the audacity to create

2008 was a year of ironies:  full at once of a sea change and stasis.  The change has come in the form of the decision to end my nearly 15-year old marriage. The stasis comes from being unable to officially end it as my husband’s (what to call a soon-to-be ex?) travel plans for his dissertation research have been put on hold. He’s been waiting for months, held up by red tape beyond his control, and well beyond mine. The effect has been to make most of my life feel on hold, even though it technically hasn’t been.


So, I’m embracing the new year with open arms. The concept of a fresh – or freshened – slate is extremely appealing right now, and the present sun outside, in stark contrast to the dark gray days of mid-December, is helping me to move with energy into 2009 and the weeks beyond. I am loving this T.S. Eliot quote: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”


I am ready to move forward in all arenas, including my writing. I’ll be sending out a book proposal in the coming weeks and have hope for it, yet I’m also looking for full-time work. I am aware of how that might limit my time to write (correction: not “might” but “definitely will”). In the past, this has driven me crazy, made me boiling angry. Why can’t I do what I love, what I’m good AND get paid for it?

A friend who is a wonderful writer said that he’d never had the audacity to believe that he could “just” write; he’s always believed he needed another source of income. I’m not sure where I came by this audacity, though when I asked a few artist friends, one made the prescient comment that she can’t do anything as well as she does her art. A calligrapher who spends her days pressing gold, mocha and azure inks on to paper in a form that is as beautiful and refined as the work of any painter or poet, is correct to say that her gift would be lost should she get a job at the local 7-Eleven. Or even behind a desk. The loss of an artist’s skills is – or should be – a loss to us all. It’s also, surely, a loss to the artist whose worth is not valued.

“Other people who are excellent at their work get paid enough to live – and more,” my friend points out. So why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t I for my writing? Or you for your music?

In getting a full-time job, I am temporarily putting aside my anger at a system that makes it very difficult for me to support my kids and myself as a writer. I am putting the necessities of my animal self first – heat, food, clothing, and Netfllix – and letting the needs of my soul, my creative being, go on a low simmer. At 42, however, I am finally figuring out that this dance – the back and forth of full-time then freelance/ full time then freelance—is a dance that I’ve been doing for years. And I have a much deeper confidence that I will always come back to my writing; it is not going away. Finally, I am accepting this as a tick-tock that more or less works for my life. (The paradox of the artistic life is described well in this post by Sheri at happinest.) Or at least works as well as something is going to work in our current economic system.

To assuage this probable leap into the workaday world, I am inviting friends to join me in creating lists of 100 Things. These are 100 things to do, 100 ways in which I want to create movement in my life, 100 hopes. Take more naps, is on my list. Go on a meditation retreat is there. Dance more. Go to country fairs. See a few specific old friends. Write a story (I never write fiction). Drink less. Learn to sew sufficiently to make curtains. These are all on my list. These are the beginning of ways in which I can both bring change to my life and return to parts of myself that have been put on hold for too long. This is a bud unfolding.


Catherine White, a ceramicist and painter from Virginia, was kind enough to share some of her images with us for this post. I love the springy sense they give me. I’ve talked with Catherine before, and as the mother of young kids, I so appreciate her insights into having an older child – a daughter who is now studying art herself at college. I asked Catherine to share some thoughts about this transformation.


“I remember how when Zoë was a baby my drawings had to be out of her reach. I remember the moment when I decided my drawing table, which always had been in my house, had to move out. The threat of x-acto knives and sharp or poison things that could be stuck in her mouth was too much. At that point my notebook was always in the wrong place. I would try to keep some drawing book in the house and draw or write when I could. My drawings got smaller; my imagery was what was in front of me—child, dog, cups, toys. I was enamored of the Dutch artist who painted postage stamps and created a whole world around them. I began to make postage stamps that represented my humid world.  It was as if my dream state published its own hand-painted postage. I had one “learn to read pottery.” I had another that was titled, “can creativity thrive on distraction.” I made it while Zoë sat in the bathroom on the floor bathing her doll in a small blue plastic bowl. One day I drew a series of cups as stamps and I really liked the variety and shading. I left my drawing on the bed and went to answer the phone. It was a gallery interested in showing some of my pottery and so I was consumed for some time. When I looked back at the bed Zoe was there and had carefully colored in my postage stamps. I wish I could say I was accepting of her beautiful childlike lines. She excitedly held the sketchbook up to me, “Look Mama! I colored your drawing for you.” In retrospect it was so sweet, but then I felt like she consumed the time and space allowed for my drawing was which was as tiny as postage stamps. The colors swamped my lines and my heart sank.

Fast forward 15 years and she is in her first year at college. She has transformed in so many ways from toddler to little kid to elementary student to middle school to high school. Each stage was accompanied by its own drawings, glue and watercolors. Each stage had its own palette. Now she is in a painting class and they are painting with acrylics on big sheets of paper. She sends me digital photos of the shifts in her paintings. And it’s exciting to hear her thrilled by the idea of stretching canvas and to commiserate with her tears when her colors are not doing what she wants. I look at the images and see how big the sheets of paper they have and I love that they have the confidence and freedom to work large.

I look at my daily collages in my sketchbooks; when I first started it seemed like such an indulgence to write three pages each day and then to do a half page collage. When I switched to doing whole page collages it was another huge transformation. The freedom of being a student and fulfilling assignments at the time may feel like pressure, but as I gaze at it from the outside, I think, once again, I will honor my inner teacher and go hang some big sheets of paper and transform those postage stamp images so they take up more space.” – C.W.



The next Mothers of Invention is about mama-artists making it in tough financial times by doing oddball or hard scrape things to get by. If you know someone who is making art and raising kids against the odds, I’d  love to be put in touch with her. 


6 thoughts on “the audacity to create”

  1. what an inspiring post from you Jennifer and a lovely and poignant essay Catherine. having daughters of my own (not yet off to college), i must admit, i got a little weepy. thank you for sharing with us.

  2. How comforting. Thank you for taking the time to reach out and write this. 2008 was the same for me and really tested my courage and strength. I started to capitalize my ‘i”s in sentences.

    Country fairs are so much fun…

  3. What spoke to me most in this post is how you (and Catherine) seem to be accepting and allowing of time and how it plays in your life. These things: children growing, divorces, dancing between what we must do to live versus loving what we do…We make choices that shape our lives like a painter shapes an image with her brush on canvas, and then one day we acknowledge there is this other painter involved.

  4. My life out of your mouth… I am a photographer. I have three kids and hardley holding on to my marriage. I am starting a 2 week CNA class so I can go to work full time. Meaning Staurdays also, Saturdays are my wedding days… How am I sopposed to shoot weddings and work full time? The tear between what you long to do and what you have to do is horribly painful. It hurts my heart. Why cant you do what you love and live off of it?

  5. As you posted:
    “Other people who are excellent at their work get paid enough to live – and more,” my friend points out. So why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t I for my writing? Or you for your music?

    And I just want to say here here! And this is why I was so pissed off by the Republicans last week denigrating the need for the NEA funding included in the stimulus package. As if art isn’t relevant in this economy, grr, etc. but I am heartened in general that we now have a president who does care about things like art, poetry, education, humanity…at least it seems that he does.

    Thanks for what you’re doing.

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