#1286: “How do I create good art when life is tough and might not get easier?”

Dear Captain,

The situation: I (she/her) am a homemaker and mum to a toddler. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia for eighteen years, aka my entire adult life and then some. I’m on meds and pretty much a self-care rockstar, but I still spend LOTS of time and energy coping with pain, fatigue, dizziness, panic attacks, mood swings…you get the picture. Thanks to many years of this, my resume is absolute shite, so my husband is the sole breadwinner.

We’re both creative types. His preferred art is theatre, directing and acting. I also love the stage—I assist with costumes, take on small roles (sometimes larger ones as well), and am generally involved, but my bigger aspiration is writing. I’d love to be a published novelist. Unfortunately, my illnesses have consistently sapped me of the kind of energy this requires, for years. Having a small child doesn’t help, although I adore him.

I feel guilty about never getting around to writing in the way I want to. I feel resentful when my husband has energy to direct and act in plays and I have none for my creative pursuits. I feel stymied in so many areas: I’d love to work from home or as a freelancer, to go back to school and gain skills that would help me do that, to run an Airbnb or Etsy shop, to diy around the house, to bake my own bread, to sew my own clothes. To write.

It sucks being a driven person with tons of ideas and heaps of motivation and no energy.

(Actually, it’s taken a long time to realize that’s what I am and why I feel so frustrated; for decades I assumed I was just lazy and unmotivated, and only recently realized if I were, I probably wouldn’t find my forced inactivity so awful.)

Maybe in a few years things will start to change, once my son is in school, but there’s no guarantee I’ll have sufficient energy even then. In the meantime, I feel stymied, frustrated, guilty, and resentful. I’d love to have another child, but I don’t want to end up resenting my child(ren) for making me put off creative stuff even longer.

Do you have any words of advice? Ideas on how to find creative fulfillment without wearing myself out or neglecting my family? Or how to stop feeling mad at them and myself when I can’t? Am I being a whiny navel-gazer? Or do I just not have enough drive to be a writer, after all?

-Chronic Creative

PS I would like to mention that my husband is a darling about helping with housework, etc. when I can’t keep up. We have a traditionally gendered division of labor, but it’s out of choice/necessity (see: shite resume) rather than assumption. And I don’t think it’s fair to ask him to curtail his activities because I have to, even if I do get envious and grumpy about it sometimes.

Dear Chronic Creative:

Some guest-posters recently supplied scripts for re-negotiating free time, childcare, and household labor when everybody is working from home during the pandemic, and you might find it helpful to revisit some strategies for turning off your “Mommy is interruptible” settings when you want to get some writing done.

We won’t always be in pandemic mode, and your child is going to grow and go to school someday in a way that gives you lots of weekday time back to write, study, start a home business, and try out some creative pursuits. Every mom I know felt it would never end for a while,  and every mom I know who’s made it to the school-age years would tell you: It won’t be like this or feel like this forever, but it will for a while yet (and it definitely will if you do have another baby).

So maybe let’s talk about what can be done right now to reclaim something for your dreams?

Is it really so impossible that both you and your spouse could have roughly equal, dedicated time every week to be “off duty” from parenting and household chores in order to do your own thing? Parenting a very young child is going to limit both of your free time for a while, but does it have to be as unbalanced as it is right now? And does it have to stay that way forever?

Because I would argue, if your husband has time to work, parent a small child, do some household things, and do some theater, then you have time to parent a small child, take care of the house, rest your body as necessary for your health, and also carve out some time to learn, make, and do some things you’d like to do. “Art is important to our family, so we make time for each other to do some,” and “We make accommodations for people’s disabilities” are pretty good family values if you’re handing some down.

You asked me how to make good art and almost everything I have to say here is about time. Art takes time, published art that makes money takes just as much time as unpublished, unprofitable art does, and bad art takes just as much time as good art does.

If you knew, starting tomorrow, that you had a certain amount of predictable, normal, routine time every day or every week to  to step out from the costume shop or the supporting cast or the nursery and be the writer, director, and star of your own tale, where would you start?

Think: 30 minute blocks to be absolutely alone to focus on things that interest you. What could you do with half an hour to yourself?

Think: Blocks can be scheduled in advance each week, as in, when rehearsals go on the family calendar your writing time does, too. It’s great that your husband helps out a lot, but for this to work, it has to be scheduled and consistent.

Think: Blocks can be stackable. Do you need some time to marinate on that blank page once a week, or do you write better in quick bursts? Do you need some time to try both?

If your husband gets 2 hours one Monday evening every week for a Zoom rehearsal for his new radio play, do you want 2 hours to yourself the next night or do you want 30 uninterrupted minutes first thing in the morning before the baby wakes up or right after dinner while he puts the baby down and cleans up the kitchen after dinner on the other four weekdays?

