How to Toil in Obscurity

Rembrandt, "The Artist in His Studio," 1628. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about toil and obscurity.

You don’t need me to tell you about working a double-shift waiting tables, slathered in sweat and oil, footsore and weary, limp from the orders. After clocking out, you rouse what little remains and you get to work again. Stumbling off the construction site, you can hardly close your hand, still quivering from the drill, each sinew worn and frayed; but you’ve been painting in your head all day, so you crack your knuckles, lay out some pigment, and brush what you can. At your office gig, you get paid well enough to drudge and shuffle paper, write emails, but still you yearn to make; and after cooking dinner and putting the kids to sleep, after calling your mother and doing the dishes, after just the briefest moment of necessary repose, how much of you is left to give to your lover, yourself, and then maybe your art?

Exhaustion isn’t just a synonym for weariness; you have nothing left. You know what this feels like, to be emptied out: your spirit rattling like an empty can. You don’t need me to tell you how much it takes to open your laptop or notebook or paintbox or studio door, to find the stillness and energy required of creation. You know how much is the rent for your studio, your materials, the price you pay for the time you’re stealing from your friends, your partner, your children – the cost of all that neglect. You know how selfish it can look to others, this vision without assurances: an indulgence in the name of a success you know is out there, even if you’re not sure it’s there for you.

You’re totally fucking broke and completely alone in your studio. No one to watch or care. And even your care, at times so fierce and hungry, is not infinite. Aldous Huxley: “I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark.” But for those who live there, the darkness can be total. There’s no air at all when you’re working in a vacuum. Toiling in obscurity can wear away at your faith, your courage. Even if the world needs artists, it doesn’t necessarily need you.

The sacrifice can be total. In a novel, some stranger says to a painter: “I’d give everything to paint like you.” To which she responds, “I did.” A vision of Agnes Martin in her distant desert adobe without electricity, living for everything, on next to nothing. It took everything to get here, the costs are deeper than you ever thought it could be when you set out. And you know it’s mad, but you’d pay it again.

How to toil in obscurity? You already know all this. You don’t need me to tell you about toil and obscurity, but it helps to hear, every once in a while, a little nod in recognition of how difficult and lonely that obscure struggle really is. All I can do is remind you that it matters. That here alone in the dark, you are beautiful. This is an act of love, faith, endurance. This space, however hard-won and fleeting, is yours. I’ve lived and worked in windowless rooms, watched roaches crawl the walls, survived on rice and peanut butter sandwiches, broken with mysterious diseases, but my hours of freedom to write – this one now – remain so completely luminous. I hope the results are meaningful to someone other than me, but failing even that, it was at least worthwhile to me, this toil.

Some of us imagine success after our deaths, others prefer to work in shadows, not every flower blooms under harsh light. Success to me is being there at all.


  • Ought to be required reading for every art school graduate. Beautiful. Thank-you. Obscurity no longer bothers me, but after 68 years to understand I haven’t been the only one to persevere in spite of it.

  • K.I.A. says:

    “I hope the results are meaningful to someone other than me” — rest assured, you’ve had an impact on many people with this piece, all around the world. Beauty, honesty and empathy resonates. Thank you for your writing.

  • Well, if it don’t float, it ain’t a boat. Why do waitresses, construction workers or office staff want to be professional artists? Art is a real occupation, there is a heirarchy of success, measured in part by the degree to which one can legitimately associate ones living reality with ones art. There are far too many hopefuls clogging up the system, it’s a problem. Nothing wrong with not succeeding, something very wrong about being too committed to a delusion. Art is real, functioning studios that make money and glorious art are real. Don’t fall into the postmodern trap, failure to launch is not success.

  • JIH says:

    You write: “Toiling in obscurity can wear away at your faith, your courage.” How is this different from anyone in any profession? This is not unique to artists.

  • Ulysses Castellanos says:

    Being hard up gives your work the balls and bite to be genuine, to stand out, to succeed when no one else gives a fuck. Only an artist can understand that. Yo! Stakes is high!

  • Mona Simpson says:

    This is wonderful.

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