Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | May 2020 | 11 minutes (3,116 words)
“I envy you,” my cousin told me once, as we were sitting on the front porch of a log cabin in the Ohio woods, eating peach pie. “You have a word.” That word was WRITER. My cousin, who’d bounced around jobs in her twenties and thirties, envied the way my word so neatly answered the questions of career and identity, the way it brought me into focus. I may not have had any money. I may not have had any idea if the project I was working on would ever actually be seen by someone other than myself, but I had a word.
Every once in a while, I go through a spell of applying for jobs. Teaching jobs. Tech jobs. Utterly random jobs. I google “how to write a cover letter.” I fantasize with both fascination and horror about showing up at an office and chatting about The Handmaid’s Tale over tepid coffee in a communal space. Then inevitably I imagine that moment when a stranger asks me what I do and I can no longer supply my word as an answer. It is incredibly disarming, even just in my interior dreamscape, not to have that word. It has been an anchor for my personal sense of validation, my identity, my way of relating to the world for so long. What would it mean to give it up? To hand over all my art monster ambitions and renounce the often cruel bargain of personal stability for creative nobility?
The word embodies not only who I am, but who I might become. This potential is crucial to its power. Lofted into its two syllables are book tours and New York Times reviews and packed readings at literary havens and wine in the dark corners of bars. Of course I know I shouldn’t be truly motivated by these worldly treats — I’m in it for the fundamental life-giving magic, the quest for truth! — although clearly the treats should come if I just work hard enough? As Rachel Friedman writes in her deeply affirming and necessary book And Then We Grew Up, “I had designed some grandiose, meritocratic, imaginary contract with the universe regarding my potential. As long as I put in the hours, as long as my potential was fed by ambition and hard work, I would achieve whatever goal I set for myself — no matter how lofty or unlikely.”
This idea is reinforced over and over again in the sphere of what I’ll call creativity studies, or creativity worship. It’s not really about talent, it’s about work. If you follow your bliss, your bliss should eventually be recognized by commercial success and financial stability and maybe, quite possibly, fame. The combination of talent and bliss and work moves linearly toward achieving one’s dream, and all hardships along the way are mere hurdles to be cleared en route to the finish line, where the ribbon will twirl down around your feet as you thrill, finally, at arrival. Yet there are so many counter-examples to this formula. Of writers who died in poverty only to be randomly discovered years or centuries later. Of artists who produced one brilliant work out of nowhere and then never again another. Still, artistic potential seems like an if…then statement: if you’re willing to endure the rejection, the difficulty, the criticism, then eventually, you’ll be waxing nostalgic about the rejection and difficulty and criticism for The Paris Review. And somewhere in between, the money will come.
Still, artistic potential seems like an if…then statement: if you’re willing to endure the rejection, the difficulty, the criticism, then eventually, you’ll be waxing nostalgic about the rejection and difficulty and criticism for The Paris Review. And somewhere in between, the money will come.
Friedman opens her book declaring, “From a very early age…I had a Path. I knew exactly where I wanted to go in life and the necessary steps to get there, and I was positive I knew how deeply satisfying it would be once I arrived.” And then she writes, “Not that I made it. Not by a long shot.” These are terrifying words for a writer to read and, I would imagine, to write. If, in the early stages of a career, the fear of failure is a sexy motivating factor — fail more! Fail better! Fail your way to your Ted Talk about failing to greatness! — in the middle of one’s creative career failure is more like a noxious swamp gas one tries to ignore in the daily plod of work. It is more like just not enough this month to replace the broken washing machine. More like okay I don’t totally love this but it’s $3000 and kind of interesting. More like the long silence after the bubble of activity around a book’s publication, more like two rejections to every acceptance, more like the uncertainty at 6 a.m. before the same blank screen wondering whether this is a job or not, matters or not, is worth it or not.
In And Now We Grew Up, Friedman stares into the abyss where “those of us somewhere in between emerging and established in our careers” are likely to wander, alternately elated, confused, and burned out. She looks at the experience of “touching it” — it being greatness, external accolades, and achievement and recognition — and the glittery all-or-nothing ways we envision it. She writes, “We talk a lot about growth and potential but far less about the very common experience of ‘touching it’ — whatever ‘it’ is at any given moment before it slips away or morphs into some new elusive goal — then losing it, then maybe if you’re lucky touching it again someday.” We talk a lot about many things that Friedman debunks here: the notion that if you put in your 10,000 hours, your talent will eventually be not only recognized but rewarded with an actual 401k and a shiny seal of approval. (“Look Mom!” my daughter understands already, at age 5, “This book won a GOLD STAMP!”) The idea that doing what you love is pure and ennobling and all-or-nothing and validates any measure of suffering; the belief that ambition remains the same over time, a quality the hungry and talented either possess or don’t; and the conviction that creative work is somehow more interesting than other kinds of work and that if you stop doing it, your creative self petrifies on the spot into suburban cliché. “Didn’t you one day wake up in the suburbs helicopter parenting a couple of kids or working at a soul-sucking corporate job?” Friedman asks, of the decision to leave full-time creative work. “You stopped making art. You stopped being passionate. You stopped being you.”
