What’s it like being a starving artist?

The two most unpleasant years of my life I spent, not starving, but being very hungry all the time, mostly voluntarily.

The first one, the fall of 2008 and 9, I spent in a haze of hospital visits, therapists’ offices and lonely afternoons. In my memory it was always raining.

It’s hard to write about anorexia without romanticizing it. Beyond thinness, our society also values will power and glamorizes damage. But anorexia is not glamorous. It feels like the day after an all-nighter every single day. It is a perpetual hangover of exhaustion, headaches, and tense muscles. Your body shuts down every non-essential process to conserve energy, including emotions. It is mind-erasing depression. It is not a happy or impressive way to live. It is not living at all, because you’re actively dying. If you’re curious, this article is one of my favorite things I’ve ever read on anorexia.

You would think I’d have had enough of being hungry.

In 2015 I moved to Spain. I got myself a certificate in teaching English. I read online that an employer can apply for a work permit for foreigners on student visas. I posted a ton of ads on babysitting and nannying forums. Moving to a new country is exhausting as it turns out because everything’s a tiny bit different and suddenly you’re no longer a fully capable adult.

I juggled a collection of odd-houred, poorly-paid jobs. I nannied at 6am for a couple months. I got fired from two lunch time babysitting gigs that paid only 6 euro an hour. I scraped by on an eccentric collection of private tutoring shifts that came and went. I taught a series of workshops in a hair salon and did a few sessions with the insanely wealthy silver fox brand designer of a well-known food label.

I wasn’t starving, but I didn’t have enough and it sucked.

I also wasn’t making art. My spot on Maslow’s pyramid had dropped a few notches. I was sick all the time. I couldn’t afford to take a day off. I couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. I didn’t eat well or sleep well. I went to school and pushed through exercises that could have been fun. I admonished myself for not working harder.

I had to get a medical checkup to work on the cruise ship (my salvation) and I found out I had heart murmur because of a vitamin deficiency.

Other difficult times in my life have similarly been marked by hunger. People will say “you’ve lost weight!” in a bizarre congratulatory tone, and it’s like “…I didn’t mean to” or “Yes, this is a sign of a terrible break up that’s left my stomach in knots for weeks. What an inappropriate comment.”

What does starving have to do with art? Artists should be hungry for something, but not food. Making art is at the top of that pyramid, near self-actualization. You’re not doing that if you’re still struggling on the basic needs bit.

Author Chuck Wendig chucks out the idea (har-har) on his blog that people like the concept of the starving artist because they like not paying for what we make.

My teachers and my friends’ parents (never my own, bless them), and this required weekly class for theater students at my university, constantly reminded me how unrealistic it is to choose art as a career. We all know it means juggling nannying or temping or waiting tables or teaching English to hairdressers while making art on the side. “You’re too smart to starve,” one professor lectured us, pointing to the resourcefulness and inventiveness that theater education offers. I repeated this to myself. But that starvation is a hazard of the profession?

Hunger is not glamorous or inspiring. It’s just hunger. And it is a basic human need to eat when we’re hungry. And you need to take care of your basic needs before you can make things.

This year I found myself a stable job and an apartment with way fewer cockroaches and consequently a lot more food in my fridge. Now I have mental space and physical energy for writing and dancing and imagining. Starving and being an artist are incompatible. I would rather be an artist.

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My Thanksgiving turkey this year.

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4 thoughts on “What’s it like being a starving artist?

  1. Arlyne Rochlin says:

    This is both beautifully written but deeply thought out expressing many aspects of living,all in one serious and amazing article.The combination of anorexia, a life threatening disease with the obsession of being thin as a virtue,starving because of life conditions, in combination and with the concept of the “starving artist” is brilliant. It shines a light on very serious aspects that can destroy one’s life.
    I hope you consider sending this to the NYTimes Magazine section, or to The New Yorker, or any of the famous fashion magazines that feature without guilt emaciated young woman whose limbs look like Holocaust survivors. Another thought O magazine. This should be seen by millions of people.
    Thank you, Sarah for your seriously thought out and incredibly well
    written article. Your very lucky Grammy.

    Like

  2. Mom says:

    This is the most powerful thing I have ever read on anorexia. Thank you for being brave enough to share this. I also read the article you mentioned, and it identifies so clearly what is really going on when a person has an eating disorder. Both your post and the other article have given me much to think about in terms of my own difficulty in asking for what I need and taking good care of myself. I love you!

    Like

  3. sarahstearnsss says:

    Thank you both so much. I feel very lucky to have been raised by such powerful, thoughtful women who gave me the tools I need to overcome and thrive, and the support and resilience to continue to do so throughout my life. I love you!

    Like

    • Arlyne Rochlin says:

      Your blog is beautifully written, and it is Art. I know I may seem annoying, but you can put it together and even have some drawings and try to get it published. Or find a magazine that will run it weekly, bi monthly etc. I may be wrong, but it is worth six months of trying. The New Yorker might be interested, as they had for many many years a weekly or monthly report by a writer who lived in Paris and wrote about being an expat and life there. Janet Flanner was her name. Check her out. Am sending much love. The last blog was also amazing.

      Sent from my iPad Arlyne

      >

      Like

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