Sink or Swim: The Postgraduate Artist Life

You know, it’s sink or swim. You choose which.

…they say to you, once you’ve moved to a new place three thousand miles across a continent, know only your apartment manager, grocery clerk, and mailman, are fresh out of your long-pursued and hard-won undergraduate liberal arts honors degree (which is proving about as helpful in a job search as you expected it to be in the society you live in), and have started to understand what true friendship is at an often-painful cost.

In the moments immediately following graduation, you believe in the fervor behind this concept wholeheartedly and charge ahead, ready for anything… and in your attempts to tread water, as it were, you quickly find yourself feeling as exhausted as you were at seventeen, a freshman in college… and you may be just as disturbed by the prognosis. You bob in and out of exhaustion and look to your loved ones for moments of clarity, comfort, and respite.

You still have no idea what you want from life, because you want to do it all and believe that the degree you now hold will allow you to have it all. Unfortunately, as you proceed into the real world, you are to realize that it does — to a degree — but only to that degree.

A degree will not lengthen your life. Statistically, it may contribute to better chances of having better resources through your work. But it will not do this independently. A degree will not reverse the structure of the week, giving you five days in which it is socially acceptable to read and pursue supplemental knowledge instead of just two. Statistically, it gives you a better chance of one day having this ability if you are to miraculously self-employ and make smart financial moves in an economy which is volatile, ever-changing, and impacted by so many macrocosmic factors out of your control… but it will not do this independently, either. A degree will not make you a better you. Statistically, it has allowed you the kinds of contacts, coursework, and exposure which is required fuel for understanding the intricacies of the world around you… the immeasurable need for compassion and kindness in our world. But it has not done this independently.

And of your art… A degree will not serve as a fuel cell for artistic inspiration. The pursuit of that degree was a challenge for a reason, a challenge which may well have fueled the feeling behind your artwork: the entire breadth of work you completed during that time. But it will not alter the comings and goings of muse, of inspiration, and it will not alter the progression of your own inherent artistic ability. It will not force you to expand your artistic horizons, it will not grant you the ability to master a new medium with ease. It can not do this independently.

Sink or swim. If you don’t start producing art again, you’ll lose the drive — it’s a talent that must be nurtured”, some will say. Adults… educators. Friends.

Remembering that you are at this point a pseudo-adult, and are equally capable of producing opinions on topics (which you may feel you really know nothing about) I propose the following, moderative option:


Instead of fighting so hard — or not fighting at all to work through the depth of new issues, new problems, and new ideas circulating in your mind at any given moment, coming and going like a violent tide — just float. Rely on yourself to go at a pace which is a healthy compromise to the warring speeds in your mind… When you are dragged under, or when you are pulled back to shallow, calm water. Focus on knowing yourself well enough to understand when your mindset and body are in the right place and time for expression, and through this you will accomplish what you are capable of doing. When you’re tired of treading water, or when you feel like letting yourself drift to the murky unclarity of the bottom for a while, remember both that your buoyancy will cause you to ultimately resurface no matter your intention on sinking, and that you are capable of resting on your own ideas without their existence permanently evaporating… the water will still be there tomorrow.

And once you begin to adapt to this strange new world where somehow the other adults have mistaken you for one of them… once you are over the immediate difficulty and the ensuing pride that you have fooled them all with a blazer and a framed and very expensive piece of cardstock representing the totality of your academic pursuits to date… once you realize that the moral remuneration behind your work is not dependent on what others value it at… it’s a lot easier to swim.

✶ ✶ ✶

Last year after relocating to California from the East Coast post-graduation, I reflected on the experience of being in a new environment, qualified with the degree which denotes a societal misconception of the artist’s permanent responsibility of creation. In so doing, it was my hope to convey a belief to which I still accord: that others do not have the right to dictate the artist’s personal decision how, when, why, or what to create, and that the constant struggle to keep your head above water will result in greater detriment to the creative process than will stagnation as inspiration is a fleeting, necessary element of artistic composition. 

I have posted it today as an opportunity to reflect further as I wrap up my time in California this week and will be traveling back east prior to leaving for my graduate program. 



Published by

Caroline C. Evans Abbott

I am a rising Master of Research (M.Res) English Literature candidate at the University of Glasgow, incoming MFA Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and a recent Honors Program graduate of the B.A. Studio Art program at Albertus Magnus College (2015). From 2015 - 2016, I served as an English, Writing, and Creative Enrichment Tutor for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Reservation in Brooks, California, and from 2014 - 2015 as a Writing Associate (Tutor) in the Albertus Magnus College Writing Center. I am based in West London.

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