erica lewis is a fine arts publicist in San Francisco. She has worked in public relations since college, in Chicago and the Bay Area. Books include collaborations with artist Mark Stephen Finein, camera obscura (BlazeVox Books) and the precipice of jupiter (Queue Books); a new solo chapbook project is forthcoming from Ypolita Press.
When I first received the invitation to contribute to the PLP, my initial reaction was “no.” In my “real world” job, this is one of the busiest times of the year, and if I chose to write something, it would not be my finest work. I just did not have the time to be witty or do research, or write what I really wanted to say the way that I wanted to say it. Because my work schedule was killing me. Which leads me to write about my old friend balance, or rather, the fluctuating balance between work life and writing life. What I give up on both ends of the spectrum to maintain a semblance of equilibrium between the two.
My writing and work life are endeavors that I try to keep very separate. Not mixing the two has been my way of maintaining a pseudo-balance between “day job” and “artist.” I am very guarded about that line, although a writer friend reminded me recently about a time when that line was severely blurred. She asked if I still wrote poems on a notebook in my lap while I drove to work, recalling years ago when my morning commute was really the only time that I had to myself and my thoughts. I had forgotten about that. That was – quite literally - a dangerous time. I mean, who tries to write while driving down 280?! My work life has changed quite a bit since then. It is still a constant struggle to maintain a balance, a true separation, between work and art. I still work a lot and have fairly little “free” time, but, happily, I am in a place where I can say no, I no longer have to write in my car.
I am a theater publicist. What, in the old days, would have been called a flack. I work for money publicizing theater companies, dance companies, circus troupes, and their various stage productions. I write press releases, art direct photo shoots, and work with the media – theater critics, radio hosts, tv reporters, bloggers, et al – to place stories and ensure reviews of my theater’s productions. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing performers, directors, playwrights and journalists; I’ve also had my fair share of dealing with numerous “egos” and “crazies.” I’ve been doing this in the Bay Area for about 10 years. And I’m good at it. Really. Two years ago, SF Weekly voted me the best theater publicist in the Bay Area. But I am also well aware how all consuming my day job can be; technically, I am always on call. Staying on top of things, no matter what time it may be, is one of the things that I am known for. There is the occasional 5am text from a reporter. The sleep-rousing phone call on my day off from a publication looking to fact check. The neurotic actress leaving voicemail after voicemail about info she let “slip” to a reporter. Or, helping a critic on deadline, in the middle of the night, who happened to leave their press materials in the restroom of the theater they are on deadline to review. I wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety about getting my theaters coverage in the ever-shrinking world of newspapers and arts reporting. I go to sleep thinking about the list of pitches I have to send the next morning, who I haven’t heard back from, and who I need to check in with. I am well aware that my workalcoholic tendencies intrude upon my artistic life. It’s hard to switch from one mode to another. I don’t get out nearly as much as I should. I am way behind on my reading. Sometimes I’m just too mentally and physically drained to even think about writing. I’m not complaining; these are just the facts. The fact is I have taken to sleeping with a stack of books beside my bed, poems of people whose writing I admire, those that I don’t stay in touch with nearly as much as I would like, and those whose work just makes me “feel better.” I am a big fan these days of writing that makes me “feel” better.
Whenever anyone at my day job asks about my life as a poet I am rather shocked. I am also loathe to really answer them about my life as a poet because in my mind it crosses the necessary divide between personal and private, what I want to share about myself as an artist with the people I have to work with on a daily basis. Conversely, few people in my immediate artistic community know what I actually do to make money. My poet friends just know that I am “always busy” or always “have a show.” I always feel that because I make my money in the fine arts world that it’s wrong to talk about it in detail with my art world friends. I have also found that it takes a fair amount of explaining to both groups about what I do in my professional life and what I do in my artistic life. For the people in my writing community, what they really need to know about me is more or less on the page. For the people that I work with, what they need to know about me is pretty much what they see everyday – someone who is reliable, and organized, and who will take your call at 5 in the morning. Sometimes the two worlds unexpectedly collide, like on the day I found out that a poet who was reading at an event I was hosting the following weekend was also the print broker for the theater I was working at; he literally stood in my office, right in front of me, for a good 10 minutes without recognizing who I was; I could tell from the look on his face that it just didn’t compute that I existed outside of the poetry bubble, and frankly, I was just as surprised to see him standing by my desk. I don’t know how I would react if someone from my day job randomly showed up one of my poetry readings.
Three years ago I quit my stable and fairly well-paid position at an agency to strike out on my own. I had a solid part time job as an in-house publicist for one theater company and a few freelance clients lined up. The idea was to work fewer hours, thereby freeing up more time for writing and other artistic endeavors. Cut to the present and I find myself working almost as many hours, if not more, than before I quit my job, with fewer benefits and less time to write! While I do have flexibility with my hours and what some would say a luxury in working mostly from home, and more freelance clients than I originally anticipated, there is way more stress and responsibility attached to my daily work life now that it's my name on the letterhead, so to speak. I sometimes question why I’m still doing this or whether or not I still love what I do as a publicist in the arts – this was my dream job and it glittered, and now, after 10 years, some of that glitter has worn off, to be quite honest. After all this time, it’s only natural to feel a little bit jaded. But, this job is also what allows me to continue to write the way that I write and to grow in my writing practice – to buy the books and music and magazines from which I pull influences; the opportunity to experience (for better or worse) the innermost thoughts and behind the scenes practices of some of today’s up and coming and established writers, journalists, and theater artists. In a way, I feel as if my writing has become more focused and spontaneous, perhaps more emotional, because of all of the changes and challenges of my day job. So, when I think about it, and I often do, I tell myself that I should never regret the decision I made to leave my agency job, to have taken that leap of faith. It’s been difficult emotionally, financially, and artistically, but it has also been rewarding.