How to be an Artist
How I went from lazy and passive to deliberate and goal driven
Let’s officially kick off the podcast with my story and the reason I’m here.
I used to be what I will graciously call passive.
I had (and have) a really good life. I was born into a self-made wealthy family. Every bit of my life (and the lives of my ancestors) was put together so that I could live an easy life. My parents did this weird thing where they actually loved each other. They loved me too. My sister was amazing. My friends were amazing. None of us did drugs. School came easy to me. Everything came easy to me. Life was easy, and because of this, I just let life do its thing. I allowed the mother of my high school boyfriend to fill in a university application for me and I went there simply because I got in. I didn’t put any thought into what degree I was going to do, it was chosen based on what I didn’t want to do. I found my group of incredible friends within my first week of being in a new city at university because we were the only English speakers in the residence. I even met my future husband while playing around on my computer.
Life was good, and it was certainly good enough.
And then a few things started creeping from the cracks that I had ignored. I grew into the biggest depression of my life. I didn’t fall into it; I wasn’t smacked in the face by it; I allowed myself, little by little, to grow into something simply because I didn’t make an effort not to. I didn’t go to the psychologist, I didn’t force myself out of bed right when the feelings started, I didn’t learn coping strategies. I simply allowed it to consume me. I welcomed it like an old blanket and hid in its cosy fort. In my second year of university, I had a breakdown. I can distinctly remember the exact moment that I curled on the floor in a university residence shower and cried. I can still smell the shampoo.
My depression lasted for a year. In this time, I destroyed myself. I went onto medication, and I went off it without the required weaning. I went to absolutely zero university classes. I ignored my friends. I fought with my family. I became friends with the wrong people. The wrong person. I slept past my feelings. I ate my feelings. I dyed my hair for the first time so that I wouldn’t look like myself. I stopped contact with my best friend (future husband). I drank in the middle of the day because I had heard that’s how people coped – it didn’t work and that stopped. I cried. A lot. And even that was a passive cry. I spent a lot of time in the bath. I became a shell. I allowed myself to break.
I was broken.
And then the bricks that my family, friends, and future husband had been building for me while I was too weak to do so myself started forming a foundation. Then a house. And I could stop living in my depression blanket fort and move in there. I allowed myself to be looked after. And after 365 days of the worst year of my life, with the work of people who surprisingly still loved me, it left me.
Looking back, that was The Sign.
The years that followed saw me magically get my degree. Long distance date my eventual husband. Move in with the guy. Move twelve times. Go through a bunch of smaller depressions. Find a corporate job thanks to a family friend’s contact. Get married.
And then my husband, T, had a job offer that involved a year in my favourite country in the world. This job offer wasn’t handed to him or given to him by default. They thought of him because he had won the student competition with the company. I had been around when he was working towards this competition. It was held in his last year of studies. It was in addition to his crazy engineering workload. He and his team spent nights in the labs on this project. When I say nights, I mean, until 5am when he’d nap for an hour and then go to class. I mean that this happened more than once. I was waiting for him in his dorm room during one of my visits. I never saw him. I played Sims in his freezing dorm room and made a little T Sim to hang out with. He and his group actively worked on this project for so long and so hard, and there was no doubt that they’d win. They won a stack of money for the university and a trip to see the company in Germany. I joked that based on all the time I had put into not seeing him, I also deserved a trip to Germany.
I got my trip to Germany. And with it, everything changed.
Germany began with my husband and I in different countries. Because our marriage pastor was lazy, we were only legally married in the system ages after our February wedding. This meant that I could not get a visa, which meant that only after two months, three months of our brand new marriage were spent really far away. The other problem was that I was essentially homeless in South Africa because we had moved out of our apartment in preparation. I lived out of a suitcase at my parents’ until the visa would come. We had no idea when, and this not knowing is the worst part of anything. Staying with my parents was restorative. I allowed my parents to look after me. Restorative. But I still had nothing to actually do. No job. No hobbies. Not even something to clean.
And so I started a project I had seen and never got around to. Project Life. And Project Life showed me that I was actually doing things and not completely useless during this transition period of “nothing”. It also made me say yes to a lot of things just so that I could take new photos. Along with my parents, Project Life saved me from a depression. Now Project Life still isn’t quite in South Africa, so in 2013 it was even less there. I had to be really active in the way I looked for it. I could only use digital products or scrapbooking paper from the early 2000s. So I was using almost exclusively Paislee Press. That’s how I discovered that whole world. I discovered that creative teams meant that you got to use your favourite products that you would use anyway, but be paid for it. I applied to be on the Paislee Press creative team.
When I look back at what I was making, I have no idea why Liz said yes to me. This truly changed my life. It was reinforcement that what I was doing mattered enough that someone actually wanted me using her products and showing people. It was reinforcement that this was a worthwhile project that other weirdos were doing too. It forced me to keep doing this, if only to make stuff that’s not utterly crap to put on the Paislee Press blog. I couldn’t simply stop doing this like I had done with any other hobby before. This was something that had to continue.