Think: Closed doors. Noise-cancelling headphones. Teaching your child that the exact same set of boundaries that exist when Daddy’s working apply to Mummy. The off-duty parent has expectation of total uninterrupted solitude and the on-duty parent will handle whatever it is.

Things that absolutely do not count against your respective balances of free time: 

  • Work that earns money
  • Housework
  • Yardwork & Maintenance
  • Food preparation & meal planning
  • Bill paying, financial management
  • Childcare
  • Sleep
  • Couple-leisure time: Date nights, sex, hanging out together
  • Social time with friends and family
  • Self-care, including exercise, physical therapy, medical care, other kinds of therapy, and including necessary daily rest & recovery time for a chronic pain patient. You said it wasn’t fair to take time away from your husband, but it’s not fair to automatically steal time from you, either. You must pace yourself and rest a certain amount in order to be okay, so, build it in.
  • Interruptions, especially “Honey, where is the _____?” or “How do I ______? questions. There’s an entire Google full of household task instructions and step-by-step recipes that don’t need you to stop what you’re doing to look in the same spice cabinet that your husband can also see and read the labels to determine if any of them are paprika. He can either improvise or wait.
  • Making to-do lists, negotiating,  planning or holding mental space for how anything above this bullet-point is getting done.

If you decided to try something like this, the conversation with your husband can probably be pretty straightforward: You need some regularly-scheduled free time to look forward to every week, you’d like to build it into your weekly schedule, and you would like to apply the exact same conditions you already put in place to keep him distraction-free and able to focus whenever he is doing his thing to your own free time, i.e. at the appointed time, you plan to hand him the small person and virtually disappear.

“Can we negotiate 30 minutes here, an hour here, so I can hear myself think, and I’ll keep doing the same for you when you have creative commitments?” isn’t the hard part, unless your husband is a total asshole (in which case THAT’S the hard part), but it doesn’t sound like he is. He probably takes you for granted, especially the way you shape things behind the scenes so he can have his artistic outlet *because you’ve decided that his art-making is important to him and that’s important to your family*, and it might not occur to him independently to do the same for you *because you have not so far decided your art-making is also equally important to your family,* but if he knew for a fact that you needed him to make some specific effort in that direction, is it so unlikely that he would accommodate you?

You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Here’s the hard part: You have to decide that your creative process is important and that you get to have this time independent of whatever markers of success or productivity your beautiful jerk of a brain currently thinks you need to achieve in order to actually deserve this time.

Here’s your jerkbrain loud and clear in your question (bolding mine): “Do you have any …Ideas on how to find creative fulfillment without wearing myself out or neglecting my family? Or how to stop feeling mad at them and myself when I can’t? Am I being a whiny navel-gazer? Or do I just not have enough drive to be a writer, after all?”

Is your husband “neglecting his family” when he does theater stuff?

That’s actually a tricky question:

-No, he’s not, because when he’s working on his creative stuff there’s a whole-ass other parent stepping in and making sure diapers get changed and boo-boos get kissed.

-Yes, maybe a little, because if his art-time is coming at the expense of you getting to do any of yours, that’s something that needs at least a little rebalancing.

So which is it? If you’d be “neglecting your family” to demand some time for your art, then obviously your husband is “neglecting his family” now. If he’s not, then it follows that you won’t be either. So where is this message coming from?

Are you being “a whiny navel-gazer?” I don’t think so, but say you were: Where is it written that you are never allowed to have dreams that are important to you, feel anxious about whether they will ever come true, speak honestly about how you feel, seek outside perspectives, or look inside yourself for answers? Why are you expressing that as an insult about yourself?

You see so clearly that what creative stuff your husband does is important to him, and yet you set yourself up to silently resent that forever instead of asking for the same consideration. Why is “stay angry & resent them forever” a more obvious possibility than “ask for the situation to change and then change it”?

Do you “just not have enough drive to be a writer”? Who fucking knows? That’s a deeply, deeply unanswered question. If you’ve never had the space or time to actually try writing, without feeling like your brain is being torn in fifty different directions, how could you even know the answer to that? Is how productive you are when you’re still probably dealing with diapers and literally trying to stay alive during a global pandemic where you can’t safely hire a regular babysitter or lean on extended family or friends, on top of a bunch of disabling health conditions, particularly representative or decisive about your personal potential and your future capabilities?

One thing that might help you: Before you talk to your husband, spend some time deciding whether spelling out exactly why you want the time when you ask for it  (“I want some regular time to work on my art” vs. “I need some predictable, sacred time to myself where I don’t have to be “Mommy” or “Honey” or Mrs. Anybody) constitutes good pressure or bad pressure for you. 

For instance, I’ve heard rumors that for some people, claiming a thing out loud is motivating: “I want x time/week to work on my novel. I’ll never be a real novelist if I don’t commit to it. Step One: I will make an outline of my chapters. Step Two: I will knock a book out one chapter at a time.”

