Parents and the dreaded arts

by Alex

We all remember what weekend this is, right? I got a kick out of seeing the woman at the counter at my gym yesterday – slyly wishing all the men who stopped by a Happy Mother’s Day weekend and watching fully a third of them stop in their tracks with an “Oh shit!” look. That woman knows how to have her fun, let me tell you.

I am sort of thinking that Toni will have a great Mother’s Day post because she both has and is a mother, so I will sort of work around the topic in a different way, because this has come up for me lately.

I often find myself being confided in by young aspiring authors that their parents don’t approve of their aspirations. Well, we all know that feeling, don’t we? Certainly there are some parents who do encourage art as a living (and some of them are scary, see “stage mothers”). Nepotism is a fact of life in Hollywood, and successful film actors, producers, writers, directors, have no qualms about encouraging their offspring toward the family business.

But that’s pretty much the size of it – “the family business.” That’s one aspect of the arts as a profession that makes other, non-artistic parents quail at the idea of little Johnny or Janey trying to write, or act, or paint for a living. For centuries, millennia, children were taught the trade their parents were in, and that’s the way it was, and largely still is.

There’s much more resistance than that going on, usually. And I try to tell these young writers that they’re not alone – no parents in their right minds really want their kids to go into the arts, because it’s so hard, and unstable, and financially shaky. I think parents just know that on a genetic level, and because they love us, they gently or not so gently try to steer us away.

And then on another level, some parents might not approve because, well, we’re all gypsies, tramps and thieves, not to mention homosexuals.

And then maybe on another level, some parents might resist the idea because deep down, they always had some aspiration… but adults just don’t DO that kind of thing, so they didn’t, and neither should you.

So there’s all kinds of STUFF going on that might make parents not so very supportive of the young artist.

So what do you tell these young aspirants whose parents are less than supportive?

Well, I tell them what I did, with my parents. I just didn’t make a point of telling them what I was doing. I didn’t lie, exactly, but let’s just say I left out a lot. I didn’t declare my major until I was a senior in college and I didn’t let on how much theater I was doing.

I think those of us who are driven to do this THING that we do figure out how to work the angles pretty early on. And just as I get confided in by young, aspiring authors, I get confided in by people in mid-life who say that they always wanted to write, but their parents were not supportive (sometimes that’s to say the least), and they’re now in a morass of regret that they didn’t pursue the dream. For those people I write down this Bernard Malamud quote: “We have two lives – the one we learn with and the life we live after that.”

And then I tell them that a lot of authors I know didn’t write their first book until after they were 40.

But I keep their stories in mind when I talk to the younger ones and tell them – “You don’t want to end up regretting anything because you were afraid to try.”

I know there’s a lot of pain involved for artists who aren’t encouraged and supported in their passion by their parents – but it’s the evolutionary imperative not only to separate from our parents, but to transcend them. That IS evolution.

And there’s a lot of joy when your parents finally realize: My God, she really is making a living at this, we’re not going to have to support her for the rest of our lives.

And let’s face it – that’s a pretty legitimate fear – I don’t blame parents a bit for THAT one.

And you know what? As a writer I use lessons my parents taught me every single day of my life. They taught me to love work, and do the work I love (even though they weren’t exactly intending it be THIS work) – because, they said, work is what most of your life is. They took me and my sister and brother to about a million museums and concerts and plays and taught us to love art, and along with loving it, they taught us to analyze it. Mom will talk to ANYONE – I grew up seeing her start conversations on the street, in a restaurant, on a pier – with anyone and everyone, and you better believe I use that skill every day of my life as a writer. And they both just assumed that I could do anything a boy could, only better, and so despite all the messages girls get from the world about what they can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do, I had my parents’ faith that yes, I damn well could.

My point is, if you’re an artist, your parents are preparing you for a life and career as an artist, whether or not it looks that way on the surface. They give you gifts that will MAKE you the artist you are. It’s up to you to find those gifts, and use them.

Here’s my most treasured gift from my mother. Remember all those art museums I told you she dragged me to (yes, at the time, it was dragging…)? She told me very early on – “I want you to be able to see artistically – not just art, but the whole world around you. Because if you can see the world around you aesthetically, you will always find pleasure, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances.”

Now that – is beyond rubies.

