Anatomy of self-sabotage: How to be artist-adjacent but never the artist

Age 46: Day 123 Morning writing selfie

When I was in high school, I stopped writing. I had the mistaken notion I had to be canon-worthy right from the get go, an Amadeus-like figure whose brain bloomed a garden of perfect sentences ready to be plucked and neatly arranged like a bouquet. So when I did go to write something down and the result was less than perfect, I froze. I could not be bad at the one thing I loved so much.

Unfortunately for me, I also happened to watch the 1982 film The World According to Garp with Robin Williams around the time I was finishing grade twelve (I know it is also a book by John Irving, but I never read it). Garp’s wife says this line that punched me in the gut, and gave me the out I needed from having to try at writing:

“I am a reader not a writer.” The character goes on to become a literature professor, one that loves books, critiques them, is still in the world of art but not an artist.

That is me, I thought. I am a reader not a writer. I had it wrong all these years! I may not be able to write, but I can still love reading, still be peripheral to the world of creativity.

And so I went on to pursue a degree in English literature. I thought it would be perfect for me, combine my analytic little soul with my love of story. A degree that meant I could read the world’s greatest novels, essays and poetry for credit? What’s not to love?

Well, I didn’t love it. I found it blasphemous to pick apart the books that moved me so much. I was irritated by the pretentious debates that erupted in class, the kind only possible between youth who think that just because these revelations are new to them, they must have invented them (I count myself very much as one of those pretentious youth).

I still loved reading the books, letting them wash over me as an event, something that palpably changed me. To this day, I am still in awe at the artistry it takes to weave a scene—complete with smells, touches, nuances of feeling—just from words. My degree did not rob me of this love, only failed to give me the career I thought was right for me.

It was not until J and I took a trip to Europe in 1996 where I figured out how to begin to write again. We would stop once in a while for him to sketch something and while he did that, I would take my notebook out and write a poem. This was only possible if I looked at my writing as sketches, exercises, something that was and would never be fully realized, constantly waiting for the next iteration for improvement.

This way of looking at the practise of art helped me a lot—it allowed me to start writing again without it needing to be perfect. After a few years of writing I began to submit work to journals. I was beginning to get published even. It could have been a start.

I did not build on this momentum. It did not even occur to me to do so, though in hindsight there was nothing stopping me. We had our small apartment, our unobtrusive jobs that paid our small bills. I could have continued writing and submitting, built a body of work.

Instead, we decided to have kids.

Everyone around me was having them, you see.

One day I will write about this artist collective we had in the 1990s called The Chapman group. How it was both a blessing and a curse. But not today.

And I also wanted them. Could feel the need in me grow stronger everyday. We made the decision to have kids, because why not? We were married. We were young. All our friends were having kids. Might as well start now before we got too old.

I think I had the mistaken notion that I could be a parent to a newborn and be a writer in equal parts.

 Oh, I managed to keep writing, but my writing ended up happening in the quiet cracks of the day. Those cracks got progressively smaller and smaller as the kids grew up and I went back to school to get my Master’s to be a librarian and worked full time. Incidentally, librarianship was a better fit for me. Instead of analysing books, I got to recommend, suggest, help people find the ones they wanted to read. Still, a career that was artist-adjacent not artist.

Just when the girls were getting older and the cracks were about to experience a tectonic shift, open up and become clefts, J abruptly left and my world fell apart. Time closed in on itself, sucked up by grief and sorrow and trauma. And then moving, finding a new career and a home for me and my girls closed the cracks pretty solidly for a time.

Four years later, I find the cracks are no longer cracks but valleys. They have gradual sloping hills on each side that I may leisurely meander down. I can bring a blanket and snacks. Lay down and watch the sky in my valley of time now, as opposed to having to bungy jump into the narrow slot reserved for creativity. Partly this is the fruit of the labour I have done to rebuild my life, but mostly it is the lessons learned from the pandemic—that the hustle I thought was necessary to keep it going was not as necessary as I thought.

I am still getting used to all this time. The girls are gone more and more. The house is clean enough and does not require immediate attention.  On a Saturday afternoon such as this one when there is no one but the dog to keep me company I find myself at a loss of what to do. I tend to spin my wheels for a couple of hours before finally settling in at the computer.

I meant this post to be about the lessons I learned from writing week. I am not sure why it suddenly became a personal history lesson. I think maybe I am just beginning to understand the big and small ways I have sabotaged myself throughout my life. Maybe it is an attempt to dig until I hit the soft spot in the defensive carapace I have spent thirty years building.

Here is what I know: I might fail. I might be a shit writer who wasted many hours writing stories and blog posts that nobody reads. By allowing myself to aspire to be a writer, to put my time and money into it, I might by vying for the award of most useless human on the planet. That all may be true.

But so is this: The alternative is me turning into a sad, twisted thing plagued by bitterness and resentment, unleashing her toxic halitosis of fear and regret on the world.

Viewed from this perspective, I am really performing a public service…

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