What It's Like to Major in Opera and Poetry and Then Decide Not to Be an Opera Singer, Cry on a Balcony in Rome, Try a Bunch of Other Things, and Eventually Find Yourself: an Interview with Rose Truesdale
BEST FRIENDS AND NEMESES ALIKE, WELCOME. Wait—you leave. (Sorry, that was my arch-nemesis Abraham, he's not welcome here, I'll tell you about him later.) The following is an interview with the ever-thoughtful Rose Truesdale, wellness writer extraordinaire. Rose and I went to the same university, and the first few years out of school were spent having a lot of "what do I want to do with this creative writing degree"-type talks. (Okay, talks and cries, let's be honest.) Rose is a hustler who's not afraid of a good side gig, which is a trait I prize extremely highly in people.
I recently wrote an article for Vice about what it's like to give up on an artistic dream or two, and Rose's interview was so good that I wanted to post the whole thing here. (The cruel reality of most articles is that you have to cut down people's interview answers SOOOOO MUCH that it's hard to capture the entire complexity of any one human being in any one article and still make your word count limit without causing your editor to buy a plane ticket to Chicago, make a copy of your apartment key, and murder you in your sleep. This means that, after most of my articles go live, I feel this pit of anxious guilt in my stomach as I email my interviewees, hoping they won't feel misrepresented and buy a plane ticket to Chicago, make a copy of—well, you get it.)
Do you identify as a “failed artist”?
Not particularly, although I did for a long time. In college, I double majored in opera performance and poetry (… Right?!), and today I operate in the food and wellness writing sphere. My life is still tremendously artful and imbued with creative expression – I have purple hair for God’s sake – but it fits me better than opera ever did.
For me, there’s a tremendous difference between the roles of “creative” (that’s creative as a noun) and “artist”: Simply, creatives are people that gotta create. They like to dabble, and regular creative expression sets them free. They have taste and vision, which makes them bomb entrepreneurs in the sense that many successful creators create their own lives and professions. Of course, it’s not all glamorous. Every creative has a soul-sucking 9-5 at some point in life, so they have to get creative in how they infuse their otherwise unstimulating day to day with creativity. And ideally that’s a wakeup call that sticks.
I would identify as a creative versus an artist. I’ve learned to work music into a life that serves me. I get paid to write and am building a business that represents my interests and aesthetic. And back to the dabbling piece: I write and sing (although I’ve diverged from poetry and opera and mostly write about my feelings on the internet/ concept weird new bands and rehearse three times before deciding I don’t have time to be in a weird new band.), yes, but I also draw, sculpt, develop plant-based recipes, take decent photos on my fancy camera – the trick is to use natural lighting and take ten thousand photos to get one good one – start podcasts that I never finish, interview badass ladies I admire, program arts events… and I started a zine with my boyfriend! But I don’t feel totally comfortable calling myself an artist.
Because artists are different. Artists commit to a craft. Opera, for instance, is a highly specific path that involves a lot of long, lonely hours in a practice room and as much technique as artistic expression. The path, itself, never felt creative to me at all: you audition for colleges with great music schools where you study for four years. You get accepted into music grad school and hopefully enough young artist programs to sustain you until you start getting hired for small stages around the country. And all of a sudden you’re in your mid-thirties and you’re not even a fully-fledged opera singer yet. Like, that is commitment. Plus, to be very honest, constantly worrying about the health of my voice (I couldn’t drink or eat tomato-based foods or speak too loudly in a bar for fear of losing my voice), was zero fun. Zero. Fun. The life of an opera singer made me anxious, insecure – the scrutiny… oh my God— and so, so broke. I hated it. So I chose to figure out a path that was better suited to the vision I had for myself…. which also wasn’t easy. For the bulk of my twenties, after making the decision to essentially start over, I was very lost. We’re talking daily existential crises and sobbing fits about “wasting my gift”. One time I stayed in an AirBnb next to a music school on a vacation to Rome, and I just sat on the balcony listening to budding opera divas sing their arpeggios and crying. But… I have a really good therapist. And today, I’m really proud of myself for ultimately designing a creative life that allows me to express myself better than opera did, and that I actually enjoy.
Why is the idea of a “failed artist” so taboo? Do you think it’s more taboo than the idea of, say, a failed doctor or a failed businessman?
Because artists are rebels! To become any kind of artist, you sort of have to go out on a limb… it’s a very rare case where an artist’s parents are like, “Sure! We’ll pay for you to go to art school and we’re comfortable with the idea that you might never be able to pay us back!” Pursuing any kind of creative life is brave as fuck. So to try to make it as a painter, for example – knowing that it’s not a practical choice, knowing that there’s nothing more personal than spewing your guts on paper – and to fail, by which I mean… to not be able to pay your rent enough times that you have to admit to yourself that it’s a problem. To get sick of the hustle and balancing four side jobs to fund your existence while also making enough time to paint, or to realize that said hustle is depriving you of human contact and you’re not okay. An artist’s life is her art, and if and when it’s ever over (or on pause! That’s a thing, too), it’s devastating. Failing as a doctor or finance person (I don’t even know what an actual title in finance would be) might still be devastating, but at least they can come back to their families and say: “Look, I made a very sensible choice, but it didn’t work out.”
