What does it mean to be an artist? Do you, as a creative, have to claim some type of ownership within the realm of your medium in order for it to really count? Do you get paid to create? To what extent does that matter when it comes to establishing an identity? These are questions that artists grapple with, especially in an age when ~*personal branding*~ is sold to us as absolutely essential and visibility is all but inescapable. So, how do we deal with these quandaries in our day-to-day lives?
Creative Grind, Manqué’s new Q&A column, takes those tricky questions to artists, directly.
Meet: Brian Burns, a writer and actor based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, guiding tours that focus on the dynamic role of immigration in the ever-changing American identity. He has written for Mic, Metro, and Boston.com.
1. What medium(s) do you work in and are there any others you’d like to explore?
I’m a writer. I’ve dabbled in comedy and have one total acting credit to my name and, though those are avenues I really want to go down, I get imposter-y feelings saying I’m an “actor” or a “comedian.” (That being said, it’s rare I introduce myself as a “writer” either.)
I do a lot of shit-talking about stand-up but I think it’s something I should explore. A) because it’s incredibly “in” right now and seems to be the only actual means of mobility in the entertainment industry. And B) because I’m a ham. Beyond that, I’ll occasionally be filled with the desire to buy a canvas at Michael’s and paint. I’ve yet to act on that urge.
2. Does your art pay your bills? If no, what does?
Art is not paying my bills. It’s not paying my anything at all. The only writing I’m doing these days is for my own blog. And I’ve only recently started up again after a year-long hiatus from identifying as a writer at all. My eyes just rolled too. I’ve only ever occasionally been paid to write.
So as far as work goes, I’m a tour guide at the Tenement Museum. It’s only part time so I, in theory, have time to write or audition. Again, in theory. I also walk dogs occasionally but nothing compared to when it was my lone source of income for the first two years out of college. It was character building. I’ll say that much.
3. At what age did you start working within each medium and what attracted you to it?
I’ve been an avid, constant journaler since the fourth grade, something I continue to do. It’s pathological at this point. I fill up an entire Moleskine notebook, every line of every page packed with ink, every 3 or 4 months or so. As a kid, starting around age 10 I’d say, I used to fill up composition notebook after composition notebook with stories that were minisculely-veiled rip-offs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer plots. They’re still in my parents’ basement. Around 17, inspired in equal measure by David Sedaris and Chelsea Handler (…), I started incorporating my own voice and “humor” into my high school English papers, really honing—whether I knew it or not—that skill of writing personal essays. My column in my college newspaper was essentially that, 800-word essays about whatever it was I was feeling at my Boston liberal arts school. I took my first improv and acting classes at 24 years old.
And as far as inspiration goes, it’s always felt more mandatory than anything else. Especially when it comes to journaling. Like, it’s an insane amount of effort and time that I devote to maintaining that ongoing archive of my life. And I’m not a daily logger so I’m usually writing about events that happened, like, a month earlier. So it feels positively Sisyphean but the writing I (occasionally) do for public consumption feels just as difficult and daunting and thankless. And yet, I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I couldn’t imagine not digesting the events of my life in the form of writing. And as for my more performative moments, that’s the youngest child, only boy, gay-adolescent-recluse-who-was-suddenly-mythologized-and-adored-in-college-by-his-peers jumping out. Whereas writing is an incredibly solitary act and feels like a constant tedious game of Operation, the rare moments that I’ve performed have felt so natural and immediate and gratifying. Oprah calls it being “in flow.” I am very much so “in flow” in front of an audience.
4. How did your family first respond to these interests, and has their support changed over time?
Very supportive, from the jump. I wasn’t buying those composition notebooks with my own money in the fourth grade. And while no one in my family are necessarily big readers, let alone writers, my parents and sisters have always been incredibly interested in and encouraging of my writing. Never faulting me for putting my $70,000 English degree to use as a dog walker, for example—knowing that, even in my randomest moments, it was all fodder for something bigger. Fingers crossed.
5. What was your dream career as a freshman in college? What is it now? What changed for you, if anything?
Superstar then. And superstar now. Kind of. The constant thread has always been writing. David Sedaris has long been my patron saint and a career like his has always been incredibly, heartbreakingly appealing to me. Someone who’s singular perception of the world and his place within it has resulted in universal adoration and praise. And book sales! I start a new screenplay once a month and, though I’m clearly not the most dedicated to these projects, I think writing films would be the bonafide dream of dreams. Made all the dreamier if I could star in said films I write.
