I was speaking with a young friend of mine, an artist and aspiring children’s book writer, about his day job: the one that pays the bills, and a necessary evil for most creatives. I’ve encountered three types of people in my life. The first are those who grow up with a hardworking parent — by hardworking, I mean a hospital doctor, a successful banker or lawyer, a diplomat, or a parent who worked multiple, more menial jobs to make ends meet. These children tend to follow in those footsteps, often making great sacrifices, because hard work and often, the compensation for it, was the greatest value they were taught. As the great filmmaker Michael Apted said, quoting a Jesuit proverb, about his now famous 7 Up series, “the coal miner’s son becomes the coal miner.” To a large degree, don’t you find this true in yourself, in those you know?
The second is the child of an artist. For these children, hard work may be valued but may also be more erratic and intense, manifest in periodic, great bursts of energy and inspiration. These children often find gratification in creative pursuits, in swimming against the flow of capitalist culture–often not only indifferent to making money, but disparaging those who do.
The last is a more complex kind, and this was my friend Tom, and to some degree, myself and my siblings. The child born of a hardworking parent who started from nothing, and saw making money as an essential fact of life; a metric of success. But this child felt a creative impulse, a desire to go both against the grain coupled with a desire to please and live by the standards taught so early in our lives. These children have a tougher time. Some ultimately find fulfillment and make room for creativity in the lives and careers their parents, in part, chose for them. Some follow that more natural instinct, despite the risks. Some live forever unfulfilled and in conflict.
The choice to pursue one’s art may lie in being self-determined, immune to the distractions of other opportunities, the illusions of security, and deferring to what it is you know you really should be doing. My eyes lit up as I spoke to Tom of the writers with whom I’ve worked, who inspired this revelation in me. I referenced a particular young novelist who, at a similar age and position to Tom, struggled, but eventually broke free of that which he was given–the plush career available to those who graduate from the ivies and have multiple, diverse talents–how impressed I was by that determination. My confidence in this writer, and even the rejections by editors that is a natural part of any writer’s process, was in some way irrelevant. Because J. would ultimately and always do what he was born to do.
Still, the doubts can be staggering. If you are self-determined, you do not go the easy route, and you do not go back. The earnings may be different than expected, but wow, are they rich, even if your family may do everything short of disown you, and maybe, we hope not, you lose the friends or spouses you thought would believe in you through anything, but didn’t, perhaps, when the money got tight. You can’t take money to the grave. The voice of your parents may be powerful, and life may be harder for you; but the decision to take the left fork of the road, and not the right, will be what your children admire. What your values lend as they figure out the way. You may even be a little less tough on them.
Consider, also, the long road–as untenably far as that feels as a creative in one’s twenties, stuck in an underwhelming job, life having that gravity that as you grow older may seem less severe. Many gifted novelists don’t sell their first manuscripts, and land book deals on their second. Or the “break out” novelist publishes a second book, which, despite a healthy advance and the attention it was promised, is an absolute plop.
Which would you rather be? I hope, for those like Tom and those like J., neither. You’ll write several books over the course of your life, because writing was to be your vocation. They’ll surprise you in how different they are. And perhaps some succeed, and some don’t. But no one, and you most of all, will ever doubt that you are a writer.
For writers, two books I swear by for inspiration are Naming the World by a long-time mentor and friend, Bret Anthony Johnston, and The Faith of a Writer, by Joyce Carol Oates, who’s been called one of the greatest novelists of our time.
“A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion...The suffering and endurance of Taitz’s parents form the shadow-hung backdrop of a childhood in a high-octane, postwar America where history seems weightless and tragedy a foreign import. Although the wonder years that Taitz scrupulously, tenderly, beautifully, often comically renders aren’t that far removed from us, they have acquired the ache and poignance of a lost, Kodachrome age. A past here reborn and tenderly restored with love and absorption.” — James Wolcott, columnist at Vanity Fair and author of Lucking Out