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Savannah Hopkinson: The 'struggling artist' label is a privilege some only dream of

To my family overseas, what I consider a very basic lifestyle is the dream for a lot of them.
To my family overseas, what I consider a very basic lifestyle is the dream for a lot of them.
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It was a brief part of the conversation, but it’s stuck with me.

We were driving to the airport to drop me off for my early morning flight. I was returning home from my visit to the Philippines, which had been full of family, fun and, of course, lots of sun. My uncle, who had graciously volunteered to drive me, was asking about my job back home.

He specifically wanted to know about my writing. I explained that it wasn’t really the main part of my job, but that I would try to put out a column once or twice a month. “I’m still very new,” I explained. “I’m lucky that they let me write anything at all.”

“You are so lucky,” my uncle replied. He went on to tell me that his kids — my cousins that I’d been spending the week with — loved to be creative. One in particular also loves writing, especially poetry. “I wish they could pursue those passions,” he said, “but they just don’t have that luxury.”

“Luxury” is not a word I would use to describe my job or lifestyle. The term "struggling artist" didn’t come from nowhere. But to my family overseas, what I consider a very basic lifestyle is the dream for a lot of them.

I try to be aware of my privilege and how it affects different aspects of my life, but, like everyone, I’ve still got blind spots. This was one of the moments when I was forced to check a blind spot and consider just how lucky I am to be able to include “writer” as part of my job description, and that I have been able to consider that a legitimate career goal.

Growing up, my mom would always point out how lucky we were. We had modern plumbing, air conditioning, plenty of food available, access to some of the best education in the world and so much more. It never crossed my mind that calling myself a writer was part of that.

My cousins might love writing, photography, art or music, but the thought of making those things their job was never in the realm of possibility for them. While I was going to university to study a career based around writing and creativity, they went straight to work doing whatever they could find that would pay the bills: order fulfillment. Driving instruction. Watch repair. All things that are good and necessary, but not what they might have chosen had they been given the same opportunities as me.

I should clarify that it’s not a sore spot for my cousins, comparing our lives to each other. They are actually the most supportive and kindest members of either side of my family. They cheer me on constantly and give me such large, lavish praise for even the smallest thing I do. And they’re happy too; doing exactly what they’ve always planned and expected. They knew what their professional lives would pan out to be right from the beginning, and they are happy with knowing that. I don’t think my life is inherently “better” — I could probably use some tips from them on happiness and life satisfaction, honestly — but it is a reminder of how things are different, and even I can forget that.

I don’t know what I’d be doing if I had been raised in the Philippines alongside them. While I’ve spent a lot of time there, I’ve never really thought about how my life would be different aside from the physical things, like no toilet paper or water pressure good enough for a running shower or going through the summer without air conditioning. I don’t think that my life is better, per se, but it is different. It’s different in the sense that I was always allowed to pursue my fancies and follies without putting my family’s welfare at risk. The expectations of my parents were for me to be happy, not just successful financially.

My career path still has a long way ahead. I’ve always been quiet and preferred to work hard behind the scenes. Sure, I dream of bigger and better things and have a lot of goals for myself, but the fact that I’m even at the bottom is considered a big achievement to some.

The lives of my cousins and my sister and I are very different. We all have natural inclinations and things that we love, but only my sister and I are actively working to turn those into careers.

I’d never really stopped to consider this as the privilege it is. More often, I stop to think how silly I might have been to ever try it in the first place. Maybe studying something more stable would have been better. But hearing from my own family that the small things I do are basically unachievable for them? That was a reality check.

So today I’m grateful. I’m grateful that it’s a beginning and not an end. And I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend my whole life dreaming of doing something I love. There are a lot of people, even in communities and neighborhoods at home, that aren’t able to do that.

It’s a reminder I think a lot of us, especially in creative industries, could do well to ponder.