I put that exciting email from Liz as a big photo in my album. And then my visa came. I went to Germany.
In Germany, everything was magical. It had castles, and fairy tea and dogs and nice people and beer drinking in the cinema. Germany had Amazon and Scrapbook Werkstatt and really great internet. Germany had adventures. Over time, these adventures were reserved for weekends since T had to do the thing we came here for and work. After a trip to France, after Lübeck and Heidelberg, after Rome and Tuscany, and Greek islands keeping me busy, I had five straight days with nothing to fill my time until T and I could do something.
I had an entire year during which it was literally illegal for me to work. We joked and said that I had retired at 25. So I had a year to do all the things I ever dreamed of doing. Except the problem was that I never had any dreams. What did I want? Who did I want to be? I had NO idea.
There was no big life revelation that happened, no core changing life event. This was not a confetti-filled revelation, nor a Eureka moment. This was a slow change.
I looked at my current life and the tiniest, tiniest part of me whispered at the possibility of more. After 25 years of suppressing that voice, I’m not sure how I heard it. At the time, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my life that I could see. Looking back I can be more objective about it and know that the way I was living was directly contributing to my depression. My relationships suffered. There are big stretches of time that I couldn’t account for even directly after they happened. I wasn’t living to my potential.
I still hate that word, it feels dirty on my lips (or fingertips).
That’s why the negatives of passive living are so difficult to quantify – you can’t quantify the things you’ve missed out on. The true measure is how much you could have done. And could is not a scientific measurement.
After years and years and years of ignoring that voice. I made a list. It wasn’t a grand list by any stretch of the imagination. It was 25 things I wanted to do at 25 years old. It didn’t matter what those 25 things were. It mattered that there were words after each number. After the Paislee Press CT, this was my second step into Actually Doing Something.
I still have that list. That list taught me a lot of things about myself.
- Firstly, that I needed to take time determining what would be on the list. I’d revise, revise, revise.
- Secondly, that I actually liked making a list of things to do and being deliberate instead of passive
- And thirdly, that I really loved doing things with purpose
From that list, I started actively seeking things that grew me. I didn’t care what they were, I just cared that they were things. I made deliberate my word for 2014, and in every single decision that I made, I made sure to choose the option that was not passive, and that stretched me. It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of setbacks.
I started searching for things that made getting the stuff done easier. I devoured books on books on books about the topic. I did things that I had an inkling about at some stage so that it wouldn’t sit in my mind making cobwebs. I finally started the Etsy store that I had always wanted. I sold things made with my own two hands (plus Photoshop and some love). I got into blogging and made friends with similar people.
Then we left Germany to live in the city that I had always hated. It’s the type of city that people live in to make money. Income is high because standard of living is so low compared to the rest of South Africa. It has the highest crime statistics in South Africa and I hated going outside. I was 1200km from my family. The internet and electricity were unstable. I struggled. A lot. The only thing stopping me from staying in bed under the covers every day was my maid, Juliet. We also got a dog and I bought my dream car – a Fiat 500. Things helped, but I stopped doing things. I slowly started my default passive living again. I could feel the comfort of depression starting to envelop me. I didn’t want to do that to my husband, and so I started making an effort to move away from it. I started with little things. Then big things.
I officially quit my job. I started my own little company with mostly design work, plus a little bit of Etsy store thrown in. I worked hours and hours and hours. I went to sleep at 1am and I woke up three or four hours later really excited to carry on working. I ticked things off the to do list and I felt really good about myself. It was tough. But I knew the alternative.
And then, one of my favourite bits happened. Along with my internet BFF, Lauren, we decided that we were tired of the creative things we wanted to do that were never done and we started with art journaling. We committed to doing something on an ongoing basis. Making art journaling a habit, even though we had yet to make a page. And for some reason it worked. Others joined us, and the momentum built. This turned into Get Messy and we now have over 2000 members with people making things every day. Get Messy turned into the most amazing community, and the people who are a part of it have helped prevent and get through mini-breakdowns.
The best part is that I’m not finished. Doing things makes me want to do more. It makes me aim higher. It makes me excited for the future. I’m faced with a choice every day – depression or doing something, and sometimes that choice is harder to make than others. Sometimes I actually do choose depression. But I’ve grown. I’m so much better than what I was. I’ve leveled up. And I’m really passionate about helping you level up too.
Your podcast host, Caylee Grey
I’m Caylee Grey. Creator of Get Messy, official fairy freaking artmother and your pro excuse-squashing ninja.
In the How to Be an Artist podcast I’ll be chatting to a selection of amazing, real-life humans just like you are who are dealing with the very same barriers … but overcoming them to create their art.
Together, we’ll explore what it REALLY means to be an artist. Practically. Warts and all. So that you can be an artist, today, now, even if you work a day job, have a million and one commitments and own a cat that likes sitting on your art.
No more excuses. Okay? Okay.