When Your Art is On the Back Burner

A long time ago, when I was an arrogant (though well-intentioned) 20-something, I was penpals with a favorite writing teacher of mine from college. In one of her letters to me, she said something about the challenge of balancing attention to her writing with attention to her family (husband, kids). In my reply, I said something about how maybe you could only be really good at one of those things. Maybe whatever got you first, got the best of you, and you needed to resign yourself to having the other things in your life playing second fiddle. 

She never wrote back.

I wrote again, a year or so later, to say, “I realize I was talking out of school, I hope you’ll forgive me,” but got no reply. 

It was rude and insensitive and precocious of me to say what I did. But I do wonder if I was right.

Live From New York…

Cut to the present day: A friend of mine is being considered for a spot on Saturday Night Live. I am so excited for her (she would be perfect), and so insanely jealous, all at the same time. I believe jealousy is an important clue to what we really want (thank you, Artist’s Way), so I’m trying to figure out what it really means.

It’s not about coveting my friend’s potential slot. I’m nowhere near the powerhouse of a comic actress she is. And as much as I love to perform, being a paid performer is not my dream. 

So why the jealousy?

Jealousy as Guide

Working on SNL represents exactly the kind of creative collaboration that I want at the center of my life. I realize that the reality of daily life at SNL might be (and likely is) far different than the romanticized ideal in my mind. But at its core, it represents the possibility of fucking around with other artists, chasing creative impulses and ideas, and making something together, consistently, that a lot of people get to see. That is my idea of a dream life. 

My old improv group, JINX, played this role for me, for a while, minus the big audience, and it was so deeply rewarding. And then I was in an improvised movie project, called Neutrino, which was the peak creative experience of my life so far, because of the way in which the insane production timeline forced collaboration — similar to experiences I had on the 48 Hour Film Project, but even more condensed. 

It was back in college that I had the first collaborative creative experience that really left a mark on me — that knocked at the door of my soul, woke up some latent part of me, and gave me a thrill like none I’d had before. I was part of a group that wrote and performed a play inspired by Paul Simon’s Graceland album. We used improv to develop the script, and it was the first time I’d improvised… it felt so natural. The entire project set my creative cylinders tingling. When I started taking improv classes years later, a similar part of me lit up inside, only it was even more fulfilling, because I came to love the people I improvised with. They became my creative family.

These days, the artist inside me only really gets to come out and play when I write, like I am now. And it is deeply satisfying. I love to write. But even on that front, I have this growing, sad feeling like it’s a gift on the back burner, that I’m not giving sufficient time to grow and breathe.

Finding Space for Art

I just got through reviewing my schedule for the week. It is so hard to set aside the space to write (finding space is a big theme for me lately…), on top of everything else I’m trying to do with my life. And right now, the only reason I have the time and space to write this post is that my wonderful husband is running a few errands with our daughter, so I’m home alone (deliciously alone). 

I want to design my daily life to honor and nurture my artist, instead of fitting her (poorly) into the nooks and crannies. If I don’t — how will I get better? How will I explore my full potential? How will I find the bigger audience I crave?

How do you overhaul your life to allow more room for art? Lately, thoughts turn to geography. Brooklyn is inspiring but hella expensive. So is DC, where I’m from. What if I could find a place to live where less income goes further, so I could use more of my daylight to let my inner artist out to play? …without moving to some completely charmless, homogenous, suburban outpost? I don’t need hip, but I do need a pulse, and walkability, and a community.

How do you find that magic place? “Chapel Hill, NC,” I think, or maybe somewhere in Baltimore. But the last time I picked up and overhauled my life, it was just me and Jordan, and we were four years younger and more energized. Now we need to think about schools, and we aren’t interested in moving any further from friends and family, so the west coast is out. Is it savvy to be researching options like Chapel Hill, or am I being absurd? It reminds me of being in my early 20s and thinking I could figure out my career by sitting in my room with a pen and a journal. You have to live your way into these things, sometimes. 

Then again, sometimes you need to make shit happen. 

Second Fiddle?

To return to the place where I started this post: My friend who’s up for SNL has devoted 110% of her existence to cultivating her artistic ability and voice, and now she is getting exciting opportunities to share her talents with a big audience. Even if SNL doesn’t pan out, I know it’s only a matter of time before she has her own sitcom (truly). I don’t care about fame or glory but I do care about finding the space to really dig into myself artistically and see what I’m capable of; and I care about finding opportunities to share my writing with more people, and finding artistic collaborators (improvisers or otherwise). 

But I wonder: With all the energy I put into my family, and my work… is my art doomed to play second fiddle?

Was my (obnoxious) letter to my writing teacher right?

What do you think? How do you put your art on the front burner? What role does geography play? What sacrifices have you made? 

