I had conversations with each of my daughters this week about their artistic pursuits. I originally wrote that sentence by describing the conversations as “nice” but that isn’t accurate. They were conversations about struggle, frustration, the process of sharing work and passion, and how hard it is to be an artist of any kind. We spoke about how an artist’s work is affected by where you present your work and who sees it. They’ve watched their own parents struggle with this as well and witnessed our feelings of failure and lack of personal satisfaction. There has been growth, but if it is only internal or only at home with no audience in sight, there is a sense of incompleteness about the process.
I’ve felt my own love/hate relationship with my creativity. As a writer and a daydreamer, my creativity isolates me. Yet I feel the urge to share my writing and then oftentimes end up disappointed by rejection (one agent told me to rewrite and “tell me how you feel.” Isn’t that the clichéd counselor’s exhortation?) or arguments (family and friends telling me what I experienced and how I perceived that experience is incorrect). That’s hard to take because it is my story, my memory, my vision, my perception, and my expression of what happened and how I processed it. The feeling is innate in the telling and the choices made during that telling.
Then I think of my husband, the most creative, sensitive, and artistic person I know. He’s been a successful artist. He’s led bands and recorded music. He is driven to try repeatedly to collaborate but each time he feels that disappointment, the failure of not reaching a shared vision, his sense that others don’t have or want the same intensity of experience, and there he is, a musician left alone with his instrument. He has told Cara and Mackenzie time and again, “Do your own thing. Don’t wait or rely on others.”
One other thing he tells them, that I agree with and often repeat, is, “Amateurs help amateurs remain amateurs.”
Cara had her own bit of wisdom to impart today, to me, her mother. I told her I was rereading my memoir, going over it again, reading it out loud, and looking for weaknesses in the structure and the writing. I said, “I’m not liking it now. I think the second half is complicated.”
“Mom,” she said. “Don’t over edit. You’ll ruin it.”
I know that. She’s right. My story is braided and complicated. That’s how my brain perceives things, too. It wouldn’t be my story if I edited that out. I saw that as I finished reading the last few pages of the memoir out loud an hour or so ago. It’s authentic and true to who I am and the story I’ve chosen to tell about me in all its complexity. It’s not a story about just race and racism; it’s a story about two creative, imperfect people who feel the impact of differentness in a racially constructed world.
We need that differentness that we bring to the creative process, else it would just be the same artistic product over and over, like thousands of same model cars made on the assembly line. Some are blue, some are silver, and some are black, red or white, but they are the same damn car. There would be no individuality, no authentic emotional exchange, no true sharing of culture, spirit and humanity.
Mainstream culture embraces the car theory of artistic pursuit. Find a good artist that appeals to the masses; then duplicate him or her until the masses tire and want something else. Artists don’t choose to be tragic figures, but I understand how many end up that way.
Nurture your creativity. Accept its differentness. And when it grows mature and it gives you good advice, be open to it. That’s good parenting.
(Excerpt from essay Mother Mother)
I had a terrible fight with Ma when I was fourteen. I hung out with a group of girls, all living middle class lives. They spent their weekly allowances at the mall and bought T-shirts, Snoopy and Mickey Mouse stickers, Tiger Beat, a fan magazine, and 45s with hits by David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. I didn’t get an allowance. Ma and Dad couldn’t afford to give me one, and our house looked nothing like their houses. It was cluttered, dusty, and greasy with worn-out furniture and raveling rugs covered in animal fur over asbestos tiled floors. A film of cigarette smoke blanketed every surface.
My newfound friends enjoyed ice-skating at the tennis courts on Locust Park. Just three blocks from my house, the tennis courts were flooded each winter by the village and the skating was free. The girls kept asking when I was going to come, and I wanted to go so I would not be left out or forgotten. They had already expressed their displeasure at my eccentric behavior when I spent a sleepover at one of their houses hunkered down in the corner with the novel Knock on Any Door, by Willard Motley. They couldn’t understand how an old, moldy paperback with a torn cover, taken from Ma’s bookshelf, could possibly be more interesting than looking at a centerfold of David Cassidy in the latest Tiger Beat issue. But I found Nick “live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse” Romano much more intriguing. I couldn’t put the book down.
I asked Ma for ice skates, and she wandered into the cellar and pulled out a musty pair of skates from beneath a pile of junk. Peggy had used them a decade or so before. The leather was cracked and brittle, and they smelled bad. I hated them in comparison to the other girls’ brand new skates. When I put them on, the other girls sneered and said they were ugly. I had not skated before, and my ankles leaned inward and grew sore and tired within a short time. I struggled to hold back my tears and formulated my plan for getting new skates.
When I got home, I started crying. I told Ma how my ankles hurt from wearing the old skates and how much I needed a new pair. Ma lashed out at me, saying the kinds of things I was used to hearing like how selfish I was. I lashed back. Then I ran into my room, and sobbed for all I stood to lose by not having those skates. In a few minutes, as I choked and blubbered, Ma came into my room, sat on the edge of the bed, hugged me, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how much the skates meant to you. I’ll find a way.”
My victory felt shallow and tarnished, but I got my skates the next day. I know now that Ma had no money for skates and was more worried about putting food on the table. And she was right I was selfish. The minute I had those new skates on, though, I forgot about it. My ankles still sagged inward and hurt, but my skates were shiny and new.
I made sure, even if I went into debt, that Cara and Mackenzie never suffered my shame. It caused fights between Ronald and me as my store credit cards hit their limits, but I never wanted them to feel unworthy. In principal I didn’t allow them to wear the more expensive popular brands that many of the middle class kids wore. It was my way of keeping them grounded, and I reminded them how some of the other kids they went to school with might never have a new winter jacket or a warm pair of boots. Each year we donated clothes they had outgrown to the school nurse, so she could give them to students who needed them. I explained that their old winter jacket would become someone else’s new jacket and that if they saw someone wearing something that used to be theirs, they should never mention it. That’s how parenting is done sometimes, as a correction of the past. It doesn’t make it better or even right, but it happens just the same.