This is the weekend to think about it, so what are some of the gifts you got from your parents? Were they supportive of your artistic aspirations? Did it matter? As a parent, how do you feel about the idea of your child going into this godforsaken business? 😉

And Happy Mother’s Day and THANK YOU to all the mothers.

19 thoughts on “Parents and the dreaded arts

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    I guess I’m lucky in this respect Alex. See, (well, my mother’s side anyway) several people in my family are involved in the arts. My mom worked as a journalist for awhile, my sister is an artist and interior designer, several of my aunts sing, one also taught music, my grandfather was an artist and book binder.

    From my father, I got my stubbornness to go after the goals I set for myself and keep pushing until I reach it. As far as my goals on making a living as a writer, both parents still encourage me. (Although probably a little more on mom’s side)

    I figure I still have ten years if I want to do my first book before forty. (Hopefully, it’ll happen before then (Preferably within a year or two)

    “If you want to disappoint your parents, and don’t have the heart to be gay, go into the arts.”— Kurt Vonnegut

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That IS lucky, RJ – what a great envirnoment! And you’re so young – you’re well on your way. Very exciting.

    I was thinking of that exact quote but didn’t remember it was Vonnegut – thanks!

  3. Louise Ure

    I adore the Vonnegut quote.

    I don’t remember my parents pushing any of us into the arts, but they made it clear we could do anything we wanted. To me, that translated to a love of words. Anything to do with words. Dictionaries. Puns. Crossword puzzles. Rhymes.

    And I still didn’t write my first book until I was over 50!

  4. JT Ellison

    What a lovely post! My parents have a been an incredible rock of security in all of my artistic pursuits. I was blessed to be given every opportunity to pursue whatever my heart desired. They were like your parents, Alex — treated me with equality and expected me to do the same with the world. I wouldn’t be anywhere near this profession if it weren’t for their early support, and their eclectic bookcases. Since they both loved to read, that made my life as a reader much easier — and the subsequent transition to writer inevitable, in a way.

    And they’ll be here tomorrow — the first time in ages I’ve gotten to spend Mother’s Day with my Mom. Yay!!!

  5. J.D. Rhoades

    I, too, love the Vonnegut quote.

    The Boy has started writing, and he’s damned good, even if I do say so myself. He just wrote a dark urban fantasy piece that’s as good as any published work I’ve seen and better than some. I tell him so, and encourage him to go on and finish or expand the better pieces, but in the back of my mind, I have to confess, there is the feeling of “god help you, kid-you’ve got the disease.”

    As for parental support for my own writing career…well, least said, soonest mended.

  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Wonderful post, Alex.

    And thank you — it started my own Mother’s Day early.

    For all her faults, my mother encouraged me to write from the time I could hold a crayon — not because she thought it would be a profession, but because she just respected the hell out of creativity. I’m forever indebted to her for that.

    From my stepdad, I learned practicality and humor.

    From my dad, I learned that adults can be curious and full of wonder too.

    I love that my children are creative and hope to have the arts be such a part of their lives that they’ll nurture their own imaginations and creative urges whether that translates into a profession or *merely* a life’s private joy.

  7. Bill Cameron

    I was told not to waste my time, to focus on “real” work. Now she’s “proud” of me, and some time around my first book deal the narrative changed to “I always supported your writing.” Hrmm. I remember, “If you had any sense, you’d go to work in insurance.”

    I’m not nostalgic about this artificial, greeting-card-floral-industry holiday. To the extent I learned lessons from my mother, it was in the breach rather than the intent. Now the second Sunday in May rolls around and I see the imposition of sentiment and platitudes, devoid of meaning or genuine emotion. But, oh my, if I don’t play along, will I ever hear about it.

    Yeah, I’m bitter.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, your post (the bookcase part) reminded me of another thing my parents did for me that unbeknownst to them drove me into writing – they READ to me. Especially my Dad.

    Nothing like it.

    Have a wonderful time with your Mom! I don’t get to see mine until later this month but we’ve always been very flexible about holidays in our family.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “In the back of my mind, I have to confess, there is the feeling of ‘god help you, kid-you’ve got the disease.'”

    Dusty, I bet! There would have to be some kind of wrench, even if you never let them see it, right?

    I really envy any kid of andy of the Rati who decides to go into the business – to have not just support but mentoring in craft AND business, how great would that be?

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    While women have a tougher fight in any business, I think on the parental front it’s harder for boys and men who want to go into the arts because men are expected, required to be the practical ones, the breadwinners, so the idea of a boy going into this risky business freaks a lot of parental units out.

