04/03/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Artists and the Culture of Conformity

Most artists in this country are greatly underappreciated. When I refer to most artists, I am not talking about the musicians and actors who bring home multimillion dollar paychecks each year. No. I'm talking about the artists who are barely getting by and if they're lucky, still living in their parents' basements. These artists are hanging onto their last thread of identity, uselessly dragging their fingernails through the sand as the undertow of conformity threatens to pull them in at any moment. They are almost drowning, almost. They are tired. Tired of rejection, tired of trying, and most of all tired of fighting the culture of conformity; an entity that berates their life choices at every opportunity. Most give up, some drown, but a small percentage hang in there, hoping that each new day might be the day that they get their big break.

The pressure to conform is immense. It does not just come from "well-meaning" friends and family who think the solution to the artist's problems is to get a regular 9-to-5 like everybody else. These people do not understand the call the artist is pursuing to begin with. What they've noticed is that the artist in their life is struggling; that they don't have health insurance and barely enough money to pay for gas. In their eyes, these dilemmas are reason enough for the artist to give up on their unrealistic pursuit, their dream, and get a real job. And they view the artistic pursuit as just that: a dream. To them, the artist's goal of sharing their art with the world is an unattainable fantasy.

Those friends and family members aren't so much a threat as society. Society loves talented artists (when they're rich and famous), but does not tolerate or make room for the rest of them, and it is the undiscovered talent that makes up the majority. The way American society views art and artists is evident by the nation's public school curriculum. Not a fraction of the endless dollars school districts pour into sports programs ever go into art programs.

None of this, however, is as bad as the judgment artists endure on a daily basis; during the entire lifespan of their pursuit of dream. They are often judged as lazy, odd, and different. Behind their backs, outsiders wonder why they don't just go out and get a 9-to-5, any 9-to- 5, just to pay the bills? They cannot comprehend why artists choose to live at poverty and near poverty levels to pursue their goals when they could just get a real job that pays real money. It is not that simple.

Most artists don't work 9-to-5s and usually have no intention of doing so because it is the very thing they spent their lives avoiding. Artists prefer poverty level paychecks and driving beat up old Geo Metros to the luxuries a steady 9-to-5 would provide. To them, it is not about money but spirit, freedom. Those seemingly omniscient outsiders, who just don't understand why an artist won't buckle down and join the real world, have given up their freedom long ago in favor of maintaining a homeostasis they like to refer to as reality. They have sold out and likely subscribed to the mirage of realism through the ill advice of others; advice that kept them from pursuing their own dreams. And sometimes they encourage artists to ignore their call in order to validate their own choices.

Pursuing the goal for an artist is not only a spiritual pursuit, but an unquenchable call. It is a pursuit that can never fully be abandoned, not without a sense of dread or regret that fills the space where the realized dream would've been. Nothing kills an artist's spirit faster than throwing away his or her passion in favor of a 9-to-5 position that yields them a nicer car or apartment. Most artists would rather retain their freedom and go without.

Some get tired and drop out of the race early, never realizing that success may have been just around the corner. It takes endurance. The race is more unsteady and unpredictable than fields with more structured career paths (any field really). At times, the rejection seems never-ending. And what's even worse than the pain of rejection and the unpredictability is the money, if there is any. Most of the time it takes years for an artist of any genre to make a dime off the years of heart, time and money they already invested into learning and perfecting their craft.

In my memoir, I Know Why They Call a Shell a Shell: Tales of Love Lost at Sea, I focus on the time I spent on Rhode Island beaches; beaches that were littered with thousands of beach stones. Regardless of color or origin, every single stone somehow became shaped into a smooth flat oval. "Soft to the touch, these oval jewels looked like small candies. Each and every one, more perfect than the last; their uniformity took on a manufactured feel."

One day, as I walked along the beach, something caught my eye. I picked up what appeared to be just another oval stone. Upon lifting it out of the sand it became clear to me that it was too light in weight to be made of rock. I examined it and tried to determine what kind of material it subsisted of, and then I noticed that it had mother of pearl like qualities.

"I squinted at it, then looked at it from different angles. I held it in my hand trying hard to figure out what it was. Suddenly I knew. Though it no longer resembled it, it was not stone, but a shell. Lengthened and now only a few centimeters wide, it had been beaten down. What was once a beautiful shell somehow became pummeled into the exact shape of the millions of stones strewn across the shoreline. Was it the destiny of anything that neared this water; to be shaped and molded into an oval form?"

For some, conformity is not an option; it is a death sentence for the soul. The harsh judgments are often painful, more painful than any of the other challenges artists face, because when it comes down to it, these judgements are personal. The artists are just being themselves and following a direction paved by their pulse. It is them against their critics, squares, labeled so because of their carefully defined boundaries. They know boundaries while artists know no limit.