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Under the pump and overcommitted

Josie Gibson on the unique demands of young creative life

Road sign with conflicting directions of work, balance and life. Road sign with conflicting directions of work, balance and life.

These past few days have been worse than most. Ten hours of unsaved work on an independent theatre score was lost in a 5:23am power-down incident, a rescheduled 9am rehearsal was rescheduled again, and when it finally happened my body insisted on sleeping until ten minutes before it started. Meanwhile, I’d lost a job but gained a commission, rewritten a piece for my honours portfolio, and realised it had been almost three weeks since I’d thought about my thesis.

Chaos reigned, the centre could not hold, and I crashed heavily on Friday afternoon convinced that I was totally inadequate, undeserving even of history’s dustbin, to be remembered with disappointment by the few who cared.

Creative work demands a special relationship with the void. It is a threat that looms dull and ominous. Being a student in a creative degree means balancing part-time work, classes and numerous artistic projects,  alongside grappling with dumb existential woe.

Overcommitment itself is endemic at university, regardless of your chosen degree. But pursuing a career in the arts as a student necessitates an independent regime of extracurricular activities. As an undergraduate in composition, you are encouraged to seize every opportunity, carpe every diem, as a matter of artistic responsibility. The stakes, they say, are low because you’re an unknown student, you have time (lol) and you’ve got to start putting your name out there. Also, art is fun! Projects are exciting! You get to do super cool things with super cool people!

It is easy to underestimate how consuming this type of work actually is. Every student I know has struggled to draw the commitment line.

It takes bloody-minded focus to push through your inexperienced mediocrity onto the next work, and the next, and the next. It takes a network of overcommitted friends with whom you share audacious optimism for the next big project – and who you never see because you’re all so busy working. Then it takes reckless determination to push through neglected essays and readings. Then it takes an ardent tenacity for the work itself, in a society that consistently cuts funding, attempts institutional mergers, and scorns the work of the lowest income sector of tertiary graduates as elitist and inaccessible. It’s Phillipe Petit on the tightrope – you have exhilarating access to the furthest any one person can see, but you are treading a very thin line, and heaven help you if you look down.

That Friday night improved quickly. A friend got complimentary tickets to see the Sydney Symphony perform Steve Reich’s Desert Music and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Two masterworks from 20th Century masters, played to a room electrified by the joy of brilliantly executed live performance. I saw what dreams of mine look like, fully realised by composers gone by. And I didn’t even have to pay.
It takes experiences like that to fuel a constant re-energisation of plans. In defiance of the awful state of current affairs, and the profit-driven tertiary education career machine, we need constant reminders that pursuing the arts is a worthwhile goal that does tangible good.

If I was capable of a ‘proper degree’, I’d do that instead – study medicine or law and work for the UNHRC or something. Annoyingly, those of us in creative degrees can do nothing but create. It’s dumb and self-indulgent, we know. It’s also not, though. We’d tell you why, but we’re really too overcommitted. Go see some independent art and figure it out for yourself.