You have a dual degree in opera and poetry. Was there a moment when you were like, “I’m NOT going to be an opera singer” or “I’m NOT going to be a poet”? Or was it a gradual thing? If you could go back, would you change anything about your path? If you could snap your fingers and be a working opera singer, would you do it?
The decision to quit the opera life was definitely gradual. It was like a bad relationship – I knew it wasn’t working, but I had already put so many eggs into that basket, and like I said before, I didn’t want that all to go to waste. Finally, I admitted to myself that my life sort of sucked: I lived in a one room apartment, my boyfriend at the time dumped me because I was zero fun (that’s a whole ‘nother story. He can suck it, but he had a point.), I had an eating disorder and chronic anxiety that manifested as illness, largely attributed to the pursuit of perfection. Like, clearly, opera didn’t suit me. So it was just a matter of admitting that and then… accepting it. I use what I learned in poetry in most of my writing today, and I never set out to be a poet, really. Studying poetry was probably me attempting to be more well-rounded, so I never felt like I abandoned poetry.
To answer your last question, no way in hell. The arduous process of becoming an opera singer was more than enough to make me realize that I’m not at all cut out to be an opera singer. Because if you ever do become successful, the pressure’s 2000% greater! What if you’re starring in the Met’s opening night of La Bohème and your personal life is in shambles and you didn’t get enough sleep and you get a horrible review that ruins your career? That happens! Going down the opera path taught me that being required to perform on command doesn’t work for me (and was pretty psychologically damaging, tbh), prioritizing opera above everything and everyone else makes for a solitary life, the demand to be in perfect vocal shape at all times shook my confidence in an unhealthy way, and singing a bunch of dead white dudes’ music isn’t even how I best express myself! Traditional opera just didn’t fit me. Side note: I was in a feminist burlesque opera, and that experience ruled. I made $200 total for those four months, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
We live in a world where creativity is often accompanied by positivity (the “make art everyday!” mindset, the 100 Days project, etc.). There’s a lot of emphasis on imperfection in art-making, too, and the sort of implication there is that you can’t fail. These attitudes can be really great and liberating. But let’s get really cynical for a moment. Is there a dark side to all of this? Art-making as obligation, perhaps? Sometimes it seems like art-making is almost imbued with this moral quality (like, if you’re not making art everyday…are you being a bad person?).
Man, perhaps because of my relationship with perfectionism in art, I think this sort of practice is mostly positive. Have you read about Jens Lekman’s Postcards project, where he wrote one song every week for a year? I heard him speak in the fall, and he readily admitted that some of the songs were bad, or at least not up to his standards. But getting into the habit of creating for the sake of creating was ultimately very freeing. When the year was up, he had some really great material to pull from, and some material to forget about.
I do think that if you are a creative person with perfectionistic tendencies, you get attached to the idea of making something every day. You MUST make every day. When I was blogging almost daily and I skipped a day, I know I felt like I’d failed myself. But that’s not the point. The point is to get down and dirty with the process of making and allow yourself to present some truly mediocre work in the hopes that you learned something about yourself or your art form while making it.
Do you have any thoughts on the artist/non artist dichotomy? Like…why does it make people so uncomfortable? Why are people so embarrassed to NOT be an artist? (Maybe this question is a reflection of my own limited circles, because most of the people I know are in creative careers, but…)
Lollll I run in similar circles. Personally and professionally (because those lines get blurry with creatives), I hang with creative entrepreneurial types – freelancers, people that run their own show. Not to get all elitist about that: I have a ton of respect for doctors and engineers, etc., and a lot of my pals, too, have been working in a more corporate setting for years so that they can eventually pursue their dreams of filmmaking or movie scoring or what have you. I think you can be a person in a non-artistic field but have a creative spirit, and I think a lot of people discover that they’re creative later in life. I guess my point here is that everyone’s creative in some capacity, and I think people who do get embarrassed or defensive about not being artistic may actually have some deep-seated, unexplored desire to make art.
How do you see your past artistic studies + projects as helping or hindering your life today? Do you regret any of the artistic paths you’ve taken?
I think I answered this above, but I’ll clarify a bit. I’m not one of those “No regrets!” people. I think those people are full of shit. As noted, the pursuit of opera made me miserable… even though I love wailing onstage in my booming mezzo soprano voice. I love wearing wigs and crazy costumes. I love being the special snowflake, and performing fed that for me. But the lifestyle didn’t feed me at all (literally, you remember how poor I was), and in pursuing opera, I learned what doesn’t work for me. I learned to think for myself and decide what I want out of life. I know that sounds dramatic, but breaking free of a very set artistic path and carving out my own thing – that finely attuned self-awareneness – led me to be able to fully express myself. So in this one instance, no regrets.