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Reality Bites

As far back as I can recall, I’ve wanted to be an artist when I grew up. It often shifted between wanting to be a novelist, an animator, a comic book artist/writer, and an obscure poet, but I knew I wanted to be a professional creative.

I’m almost halfway through my 47th year and I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional creative, although I have been writing poetry and prose and blog posts continuously for over 30 years. Even though it’s painful for me, I want to talk about why I’ve struggled with creating the art I want to create and why I haven’t tried to go pro.

I was lucky to have parents who didn’t discourage me from my artistic pursuits. My mother went so far as to spend a fair amount of money on a drafting table and the art supplies I would need to be a professional comic strip cartoonist when I was in middle school (and she wasn’t exactly well off). She would praise me and encourage me, but only sometimes gave me suggestions of what to do or where to find inspiration, mostly giving me the space and freedom to explore and experiment on my own. My father, on the other hand…well, he praised me and encouraged me, but he also pushed things on me, to the point where his encouragement felt intrusive and oppressive. “You want to draw superhero comics? Here’s a book of anatomy and body studies. You need to work on this a lot. Also, comics are a juvenile form of storytelling that can never be as valuable as a good novel or film.” Later, “If you want to be a fiction writer, you have to write constantly and you have to persistently try to get published.” He also seemed genuinely worried about my overall optimism and imaginative approach towards the world. He liked to give me lessons in “realism” by telling me that I couldn’t go through life saying things like “I want to be a superhero” because the world was, according to him, a dangerous place that I wouldn’t last five minutes in. (My dad seemed unable to understand that I can say things like “I want to be a superhero” without literally putting on a mask and tights and exposing myself to dangerous levels of radiation in the hopes of getting superpowers.) “Don’t be too happy!” he once chided me. “You’re just inviting the universe to pile bad stuff on you.”

Reading that paragraph now, it’s easy for me to see that my dad was giving me encouragement and advice that he honestly thought was useful, but in a way that wasn’t at all helpful to me, and I should have just told him to fuck off and done things the way I wanted to do them. The thing is…he was my dad. He was charming and funny and a great storyteller. I looked up to him and I wanted so much to please him and be told he liked the things I liked. Every time he told me I needed to be “realistic,” every time he pushed his own worldview and agenda on my creative pursuits, it hurt and it made the actual pursuits less and less enjoyable. Wil Wheaton tells a story about meeting writer David Gerrold:

Fun fact: David wrote and sold The Trouble with Tribbles when he was 19. Anne asked him how he had the courage to do that, and David told her, “Because nobody told me I couldn’t.”

Well, my dad frequently told me directly and indirectly that I couldn’t. Looking back, I feel stupid for believing him, but don’t most people believe what their parents tell them? He was my dad, I figured he must know what he was talking about, and I really wanted his approval, so instead of writing whatever the hell I wanted, I tried to write what I thought he and other people wanted me to write. (He wasn’t the only authority figure who told me I couldn’t express myself creatively the way I wanted to, but it was his voice that was always the strongest.) Which made writing a not-so-much-fun struggle. I rarely finished stories. The ones I did finish were ones I thought were “too weird” and I never tried to get them published. Even after my dad died and I discovered books like Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, I still worked from this firmly-embedded idea that no matter how weird and personal my fiction was, I had to make it at least somewhat acceptable to other people. And I absolutely had to write a publishable novel because I’d never really be a writer if I didn’t.

It took the recent death of Prince at the age of 57 and death of Michelle McNamara, who was the same age as me, to force me to look my own mortality right in the face and think, “How do I want to spend the rest of my time on this planet?” I finally understood just how much bullshit I’d let my dad and other people fill me with when it came to defining my reality and working on my creative pursuits. And then Chuck Wendig posted a piece this morning about fighting depression, anxiety, and the expectations of anyone not you, of telling the rest of the world outside and the demons of self-defeat inside, “FUCK YOU!” Tears welled up in my eyes as I read it. On Twitter, I told Chuck that I wish he’d been my dad. (Okay, yeah, that was kind of weird thing to say, but whatevs.) Chuck’s post was something I needed to read decades ago, when my mind and heart were more like Play-Doh and less like whatever 46-year-old hearts are made of. (Sleet? Old newspapers? Shrinky Dinks?) More than “Nobody told me I couldn’t,” I needed someone I trusted to tell me I could, to say, “You absolutely can express yourself artistically in whatever way makes you happy. Do it for no one but yourself, and if you can make money doing it, that’s great, and if you can’t make money at it, that’s cool, too. But do the art that you enjoy, that is so much fun you can’t bear to not do it. And anyone who tells you otherwise deserve a hearty ‘FUCK YOU!'”

Nobody told me that when I was a kid, but as Timothy Leary said, “You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind,” so I’m telling it to myself now (and thereby keeping myself young). For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing whatever the hell I feel like. I don’t worry about anyone but me liking it. I worry less about finishing stories and more about having fun with them. (Franz Kafka never finished his main three novels, and honestly, I think that’s kind of badass. Like, fuck it, make up your own ending if you really need a solid conclusion.) I’ve tried to write enough to post at least two or three times a week on my blog, but if I don’t have anything I want to post, I don’t sweat it. And I’m not making any money from my writing and I don’t care at all. I mean, it would be super-fantastic-amazeballs if someone wanted to give me money for my stories and poetry, but I’m not going to base what I do around that, because it’s more important to me to have fun.

My dad had a view of reality that he thought worked for him (although there was a palpable depression and unhappiness frequently lurking beneath his generally cheerful demeanor, so I wonder how much it really helped him), a view of reality that he thought was true for everyone. It was a reality that he pushed on me, and no matter how much I didn’t accept it, there was still a part of me deep down that clung on to it. Finally letting it go, finally rejecting anyone else’s reality besides the one that works for me, is absolutely fucking liberating. To take a page from Kurt Vonnegut, find and/or create the reality that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy. Create the art that gives you joy and release. And give zero fucks to anyone who tells you to do anything else.