Thursday, December 17, 2015

"It costs nothing to encourage an artist."

"Oh sure, you can be an artist, if you want to starve," my parents told me. As I remember it, I was 6 years old, sitting in the back of the car. We were in Calgary, driving around, and I mentioned again that I wanted to be an artist. At 6, I thought painting was the most fun thing in the world. It was all I ever wanted to do. I wasn't particularly good at it, it was just fun. I'm sure my mom hated it because painting with a 6 year old and her 4 year old sister couldn't have been anything but messy, but at 6, it was all I wanted.
Of course, at 6, I also did not like the idea of starving. My parents went on to inform me that it was very hard to be an artist, that they didn't make a lot of money, so they never had enough money for food. I sighed and it was in that moment that I gave up. After all, I wanted to eat, and I wasn't good at painting to begin with.

After that, I took up writing. My parents seemed to be more okay with this. I wrote endless, endless stories, about everything. Some of them were a little off kilter, and those I kept hidden or destroyed when I found them years later. My love of writing was encouraged, and I became mildly famous for it at school. I wrote every chance I got. Once I got a computer of my own, I wrote even more. My mom told me about NaNoWriMo, and I participated with glee. I finished my very novel, at 150 pages and 180,000 words. To this day, I have never edited it. I wrote two more novels as sequels to that one. I made cover art. I daydreamed about what it might be like to have my novel become a hollywood movie, who I might cast as the actors, how it might inspire people quietly everywhere as many other books have done, how nice it might look in print, a real book with my name on the cover.

This was after my parents had also informed me that being a writer was very hard. It was no better than being an artist. "Hey, [swegan], I heard a joke today. 'What's the difference between a writer and a park bench? A park bench can support a family!'" and I laughed along because at that point, I had accepted it was true. Writing was just something people did as a hobby. Sometimes they got good enough at it that they made money on books, but writing was just a hobby. I should get a good job so that I could have time to write, they said to me.

In 12th grade, in the midst of taking piano lessons, volunteering, 5 diploma-level courses, 2 history research papers, and applying for schools, November came again. I went into it as I always did, with the ideal that I could do it if I just tried hard enough. After all, it had been just a year prior I had gotten in trouble for staying up too late writing on my computer and told to go to bed.... and I had simply waited for the light to go off in the hallway before pulling my computer back out and writing an hour more. If I had that kind of pluck, that kind of spirit, why couldn't I do it this time around?

Most of what I remember from that month is crying. I was so stressed. At 17, I had 5 things going on at all times, constantly, and I felt I had to perform well at all of them. Volunteering was important to me, and I needed it to graduate with my IB diploma. My courses were important, because I wanted to get into school. Piano was important because my parents were paying for lessons, so I shouldn't be slacking off. My research papers were important, and I couldn't leave them all to the last minute. And my writing was important. I wanted to get to 50,000 words. I wanted to win.

It was sometime in this month that my parents sat me down and explained that I could write at any time! It didn't have to be now. Right now I should just focus on the important things, like school and piano. I could write over christmas break! (I spent it doing a lab report we had been assigned to do specifically over the break). I could write in May, once I'd finished my world exams! But what happened was that I quit, and it was like shutting a book on the way I'd been before.

Grade 12 was hard. I don't really recognize the girl who completed it, that empty shell of a person who existed only to perform, at everything she did. I had friends with me, and they helped me along more than they'll ever know, but once all of it was done, I realized I had nothing else. May 17, 2013, was the day of my last IB exam. I had only one class after that, and getting an excellent grade in it wasn't important (not that that stopped me). I went home, I stayed home, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I began spending more and more time on the internet, on my computer, alone in my room, because I had been alone in my room on my computer before for the entire two years prior, and I didn't know what else to do.

Maybe I quit too easily. I know that the fault of this can't lie with my parents, but it can't be entirely in me, either. I feel like before that year, I was a different girl... I would stay up late at night when it was summer, often until 4 AM, writing. I would write in class when I had spare time. I would write at lunch. On graph paper, on the backs of old tests, in notebooks. I wrote endless stories. I carried notebooks with me everywhere. I kept journals. I doodled bad poetry in the margins of my history and math notes. Writing was the one thing I could not stop doing. Now it is the one thing I cannot start.

I trace that back to November 2012. I tried NaNoWriMo the next year, in my first year at university, away from home, and got tantalizingly close, around 40K. I don't remember if I even tried last year. This year, I spent one day putting in 2000 words, and then quit. I had too much other stuff going on.

I carry this with me everywhere. It feels like a piece of my soul is still dead, but hanging around, refusing to leave. I haven't lost the will to live, just the will to write, but it feels the same way. People around me have stopped mentioning writing things, finally. I like it better this way. Being reminded of something that once brought you so much joy so easily, so naturally, all the time, is very painful. Trust me when I say that nothing hurts more than being reminded of an old identity that no longer describes you or brings you joy.

If there is one regret I have in my life, it is quitting. If I'd just kept going, if I'd just said "I can't win, but I can still write," maybe I wouldn't have stopped. Starting writing when I was 8 and everything was wonderful was easy. Starting writing when I'm 20 and scared about grad school every waking moment is a lot harder.

I don't really know why I'm writing this. I've written this a thousand times before. But if you have something that brings you joy, no matter how impractical it is, no matter how foolish or frivolous, please do not stop. I'm not saying it has to be your job. I'm not saying it has to trump other things. Maybe now and then you have to pass up an opportunity to do this thing, maybe you must do less of it when other things are present. But please, please, do not quit. Quitting seems easier, but the cost I have paid in the long run has never once been worth it.

I am still happy. I have many things going for me. I started dancing again. I volunteered to give science demos to kids in elementary schools. I pursued a degree I wanted above classes that would have kept me on a med-school track. There is so much light in my life, please don't get me wrong. But this thing, this one thing, haunts me to this day. It is never overpowering, but that almost makes it worse. Maybe if it was, I'd get it back.

yer pal,

P.S. I also don't mean to villainize my parents in this. I may not agree with everything they do or did when raising me, but their love and support means the world to me to this day. And look how much writing I did when they encouraged that.