Walk With Me (#13): Is Being an Artist the Only Thing?

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

I am an artist. I made the decision a long time ago to follow my muses where they lead me. When the muse hits I am obedient to the detriment of my dishes and laundry, and possibly my 16-year old daughter.

It’s always been like this. Even when she was young I would stop long enough to feed and care for her, but would forget to feed and water myself. And that’s ok with me, because…art.

Yet, there are times when I use art to escape from my other responsibilities. I know there should be cooked food at some point, and I also know none of us are starving. I find myself at times only wanting to be responsible for art.

It seems like the quarantine has just made it easier to dive head-first into it. There aren’t as many other pieces of life to remind me that being an artist isn’t the only thing. Or is it? When is art the escape and when is it the answer, the only true thing?

AB

Dear AB,

Your letter doesn’t say so, but I’m going to assume you are a single mother. “Mother because I honestly don’t know any father who would worry about pursuing their passion to the detriment of their children. There are undoubtedly exceptions to the rule, but under patriarchy men are trained to put their own needs first; they learn to do it without a lot of conscious thought or reflection. Even if they are exceptions to the rule, I have a hard time imagining a father worried enough to write to me.

“Single” because a reader could ask, “But why can’t the other parent take care of their child while AB is creating?” If there were another parent either they would be helping and you would never have written this letter in the first place, or their lack of help, and possible resentment of you for not prioritizing caretaking over creativity, would likely have featured in your description of your conundrum. It’s just you and your girl, I’m guessing, since negotiation with a partner is no part of the discussion as you’ve presented it.

Women artists, both partnered and not, have struggled with the obligations of motherhood for as long as there have been women and children. Whole books worth of essays have been written about the difficulties of balancing the needs of children with protecting the time and sense of self necessary to be consistently creative as an artist. Some women choose not to have children because they don’t want to negotiate between children and their muse.

Interestingly, and somewhat impressively I might add, you don’t seem wracked with guilt about the impact of following your muse on your daughter. That’s good, because you shouldn’t, in my opinion. Children can thrive in all kinds of unconventional environments. And I think it’s particularly powerful for children to see their mother choose herself and her creativity, rather than just live solely in service to other people. Carl Jung famously said, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”

So, good for you for living — fully, vibrantly, creatively. This is an immeasurable gift to your daughter and to the world. On behalf of the world, thank you.

Setting aside this question of art and motherhood, you ask about the function of creativity in your life. What I hear in your question is a struggle between expansion and contraction, between the pull of the infinite and the demands of the finite.

As a young person I pursued my creativity with tremendous dedication. First it was weaving and then later it was pottery. I could lose entire days in the studio, not eating or drinking, completely “in the zone”. The feeling of falling out of time while generative force poured through me was a better high than any drug I’ve ever tried. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to flying.

And because it was just me in those days, the return to the mundane world of paying work, housekeeping, and bills was less jarring. The contrast between the freedom I found in making art, and the relative freedom of managing my own maintenance was not as stark. Then my relationships became more complicated, my children were born, and that contrast sharpened to a knife’s edge that cut. Unlike you, I backed away from the edge, and chose responsibility over creativity.

It was so unnatural to me that I unconsciously imploded my whole life eventually to free myself. And I have been trying to find a sustainable balance between creativity and obligation ever since.

This balancing act, the pendulum swing between expansion and contraction, is as essential to us as breathing. Breathing is, in fact, exactly this. We inhale and expand until there’s no further to go, and then we exhale and contract, emptying ourselves out. And just like we cannot inhale forever, our capacity for expansion must, by definition, be limited and balanced by the finite nature of our bodies, which must exhale.

Where escapism, which is a form of compulsion and a way station on the road to addiction, comes in is when we resist the pendulum swing. We want to expand forever, to fall out of time and necessity, because who wouldn’t want to do that? Except we don’t work that way. We can delay the swing, but we can’t prevent it.

Being alive, in a finite world and body, can be painful. It’s also the only way to get the chance to make art.

Personally, I think a little escapism is normal, and not unhealthy. But I am most prone to excessive escapism when my burdens feel overwhelming. When I am free to create without feeling like I’m skipping out on pressing obligations, then my expansion doesn’t feel escapist. When I feel like my responsibilities are being forced upon me, or are more than I can reasonably carry alone, that’s when I want to run like the house is on fire. Escape! Escape!

Only you can know when your expansion is escapist, and when it is unencumbered by compulsion, but I will tell you this. Expansion and contraction need each other. They only exist in dynamic relationship with each other. You can’t create endlessly. If you don’t eat and sleep, eventually your body, your creative vehicle, will sicken and die.

It is only our Western patriarchal culture which reveres the tortured artist, who tries to live in constant expansion, and thus kills themselves. Even when they don’t kill themselves, they live in a false narrative of constant expansion. Henry Thoreau got fresh doughnuts delivered weekly to him in his hermit cabin on the pond. Albert Einstein was free to think world changing thoughts because his wife took care of the house and children, to the detriment of her own career.

Contraction is always part of the story; it’s the price we pay for being alive in these miraculous, finite bodies we’ve been gifted. It’s only a question of who pays.

This pandemic, for some of us, has removed many of our daily obligations, freeing the way for more expansion. My daily life has gotten much, much smaller, but my creative life has flourished. Expansion and contraction doing their dance.

I don’t think the question is when is art escapism and when is it “the only true thing”. I think the question is, if being an artist is who you truly are, then how are you going to manage your responsibilities, your inevitable and necessary contractions, in order to make space for art? Bless your heart if you can find some other adult who will joyfully take care of the dishes, laundry, kid, and deliver fresh doughnuts once a week without requiring anything in return, but that’s probably not your most likely bet.

Instead, make a list of all of the absolute, most essential and unavoidable material needs you have. This pandemic may well have clarified that list. You have to eat. You have to maintain shelter. Maybe you have debt. You have to care for the kid, though if she’s 16 what that means may be changing. How can you take care of those things in a way that drains the least amount of life out of you, so you have more life to give your art? Can you get a housemate to help with bills and chores? Can you come to a formal agreement with your daughter about what nights of the week she cooks dinner so that you are free to create, and what nights you promise to climb out of your expansive infinity dance to cook and connect? Do you have family or friends that can help you carry your burdens in one way or another?

Art is not the only true thing, but it is a true thing for you, and that’s all that matters. Organize your life around it. Think critically and creatively about how to make space for your expansion and contraction. Breathe. And then make art unapologetically. Please.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Want to walk further together? A new Walk With Me is published every Wednesday at noon (EST). You can also catch up on recent Walk With Me columns below.

Walk With Me (#12): Ding, Dong, the President’s Infected!

Walk With Me (#11): My White Son Is Protesting For Black Lives

Walk With Me (#10): Breaking Cycles of Abuse

Walk With Me (#9): Raising Feminist Men

Walk With Me (#8): Abortion & Trust

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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