Perhaps this myth has endured for so long because most professional writers have been men, and because men have paid so much less of a price for sacrificing their families, their emotional stability, and their relationships at the altar of their art. In fact, they’ve been lauded for it. The question “Is it worth it for a man to traumatize or abandon his family for the sake of his artistic genius?” still seems like a valid yes-or-no question, so much so that it is the basis of films like Cutie and the Boxer. The question seems to imply that asking the male artist to give up any of the purity of his artistic ambition would turn him into a sop, mediocre and cowed: into, perhaps, a woman. Yet, as Leslie Jamison wonders in The Recovering, her brilliant exploration of sobriety and creativity, would these men actually have produced works of deeper and more enduring power had they not been utterly absorbed by their own genius and its attendant demons? Is it possible that, in some cases, liberating oneself from the quest for pure, no-holds-barred, no-matter-what, anything-it-takes creativity might actually make for more thoughtful art? This is a dangerous question for women in particular to explore. Admitting that children and family life might rearrange the central priority of artistic struggle in one’s life, and in fact the meaning of that struggle, is particularly perilous: it’s art or everything else, art or the fuddy-duddy sphere of femaleness. Yet not only does this dichotomy make for a lot of similar, stale art, it makes creativity seem inaccessible to many people — I’m thinking here mostly of mothers — who otherwise might explore it in unconventional ways that don’t resemble the voracious quest-for-glory path of the art monster.
When I asked Friedman how she envisioned her book, she paid homage to the classic and contemporary works on creativity — Bird by Bird, Big Magic — then distinguished hers as “how you endure when you’re not Elizabeth Gilbert.” Friedman loved Big Magic, but added, “Of course, we don’t know what she would have done if she was still a bartender at Coyote Ugly at 45.” In a way, this is what And Then We Grew Up asks: what does it mean to fantasize about becoming Elizabeth Gilbert, to believe that if we just work hard enough and persevere with enough commitment and ambition and purity we can follow Gilbert’s path, and then what does it mean to remain a bartender — or an adjunct professor, or a relatively unknown freelancer — even after years of creative work, stories, books, awards? When one has kids? When it’s no longer fashionable or glamorous to be so hungry? When that early hunger has turned into disquiet, into a sense of lack, or limitation, or hollowness — into a quiet longing to rediscover play, beauty, meaning lost along the way? These are the questions Friedman dares to ask. It’s not possible to ask them without first acknowledging that the fantasy of fully realized potential is in fact a fantasy, and maybe not the most helpful one. “Being an artist,” Friedman told me, “is more complicated for most of us. It involves compromise and it does involve disappointment sometimes and it does involve quitting sometimes.”
The book opens with Friedman meeting her accountant and discovering that, in spite of working all hours of the day, she’s barely keeping her head above water financially. Just after the meeting, she goes to a movie, and one of the actors is a former campmate of hers from Interlochen, a prestigious arts camp she attended as a child, when she was sure she’d become a professional viola player. She begins to wonder what all of her friends from Interlochen are doing now, and decides to reach out and interview them. In their trajectories, she ultimately discovers concrete counterpoints to the myths of creative greatness that have been tormenting her. Many of her friends have structured their lives around creativity as a practice and a way of being, while letting go of their own art as a career pursuit. Those who have continued to put their art at the center of their lives grapple with the phenomenon of, as Friedman describes it, touching it and then losing it and then touching it again, trying not to compare themselves too much to their peers along the way. Spending time with them, Friedman is finally able to acknowledge that it’s okay to be ordinary. That it’s okay to quit. That art doesn’t have to and in fact probably shouldn’t make you miserable. That creativity isn’t something that evaporates if you no longer or never hunker down under that one creative identifier — writer, painter, musician — but is ever-present as a way of living one’s life and moving through the world. That a lot of the ways we tend to envision art-making, and the actual practice of making art in pursuit of money, can suffocate creativity, not to mention joy.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
I commented to Friedman that it seemed like the book was her reckoning with her decision to leave music. (She’d played viola throughout her childhood, but decided to stop in college.) She told me that she’d thought she was done with that era of her life, that she’d moved on and become a writer, but then she got stuck again as a writer. The stuckness wasn’t exactly the same as it had been with music, but it was similar enough that she started to think, “Where did this come from?” This being the particular feeling of disappointment at hitting that muddy creative middle ground where most of us live — not a total novice, not a household name. That middle ground of doing the work, trying to figure out how to live from it, or trying to figure out how to live and do it at the same time, straggling toward excellence and wondering if it’s possible or even really desirable and what it looks like after all, finding it or the illusion of it and then feeling it slip away again, muddied and bloodied by the intersection of art and money, creativity and work, the realities of everyday life and the dreams of art monsterhood. Friedman found that the ethereal despair that had driven her out of music and then threatened to drive her out of writing came from a set of myths we rarely talk about, but which tend to oppress us in all sorts of quotidian ways. By giving them stories and shape, she releases them here.
