Week number 8 of The Artist’s Way is about “recovering a sense of strength”. This chapter addresses a number of topics, but what they all boil down to in the end is the concept of having inner strength and refusing to let outside forces dictate the course of your artistic career. In this vein the author talks about unsupportive family, teachers and mentors who only point out the weaknesses, never the strengths, and any number of inner turmoils (“I’m too old” or “I can’t afford this” or “I’m not good enough”) that beat artists down and keep them from reaching their true potential.
Since this topic just happened to come up at the same time, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share something I overheard while at the hardware store the other day. I was getting some paint mixed when a man came up and started chatting with the woman behind me. I wasn’t really paying attention at first because they were strangers to me, talking about their families and the like, but then my ears happened to prick up on the woman talking about what her kids wanted to take in college. I don’t recall what she said the girl was going to do, but she said that the boy wanted to be an author. She then went on to explain that, “I told him, that’s great, if you want to be an author, but you have to take a trade or something to fall back on.”
I found myself more than a little annoyed about this.
See, on the one hand, as a mother, I can see her point. The arts are such a cruel and difficult world to make a living in, and we hate to imagine our children failing, so we encourage them toward fields that we know they will at least be able to get some sort of job in.
On the other hand, people who haven’t tried to be an artist have no concept of just how much time and energy such a thing entails. Writing, in particular, takes vast amounts of time and energy just to get words to paper, and that doesn’t factor in the time it takes to learn how to write properly, take courses and read books on the craft, research information you might need for your story, research information on the different forms and methods of publishing, research people and services you’ll need along the way (critique groups, editors, agents, cover designers, etc), and all those extra little niggling things. See, people who don’t write imagine that it’s just as simple as that: you get an idea, you write it down, you hand it to a publisher, and it becomes a book. But nothing could be further from the truth. Art may be looked down upon by people studying hard to become doctors, lawyers, and scientists, but just because the subject matter and the path toward art are a little different doesn’t make them any less difficult and time consuming. People don’t just become artists in their spare time, because spare time is not nearly enough time.
To say that I wanted to turn around and give this woman a talking to would be putting it lightly, but I’m not that kind of person. All I could do was sit there and seethe quietly, thinking that this boy of hers will probably never become an author like he wants. What will likely happen is that he’ll take a trade and try to write in his spare time. He won’t bother with courses or craft books because he’ll be too busy in his trade courses, and doing labs and homework and exams. When he graduates from his trade he’ll go off and get a job in that field because he’s an adult now and he needs money to support himself and his adult life, and because of that job and all the other things going on in his life he’ll write less and less until he’s barely writing at all, if he even is still writing at all. He’ll never become an author because instead of using his time and energy to work on writing, he’ll use it all up on the “something to fall back on”.
I know this is what will probably happen, because it’s exactly what happened to me. All I can hope for is that this kid, like me, realizes a few years later that he needs to work twice as hard now to recover that lost dream of becoming an author, and that he does it because it’s truly what is in his heart.
I’m not saying that we should all accept point-blank whatever random career choice our kids pull out of the air…at 18 not many kids actually have any idea what they truly want to do with themselves. But it’s worth taking into consideration that your kid might actually know. This woman’s son may have been writing stories since the third grade. He may have dozens of mini-manuscripts under his belt. He may have even had something published in the newspaper or as part of some kind of contest. He may have real talent. And he may squander that talent on a trade because his mother doesn’t believe in him enough to give him the strength and encouragement to follow his heart.
What would you do in the son’s position? In the mother’s? Do you believe that all prospective artists should have a “back-up plan” or that they should focus their energy on their real goals? Have you found yourself in this position before (either the son’s or the mother’s)? Please share!