That column I had in my college newspaper were always accompanied with high-concept photographs that my friend Juliette would take. And I really think the majority of the clicks those essays got were from peers far more interested in my image than in my words. Without much effort, people tend to find my, I don’t know, self-presentation entertaining. And I think I’d be a fool not to lean into the fact that people are tickled by how I talk and what I can make my face do and my, like, personal mise-en-scene.
But of course, the drudgery of adulthood and the constant battle that is living in New York City have made my dreams, which not too long ago felt so inevitable, seem incredibly far away. I think about comedy and acting and I find it “deeply humiliating.” I write a personal essay and I find myself asking what’s the point of even writing it, who am I writing it for, and why should they care. Etcetera. It’s stupid to pay attention to those thoughts, I know. What’s the point of doing anything at all, with a mentality like that. No way to approach life at all. But, you know, easier said than done sometimes.
6. During an average week, how much time do you devote to your work? How much time do you *wish* you devoted to it?
If we’re considering my time guiding tours at the museum as something vaguely performative (and I do), I’m “acting” for around 24 hours a week. Between journaling and my occasional futile screenplay or essay, I probably only write 3 or 4 hours a week. I’d ideally write for 3 or 4 hours a day.
7. What creative/professional (if they overlap) guilt do you wrestle with the most?
It usually revolves around my parents. They’re the greatest in that they give me lots of space to do whatever I might feel is best for myself. But I’m very scared of the notion that, in five or ten or fifteen years time, I’ll still be their son who’s working part time and gives shitty Christmas gifts and only has a few more writing or acting credits to his name. Granted, I’m not incredibly skilled at much else so it’s not like there’s opportunities I’m missing out on. But I do worry that there might come a point of no return in which I have very little, professionally (and financially), to show for myself. Gulp.
8. What creators do you turn to when you want to feel motivated or inspired?
I flipped around Me Talk Pretty One Day a couple weeks ago for the first time in a long time and it was such a beautiful reminder of why I love David Sedaris and why, especially a couple years ago, I idolized him so intensely. I’m not saying that I even hold a candle to his wit but reading those essays after refraining from writing myself for so long, it was such a necessary nudge of “I can do this.” There’s something that seems very accessible and realistic about a career like David’s. Especially knowing that so much of his sensibility is informed by the deeply random first thirty-something years of his life in which he was not being paid to write.
I’ve also worshipped Madonna just about all my life. And while I have no intention to become a creamy smooth pop icon goddess, I regularly find myself watching and reading old interviews with her and feeling so impossibly enveloped in the possibility of all things. That with enough gumption and drive and desire and blond ambition, I too can have exactly what I want. Emphasized all the more by the fact that, God bless her, she’s never been a particularly amazing singer…or songwriter…or dancer…or actress. And yet she’s one of the most important and impactful artists alive today. So on those days where I do feel like a hack or unworthy of what I want, I always return to Madonna.
Other careers I envy and long for belong to Naomi Fry, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, and Amy Sedaris. Brassy, successful, adored individuals with singular, distinctively-New York sensibilities. And Gwyneth Paltrow, but for other reasons.
9. Do you believe in forcing yourself to create on a regular schedule or only when you feel particularly inspired? Why?
I think there’s probably merit to forcing yourself to a regular schedule of creativity. My Virgo rising-ness certainly loves discipline and believes heartily in its importance. I am a very routined person. But I’ve never been one to set a schedule for myself to write or anything else of the like. That being said, on my days off, I’m inevitably going to write. Maybe it just doesn’t feel enforced. It’s a very natural, self-motivated act for me, I guess.
10. Make a case for your favorite television show?:
Ooh. I’ve had a couple really impactful favorite television shows throughout my life. Buffy as a kid, Six Feet Under in high school, Transparent in college. But I think I’d claim Enlightened, the Laura Dern HBO show, as my very favorite. These days, at least.
It was a show I tried watching when I was still in college and found it too sad. I then restarted it a cool two years later and found myself totally compatible with it. Go figure. I find it a perfectly written, acted, directed, and executed show. The way it pokes fun at self-help culture while staying completely sympathetic towards the people who seek out that kind of manufactured solace is just so beautifully, sorrowfully human.
The show is narrated by these laughably woo-woo monologues from Laura Dern’s character, Amy, who, despite this facade of emotionally-intune enlightenment, is so fucking angry. And doesn’t even know it. In the event I’m not making a great case for the show, allow this quote from Amy to do the heavy lifting, “I’m just tired of feeling small. You know, for two minutes there, I felt worth something. Like I was doing something, something real. And I was alive. That might sound pathetic but it felt good to be alive for once. And not just dead and plastic and numb. Oh, God, I really don’t want to go back to being nothing. I mean, do you?”
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