For these people, who apparently exist in real life, I imagine having a supportive spouse check in every day with a cheerful “How’s the book coming?” is a nice, caring perk that promotes accountability and not a paralyzing shame-weight full of fear and unrealized potential.

Howabout you? Would you find that motivating? Howabout your husband? Do you think he’d get overly invested in a weird way, or resentful or lax about picking up the slack unless you were producing at a certain level? Be honest about this and set yourselves up to succeed. “I am finding that I need a consistent dose of alone time to look forward to each week, can we balance your theater time with the same for me?” is a good enough reason on its own.

For other people, maybe people who are beating themselves up whole bunch about whether they have the necessary “drive” in the first place and also wondering if it would be entirely “fair” to re-negotiate some workloads around the house so that all the adults get equal room to marinate in their creative juices, proclaiming that you need x amount of time “for your novel” is entirely too much pressure. As in, right now, if you set up “be a successful published novelist within x time period” up as the price of your newly-won and precious free time, you are basically inviting every single one of your doubts to come hang out during that time and haggle with you about whether it’s really worth it like some accursed Mr. Clippy set to High Patriarchy:

Sexist Mr. Clippy: You look like a woman who is trying to make some art. Are you sure that you’re really worth all this fuss?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you’re not really cut out for this? What if the problem all along, despite being a new parent and keeping your household running and doing a ton of theater on top of having a disability, just proves that you lack drive?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you just write crap?

Ableist Mr. Clippy: But what if you’re too sick?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you never finish anything?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: I’m not sure this is good enough for how selfish you’re being about your family.

Ableist Mr. Clippy: You needed a rest today, so you owe that time back to your family in some productive way. You can’t waste it!

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if nobody ever publishes it?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you neglected your family and you don’t have anything to show for it? Your husband works hard, he really needs his creative outlet. Not like you.

Sexist Mr. Clippy: Did you remember to take out the stuff to defrost from the freezer? Are you sure? It will just take a minute to check. And when was the last time the dog had fresh water? And is it trash day already? Oh look, your little guy is so cute, he’s not gonna be this small forever, you better cherish it while you can.

Letter Writer, so far in my experience unfortunately there is no Good Mr. Clippy who appears to writers like a  prophetic white bird in an old painting of The Annunciation and says, “Lo, you are Good Enough, you will definitely succeed at all of this, and Now it is Time for you to have uninterrupted writing time without guilt or worry that you should be doing something else, we can confirm absolutely that it is your Destiny.” 

You are a parent, you are a mother, and you exist in a world where there is always something supposedly more important you should be doing than following your own train of thought wherever it leads you and writing that down. You are always going to have to steal time from around the ends of naps, from before the school-bus comes home, from when it’s not tech week at the theater, from when there’s no soccer or parent-teacher conferences or scout meetings, from your good days when you can sit pain-free in a chair and focus on a page and the bad ones when you need to stay down or your body will put you there. Nobody is ever going to just give it to you, unprompted and unburdened, not even your sweet husband who from what I can see has so far not asked you, “Hey babe could you use a little more time to yourself? I really appreciate how you make it possible for me to do my theater stuff, I really want to return the favor.” Even once you ask, once you make him see, it is always going to be about catching what lightning you can in the bottle you’ve got, without a guarantee that you’ll ever feel sure.

You asked me about art, and good art, and I keep telling you about time. You’re putting so much pressure on yourself about success and worth and “drive,” but what if I told you that the time of “failed” women artists, including the ones who were never published, the ones who never finished a thing they were happy with or showed their work to a living soul, the ones who were sidelined by childcare and eldercare or sewing on the buttons or getting the cows milked on schedule, the ones who gave up, the ones who died before their time, the ones who were laughed out or raped out or undermined out of their creative fields, even the women who make shitty ugly art that could fill up whole Regretsy Shops of the Damned, what if I told you that all their time spent creating their work and dreaming their work was just as valuable as the time of every single man in the history of the world who has ever picked up a brush or a guitar or a pen, successful, famous, published, or otherwise?

‘Cause listen, if you end up negotiating an agreement with your husband that means you get to stare into space for an hour every day for a year, then on the last day you write a single sentence on a page in the morning and burn it in the fireplace that same night before starting all over again, I would add it to our side of the scale, it would be enough. It would count. Do you understand? Women as a group have never been granted permission to “waste” time on making art that we could conceivably be spending taking care of other people. We must steal it, like fire from the gods.

If you want to make good art, make *some* art. If you want to make some art, make time for it.

If you want to make time, EVICT “PATRIARCHY AND ABLEISM” MR. CLIPPY. From your marriage. From your mind. You are worth the fuss. You are worth a shot. You are the boss of that. If you turn out to be wasting your time? Waste enough time to be sure. Then waste some more. In fact, waste so much time on imagining new futures and making things that make you happy that the whole neighborhood talks about you behind your back. Then you can go to sleep at night knowing that you wrote so many stories you finally turned into one.