time. My first few years with my ukulele, I played every single night for at least five hours. I was also in a creative writing program that took place during the last few periods of classes once a week. Between not spending enough time on my homework and not being at all of my classes, I wasn’t doing as well as I usually did in school. It was really easy to justify to myself then that pre-calc and chemistry didn’t make me happy, so it made more sense to practice music and leave for poetry classes.
It’s a little more difficult to do that now. I love literature. I’ve always loved literature, and I’m so ridiculously excited to continue studying and wrestling with literature for the rest of my life. I can imagine someone might say here that being an English major is basically like writing all the time so it’s the same thing as making art. To some extent, it can be, depending on the professor. I tend to try to twist my essays to talk about ideas I’m already working through, ideas about how art works that I’m also trying to use in art, but sometimes professors want right answers. I don’t have right answers; I tend to point to things that might be right, but I’m really not sure I believe that there’s ever one right way to interpret things. A lot of the time being a student means that you have to know when to do what you’re supposed to do to get a good grade, and I don’t always want to, and I hate feeling like I’m sacrificing my integrity to get a meaningless subjective grade. Grades are only meaningless to an extent, though, because they actually carry weight when other people look at them to make decisions about your future.
So when I see my friends who put their art before school and spend more than their free time on creative projects, I find it can be difficult to feel like I have any right to identify as an artist. Some days I hardly have enough time to finish yesterday’s homework, let alone write multiple poems or even have an experience worth writing about. I know it’s about priorities; I have to make choices about what’s more important, but I just don’t want to pick student because it feels like I’m invalidating an essential piece of myself. I can’t be happy without art, but I also know I won’t be happy if I’m not successful in school. I think doing poorly is a more immediate pain; I can go stretches without writing a poem because I get used to the constant hurt of it.
The longer I go without creating, the stronger I feel like I must just not be good at it or that what I’m saying isn’t worth listening to or that art is pointless, none of which is true. Even when I feel that way, I know it isn’t true, but when I compare myself to “real” artists, it can be difficult to reconcile the fulfillment that comes from creating with the disappointment in everything I’ve ever made. Performing sometimes makes me feel like an imposter or like I’m wasting other people’s time. I often go for months without performing music because it doesn’t feel right. I actually have a pretty big and exciting performance in a few weeks that I’m pretty terrified for because I haven’t played music in front of anyone since last semester. I’m trying to scramble to throw together 30-minutes worth of new material before then because none of my original songs feel right anymore. I know it’s probably not possible, but I keep telling people that I am an imposter because I want someone to hold me accountable for it. It’s all part of the larger problem of me not knowing how to make art a constant part of my life in a way that feels satisfying. I think part of it is that unlike school, where there are markers of success or due dates, art can feel like an infinite, unapproachable space. It’s sometimes difficult to recognize success in art in the same way as in school.
I really want to stress that none of this is meant to make anyone feel bad for me. I’m just really hoping that if someone else feels like this, then they know that it’s not just them. I think that talking about the conflict between school and art is really important, instead of pretending that art magically appears and that there’s a limitless amount of time in which everything that you want to do actually gets done.
I was also asked a week or so ago why it’s so important that the Honors Program has an Artists’ Collective, and at first, I was really frustrated that I was even asked that question. I felt like it made a lot of assumptions about the way that SASHP students engage with art, like we were somehow separate from the rest of the Rutgers population even though the Artists’ Collective programs are open to everyone. I think what the person who asked that question didn’t understand was that Honors Program students aren’t necessarily more dedicated to schoolwork than the typical Rutgers student. I think if that were the case, that Honors Program students studied more than the typical Rutgers student, then the Artists’ Collective would be a group where students would attempt to reconcile the pressures of being a student with the need to be creative. That could have been its original purpose, but now it’s just an art community (that is absolutely wonderful, and you should totally join). Art spaces need to be inclusive and welcoming, so I’m not upset about the current state of the Artists’ Collective, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation about being an artist while being a student.