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My Brilliant Mistake
By Pamela Holm

It was a scorching day and the rhythmic clanking of hammers hitting chisels rang out. As I pounded I thought of Michelangelo's David; black shards flew through the air, and I remembered the feeling of awe as I stood at the base of that magnificent sculpture. As the afternoon sun beat down on my back and the joints in my hands ached from the repeated smack, smack, smacking of metal on metal, I couldn't help question the logic of my decision to pursue a life of art, as I wasn't carving Italian marble, I was chipping old tar off a roof.

The decision to pursue a life of art wasn't so much a choice as a calling, a calling I continue to hear loudly and from several directions at once. I am cursed with the blessing of passion and wide eyes. For me the world is a perpetually full plate always waiting to offer up the next helping of inspiration. I write books that sometimes get read, and screenplays no one makes. I write articles that sometimes find homes. I paint and dance. My life is the humanities department of a small university.

There is no lack of inspiration in my life, but in my rush to immerse myself in all things interesting, I have developed just about as many unmarketable skills as possible, a situation which sometimes leaves me in questionable circumstances, such as serial bouts of financial destitution and the occasional rooftop construction site.

Creativity by nature is unpredictable, stories swerve in unplanned directions, paintings end up purple instead of chartreuse. Sometimes the end result is miles better than your original vision, other times really great ideas can mutate into unsalvageable messes. I'm afraid this may be what has happened to my life. My original plan was to become a famous artist. I figured that while I was busy developing this mighty career I would take the odd job here and there, thus allowing professionalism never to derail creative inspiration. I was half right, professionalism has rarely interfered with my creative process, but teetering on the brink of destitution has. My brilliant flashes of inspiration are, more often than not, quickly doused by waves of panic and foreboding. My nights are often disturbed by wakeful moments of worry. My fear of getting locked into a mind-numbing career has been replaced by my fear of being locked out of my house by an angry landlord to whom I owe three months of back rent. The reality is, between working odd jobs and chewing on the constant threat of financial ruin, I'm pleased if I can find the time to scratch a few clever lines on a post it note.

So far I've managed to stay a few steps away from the cat food aisle by working an endless stream of odd jobs, some very odd. While writing a screenplay, I worked at a needlepoint store, painting custom needlepoint patterns of dogs and pansies for bored rich women. I wrote my first novel while working as a sculptor's assistant, installing neon, cutting plastic and grinding metal. The day it was published, I was delivering plumbing parts to a fish restaurant. While writing my second book I worked as a waitress serving brunch to hung over couples on Sunday mornings. My third novel was funded by writing sarcastic horoscopes for an astrology website. Right now, as I'm fixing the roof on a friend's studio, I'm working on a musical about a woman whose life is being destroyed by her cat. Over the years I've designed CD covers, bought 1,000 pieces of second hand luggage for a sculpture project, photographed bands, built architectural models, refinished furniture, and made hats for the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Throughout the years the mainstay of my income has come from the administrative work I do for artists. Strangely enough there is a group of people who rely on my services to develop their careers. Luckily I'm much better at developing other people's careers than my own. As evidenced by the fact that while many of my clients have gone on to receive enormous commissions, I continue to work for just over three cents an hour. Aside from the generally bad business sense that caused me to think it was a good idea to work for a client base which is devoid of income, I have personnel problems to deal with; I've often thought the best business strategy I could embrace would be to fire myself.

I'm well aware that there are people who find the freedom built into my life enviable, and on good days, when paint is gliding and words are flowing, it is. But as time goes on, the romance of walking on the edge has worn thin and I find myself envying people who were born with a deep passion for investment banking, or international law; people with a single profitable focus instead of an orchestra of poorly paying passions. Lately I've found myself fanaticizing about walking to work with a bagged lunch tucked under my arm. I suppose we all choose our poison; financial security and no time, or time and no security -- I seem to have ended up with both.

Often I look around my life and ask, "Do empty pockets and obsessive worry constitute failure?" Sometimes the answer is yes, other times it's no. I've learned to sleep knowing I owe half the world money. I've learned to write when I'm not sure where rent is coming from. On occasion defeat gets the better of me. At more optimistic moments I employ creativity, my only fully functioning attribute, to choose a yardstick for which to measure my success. I've worked hard to bend everything I have ever learned so that in my world success comes from the process, the doing, rather than the consumption of my product.

When I first felt that giddy rush as I looked at Michelangelo's mesmerizing handiwork, I never thought that the emotions that swept through me would translate into a lifetime of Top Ramen. At desperate moments I comfort myself with the fantasy of a paint-smudged Michelangelo slurping a bowl of twenty-nine-cent noodles. Then I remind myself that my plan wasn't such a bad one, I just hadn't planned on the "famous" part taking so long.

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