Photo by schadenfraude lolo on Flickr

6 thoughts on “When Your Art is On the Back Burner

  1. I don't think that "whatever got you first, got the best of you, and you needed to resign yourself to having the other things in your life playing second fiddle," but I do think that you can't do everything all at the same time. At different times in your life, different things are going to take precedence. A difficult thing about having a child is that she is a non-shiftable priority. So other things need to move around her. In order to work less, expenses would have to come down, for expenses to go down, we'd probably have to move, so suddenly "I want to carve out more time in my day for art" turns into "we need to pick a new city in which to live" which is a decidely more daunting undertaking. But I think there are ways to structure our lives to make room for art even without such a drastic move. It's not easy, but there are ways – for example, I stay out late at night sometimes to go to improv rehearsal, but it's worth it. I think there is more time in the day than we think there is, but the trick is finding the energy to use it. And for that, I don't have a magic answer…yet.


  2. I think the thing that balances this for me is the realization that while parenting is a huge percentage of our lives right now, that will shift too. Before we know it, they'll be teenagers and instead of having to wake at 6 am, we'll be yelling at them to get out of bed at noon. If I do my job right, Elliott will be out creating his own independent life before I know it (sob!). We do a lot of trading off in order to accommodate the things we want/need to do while still giving E time with us. It sounds like that's what you do too and I find that enormously helpfulAlso worth remembering are some of the following people: Maya Angelou, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kathryn Joosten, JK Rowling, Phyllis Diller.. just to name a few. They are all women who found their creative voices (or had them recognized) after having their children. Diller had six children! Angelou and Rowling were single parents. If you want to achieve something creatively, you can still get there. Some might even argue that the experience of parenting may get you to a different, better creative place.


  3. What Jordan and Tanya said.And your teacher behaved in a very childish manner. I am disappointed to hear this. That's no way to teach/mentor/be a friend.


  4. Yes to what Jordan and Tanya said. There are reasons to relocate, but I don't really think that the creative scene is one of them. You can relocate to a place that's affordable, and then find out most of the artists there really don't have a lot of drive. There's a difference between doing art because you're bored/have the time and doing it with purpose and passion. New York is a place where the lucky/hardworking few manage to make a living at it, but they raise the game of everyone around them. That isn't true everywhere. There are thousands of people in NYC (and elsewhere, but let's stick with NYC for the moment) who make time for their art and don't sacrifice their families or careers to do so; but they may end up making other sacrifices. Maybe they live in Washington Heights or Sunnyside. Maybe they sacrifice sleep, early in the AM or late at night.Maybe they make peace with the idea that they will never have big blocks of time to create, but they can carve out 20 minutes here and a Sunday morning there.Maybe they just have to accept that progress is going to be slower and messier, and that they're going to be the kind of mom scribbling down a fleeting idea on the subway or recording it on their iPhone in the midst of taking the dog for a walk.You can do it.


  5. Thank you all so much for these thoughtful comments. Jessica, your comment is a helpful reminder to appreciate the way that being in NYC helps stimulate my creativity. Tanya, I find it immensely helpful to be reminded of all the people who made great creative strides later in life; I often remind my friends of this, and it's reassuring to be reminded of it myself! I actually held back from framing this post as a challenge specific to motherhood, or parenthood, but I suppose that's naive… my energy is finite and a lot of it goes to being a parent right now. And I derive so much joy from that… but I do look at people like the friend I write about in this post and covet their ability to have a singular focus on developing their art. Which once again brings me back to my exchange with my writing teacher. Can you fully commit yourself to parenting AND fully explore your potential as an artist at the same time? (And I'm not even talking about paying the bills…) I suppose the question is highly personal – "full commitment" for me looks different and feels different and takes something different than it does for another artist. And so far the message I'm hearing in the comments here is: "You can, but not all at once." I'm just an all-at-once kind of gal. Back to practicing patience, I suppose…In the meantime I'd be remiss not to mention a wonderful documentary that explores being a mother and artist – "Lost in Living" by Mary Trunk. I watched in when Ali was just a few months old and found it so comforting… http://www.maandpafilms.com/lostinliving/about-the-film/


  6. I think that picking up and moving seems like the magic answer, but in the end, you'll find that it's not – unless you move closer to family, both physically and emotionally.Because the real answer here isn't more money, but more time. And the only way to get more time is to have less time where you have parenting demands resting firmly on your shoulders. I've found that the only comfortable way to sincerely shift those demands is to place them temporarily on the shoulders of family.It's not the same to have a good day care, sitter or nanny. They are people that may love and cherish your child, but in the end, they need to be paid because that is their profession. Just like you love to write, but you'd never expect to perform client work for free just because you like the client a great deal. But grandparents are different. Aunts and uncles are different. They will love your child, care for your child and you don't have to sacrifice the cost for the time that they're caring and loving your child.Our son loves an overnight at his grandparents' house. And we love it when he spends the night there, too. And while we may spend that time having a leisurely dinner and catching a movie, you could spend that time as you will. You know. Be creative with it.


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