The following post is adapted from a piece I wrote last year for The Developing Artist. It deals with some of the emotional resistance DIY artists frequently face from people, including those who are sometimes closest to them. This piece seemed to resonate quite a bit with my readers, so I thought it was worth sharing here.
I’m always intrigued to hear artists and musicians tell their personal stories. With many of them, there is a common thread within their story–a bit of resistance they feel, especially as they get older, usually from family or significant others. The words may vary slightly, but the sentiment behind the words is pretty much the same:
“When are you gonna grow up?”
“When are you going to get a life?”
“When are you going to get a ‘real’ job?”
The implications, of course, are that pursuing a career in art or music is not a ‘real’ job; that “getting a life” has to do more with financial stability than personal fulfillment; that pursuing one’s dreams is childish; and that being creative is for kids, and that eventually you should outgrow it. Many of these kinds of remarks are well-intentioned, but when you really boil it down, it’s the classic battle between the left brain and the right brain–the logical side attacking the creative side.
I know a talented musician in my local area who is in her 30s, and dealing with this very issue. She’s actually a brilliant mathematician, and has the potential to make a decent living in science and research-type of careers. Instead, she’s chosen to walk a different direction, to pursue what she loves: music. So she teaches music to pay the bills, and plays around town whenever she can, barely getting by, in pursuit of her dreams (much to the chagrin of her family, who feel like she’s refusing to “grow up”).
Aside from all the issues DIY musicians face on a regular basis (namely, getting your stuff out there, building a fan base, self-promoting, making enough money, etc.), I think the emotional wounding caused by this kind of talk is one of the biggest issues we share in common. I don’t know how many people have been wounded and had their creativity squelched over these kinds of questions, but I know it’s more than we can count. As creative people, these words usually hurt us, not because we disagree with them, but because we DO. Even the most right-brained people have some sense of logic, and many times our logic is waging war internally with the part of us that insists on remaining in creative, childlike wonder. So when someone asks, “When are you gonna grow up?”, it’s usually a question we’ve been asking ourselves for some time–and that’s why the words go deep. We feel guilty, we feel “less than,” we feel immature. We feel like we are children–and most importantly, we feel like being a child is wrong. We ought to be grown up by now. Right?
For some, this kind of emotional resistance is enough to shut them down creatively, put away their brushes or their mandolin, get a “real” job and make an honest attempt to join the rat race. For others, while they are hurt and guilt-ridden, it’s not enough; they simply have to create in order to live. So they press through it.
Well, in my opinion, it’s high time artists answered the question, “When are you gonna grow up?” with some questions of their own.
Let’s start with, “Who decided that creativity and childishness were the same thing?”
Or perhaps, “Who says that growing up means losing your sense of childlike wonder and inspiration?”
Or, “Who came up with the idea that pursuing a dream was childish, or that dreams are only for children?”
You can put your own words in; these are just a few ideas.
Now, I understand where some people come from when they criticize artists near and dear to them–and you know, we could probably all cite some examples of very creative people who really do act as though they never grew up. But I think we should start by saying that being childISH and being childLIKE are two very different things.
Being child-ISH has to do with the behaviors we have as children that we should outgrow as we get older. As children, we tend to be selfish, thinking the universe revolves around us–and as we grow, we get a better perspective on all that. And we should.
But I also think we are all born with a child-LIKE sense of wonder about the world around us, the ability to dream. Those are things that we’re not really meant to outgrow, although unfortunately, we do. The element of child-LIKE-ness that we find in artists, within ourselves, is the very thing that enables us to be inspired, to dream, and ultimately, to create. Yes, some of us are also child-ISH, but if you take away the child-LIKE ability to dream, you kill creativity.
And make no mistake: as a culture, we need creativity. Without inspiration and art, we would all die–even the ones who are criticizing from the sidelines.
Think about the irony of that for a moment: the people who are asking you when you’re going to grow up and get a life are actually dependent on people like you for their mental/emotional survival. Hmmm…..
The point is, you can be an adult without forfeiting your dreams or losing your childlike sense of wonder. You can be child-LIKE without being child-ISH. And pursuing your dreams does not make you “less than” someone else. In fact, the progress we’ve made as a race is as a result of dreamers, not people who gave up on their dreams in the name of “getting a life.” Granted, some people have dreams that are obviously unrealistic (you can find many of these people during the American Idol auditions), but that does not make it okay to discourage dreams in general, or to squelch the creativity of another. In my view, I think it’s actually better to dream and to fail than not to dream at all.
So if you’re an artist who has been wounded by this question, take heart, shake it off, do what you need to do to be free of that stigma. We need your creativity; don’t shut it down over someone’s else’s ignorance.
And if you’re someone who’s asking an artist, “When are you gonna grow up?”, maybe you should try shutting the hell up and listening to that person, for a change. You might actually learn something about what life is really about.