    I agree about the vapid commercialization of Mother’s Day, Bill, but you could say that about every single holiday out there – we have to find out own meanings.

  11. Tom

    Jeez, Bill, I’m sorry to hear that.

    As it happens, I work in the insurance industry, and it’s eating my writing alive. No personal laptops, anything you create on the company equipment belongs to the company, thumb drives are forbidden. Feggghh.

    So, you’ve done the right things.

  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Bill,It’s interesting what scars we carry. I think my perspective has changed a little since becoming a mom — and even more, since losing my own nine years ago. She was no saint, not by a long shot, but she did do some things right.

    I’ve come to peace with many, many demons there and, boy, can I relate to what you’ve written here. My experience couldn’t have been the same as yours . . . but bitterness was part of the picture for me for a long, long time.

    Now, I mainly just feel sad.

  13. Tom

    To stay a little more on topic . . . my mother encouraged me to read and write, and read to me . . . but she and my father were both deeply damaged Depression Era survivors (and both plagued with depression). Journalism was – maybe – okay because it could lead to a career in tech writing. Theatre and music were okay as hobbies. So I paid for my degree in music myself, on the eight-year plan.

    My father died reasonably pleased that I had made my own way. My mother died wishing I’d quit messing around with corporate words and just get a blue-collar job in printing and print production.

    Now that they’re forty, ML’s sons send good wishes. Must have something to do with having teens of their own.

    We make our own peace on Mothers Day, as on others.

  14. Allison Brennan

    My mom has always been 100% supportive of me–before I ever got serious about writing and after I was publisher. She’s my biggest fan and greatest promoter. I wouldn’t be who I am today without her steadfast: you can do whatever you set your mind to.

    And that is what I want to instill in my children. I want them to love what they do, to find fulfillment, to not regret bad choices, but strive to make good choices in the future. Ultimately, I want them to be happy.

  15. Hank Phillippi Ryan

    I would sit in the backseat of the car, reading MAD. Mad Magazine, my fave at age 13 or so. And for awhile after that. (And I wouldn’t turn it down now.)

    My mother, in despair, would say: “Look up! Look out the window! Look at the world! You’re missing everything.” And I would say something like, mmmff. Which meant, leave me alone, I’m reading a parody of West Side Story. Or whatever it was.

    Somehow, ten years or so later, I became a TV reporter. Where “”looking at the world” was the key to, well, everything. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years.

    You know in The Fantasticks–“plant a carrot, get a carrot?” I think it happens. She cultivated me, and I grew. Even though I fought her the whole way.

    (I did sneak Marjorie Morningstar when I was about 13. Read it under the covers. Thinking back, I bet Mom would have approved.)

  16. Fran

    Hmm, so since I’m gay, I don’t have to write any more? Well now. . .

    My mom was always supportive of everything I wanted to do and I miss her. But we’ve got two great kids and we’ll support whatever dreams they have. One, in his spare time, is turning into a serious fencer in the SCA, and the other one is still searching, but he’s young.

    Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who nurtures others, be you male or female!

  17. Bill Cameron

    I admit it, I get cranky this particular weekend every year, and if there is one lesson everyone should learn, from their mother or elsewhere, it’s “Don’t crank and post.”

    Thank goodness I’m among friends here!

  18. Kathy Sweeney

    Great blog, Alex.

    In our house we are trying to live the John Adams dream (paraphrasing here) that our grandparents worked in the mines so our parents could get white collar jobs, so we could become doctors and lawyers, and our children could become artists and poets.

    Our daughter goes to a high school for the arts – she’s a visual artist and she’s surrounded by theater and music and writing majors – such a fertile environment – whether she grows up to be a digital illustrator or a robotic engineer, I am so grateful that our family has reached this place in generational evolution.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “n our house we are trying to live the John Adams dream (paraphrasing here) that our grandparents worked in the mines so our parents could get white collar jobs, so we could become doctors and lawyers, and our children could become artists and poets.”

    Kathy, I didn’t know that quote – another reason for me to worship John Adams.

    That really says it all, and I’m so happy to see so many parents here striving for that ideal for their children. Not that I had any doubt about any of you all, but I do see so many kids wounded by wounded parents who don’t WANT their kids to do better than they did. That’s tragic.


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