The idea that creative work should eventually make you money might be the most confusing and tyrannical of these myths. In Big Magic, Gilbert makes the claim that you should not expect your creativity to make you money. I remember listening to the audiobook of this, Liz Gilbert telling me in her white-sand voice, soft and scratchy, to let go of the ambition to “live from writing.” But of course, as Friedman gets at in her book, this is far more complex than it seems. For certain people like the ones Gilbert talks about, who can satisfy their creativity by figure skating a few times a week before work, that may very well be liberating. But I have long placed writing at the center of my life, starting well before I understood just how complicated that decision would be. I’ve found now I’m not particularly qualified to do anything but write. I love being able to spend all day tussling with ideas on the page, even when I hate the constant financial worry and uncertainty, the sense that at any time my situation could go from precarious to flat-out unsustainable. At the same time, writing full time, I can feel the way that commercial pressures sometimes squeeze the creativity out of my work, so that it becomes a job with shades or moments of meaning but not some deep elemental quest for truth that has me in a trance. Then again, obviously! It is just a job. Gilbert says this of her work — in an interview with Krista Tippett, she said, “It’s a boring job I would rather do than any other boring job. It’s the most interesting boring job I’ve ever had.” Friedman recognizes that too. And this just-a-job realization manifests differently for everyone. After Rachel Friedman had her son, her relationship to writing changed. Her ambition changed. She didn’t want it to be just a job. She didn’t want to write to see her byline everywhere, to feel some sort of empty pride at working full time as a writer, at having a word. She wanted to write what made her happy. What really mattered. “I thought you stayed hungry in the same way forever,” she told me, but she became hungry in a different way after being a mother: not for the satisfaction and status of “making it” by conventional metrics, but for the fundamental meaning-making and joy writing had brought her at the very beginning. She wanted that back. And so she reorganized her life to make it possible.
The horizons mark the best I can do right now. There’s nothing sentimental, no soaring crescendo about that. Reach one, reassess, keep on going, or just trace the edge of one for a long time, figuring out, exploring.
“Hopefully,” she told me, “there’ll be a lottery moment where what I want to write is what the world wants to read, but there’s no guarantee, so I came to peace with that.” This isn’t, like everything in her book, an all-or-nothing scenario: she didn’t enter the world of immigration law or corporate finance and send writing up in flames (something I and many other writers I know often fantasize about doing. Park ranger is always my default fuck-it-all career.) She took a part-time job as a managing editor and she readjusted her relationship to writing. She stepped back.
I asked her about the irony of having a book out and being all caught up in the promotion cycle and everything that entails while also trying to have a new relationship to writing that isn’t so tied to craving success and recognition. “I have no control over what really happens next,” she told me. “I did the best I could.” I have found myself saying this over and over lately: I did the best I could. I did the best I could is a phrase that comes after a series of experiences touching it and losing it and touching it again, realizing that, as Friedman put it, “There’s no arrival. There are just horizons.”
The horizons mark the best I can do right now. There’s nothing sentimental, no soaring crescendo about that. Reach one, reassess, keep on going, or just trace the edge of one for a long time, figuring out, exploring. Friedman described her experience with this book this way: “Much more of my ego is disengaged this time around.” I gleaned from her book, and from my own experience of writing full time now for years, that so much of the process of maturing as a writer or an artist of any stripe is to realize that success, fame, “making it,” “touching it,” arrival, whatever you want to call it, are over there, schmoozing and dancing and spotlighting and lifting up and wooing on their own terms, and one’s personal work is over here, developing slowly out of the particular attention, vision, and preoccupation of an individual consciousness. One is whimsical, commercial, swift, a fickle God, and the other is quotidian, mortal, slow, dogged. Sometimes they merge. Often they don’t. Trying to figure out how to be a sane human between them is a very unique personal process. The gift of Friedman’s book is that she makes that process visible: her stories are not of the luminaries, not dripping with promises and formulas, not charged with the fairytales of hardship and failure turned to gold. They don’t give you permission to neglect every human being in your life in order to burrow into a cave for years to conceive your masterwork; instead, they let you surrender. To compromise, imperfection, ordinariness, the 9-5, obscurity, whatever soft need your hard-edged art monsterhood wasn’t letting you accept. In that surrender is space to rediscover a different kind of creativity, freed, ironically, from the strictures of creative mythology – free, really, of potential and its stifling threat of failure, its oppressive promise of greatness.
* * *
Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, out from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at http://www.sarahmenkedick.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens