“Only” a writer?

The problem of bad conscience … what is success anyway?writing_cursive_pen

This week I took the plunge and translated my latest Viking short story (titled “Maelstrom” and currently under edit for a short story-competition) into German. Strange that. I did it, because friends and especially family kept asking me to give them something to read (their English varies), and some Viking stuff, because that’s what I focus on. So I took something that is not erotica (I couldn’t give that to my parents!), and “Maelstrom” is also very short. Then I sent it to all the friends and family members that I’d neglected so far.

The first one to react was my younger brother. I didn’t expect that, because I have no idea if he takes my new writing life seriously (he is the travelling-all-over-the-world-making-big-counselling-money-type). He said it was very well written, touching, moving (and that from my “cool” brother!), and hard to read — for its emotions! Such a great compliment. I felt farther over the moon than with any “professional” criticism, because … yes, why?

Then my mum called, to say she was almost in tears, and very moved, and wow, it’s almost horror, and why am I not a screenwriter? Stuff like this she wants to see acted on screen. Aha. I expected a good reaction from her, because honestly … my mum supports everything we do and love.

I didn’t give it to my father, though. For one, he is not the type who can deal with deep emotions and the baring of heart and soul. He is the funniest, kindest man, but I can feel he’s insecure, too, and doesn’t deal well with emotional upheaval, especially if it comes from his children. And secondly, he always outwardly supports what I do, but inwardly, and unconsciously, he doesn’t take it too seriously if it is not a normal “paid” job. And he doesn’t get artistry, he thinks I’m wasting my good education (degrees in English & German linguistics and Geography and training as editor/lector). We had one big row when I was a student and I felt he was secretly not taking me seriously. Because it wasn’t such a hands-on choice of subjects. Of course, he just wants me to be happy and never openly objected to any of my choices. But he worries, I guess.

And this is what all parents of artists do, isn’t it? There may be an open or secret admiration for the work and courage it takes, but also a very natural worrying. Because being an artist isn’t a safe option and will never be safe, and we depend on so many factors from luck to acceptance by others that one can never really relax. Even successful authors say you never know what the next year will bring. But isn’t that the case in all jobs?

I never regretted that I quit being an employee of selfish bosses and took my life in my own hands. I feel free and motivated every day to live up to my own standards, which are quite ambitious, as always. I make plans, I work hard, I improve. I have NO idea when or how I will succeed and what “success” would be for me. At the moment I tend to say “sell some books”, develop a readership, and write the stories that need to be birthed. I want to see some monetary reward for my hard work, yes. But I’d be writing anyway.

And here comes the crux: my bad conscience. I tend to justify to family and friends what I’m doing, that I’m working equally hard or harder, that I intend to make money in the future and contribute to the family income, and not just live by my husband’s nice support. But is that so? Are artists who aren’t making (much) money at a given time automatically “supported” by someone or aren’t artists a vital part of a society and their work has a value in itself that isn’t sales figures? Do I “fail” when I don’t sell (much) and should rather give up and do something that’s boring and frustrating (everything other than writing, unfortunately, will now count as that for me) to justify my worth?

I find that unconsciously, I want to impress two people. My father, because he is so tight-lipped when it comes to my “work” (he thinks it’s good, but just … well, not work? A nice hobby?). He doesn’t want to know how hard I work and how thorough I am. He doesn’t really listen. It doesn’t matter to him much, because it’s art. If it doesn’t make money, it has no value for him.

And secondly, for the same reasons, I want to “reward” my lovely husband for his great support. He never flinched when I said I want to be a writer, now that the kids are looked after in the mornings. He is always proud and impressed by my work and never says I should speed up or do things differently. But he DOES ask me: when do you think you’ll see money? He says that with an additional “because you’re good!” and that eases my mind. I guess he doesn’t say it because he wants my monetary contribution (he’d like that, though, and dreams about quitting his job and living by the water in a posh flat in Copenhagen …), but he wants to see me rewarded for my hard work. For him, that means I have to sell what I create at one point.

Yes. An artists life and problem.

So I really want to make money for him — we don’t need it in that we couldn’t pay our bills or go on holiday without it. We are fine without my contribution and that’s why hubby is so patient. And I want to add my share to the household one day, I could probably never equal his, but at least be able to say it’s “our” money we live by.

And now I ask myself: is that feeling a female problem? Do stay-at-home-mums feel the same pressure, that they don’t contribute money-wise? I look after the children more than my husband, naturally, as my working hours end when they arrive back home. Is that contribution the same as a monetary one?

Is the feeling of my dad and hubby a male view of what “success” is? And how do male artists feel about money and responsibility? Do they stress in the same way? Or even more?What if there’s a family to support?

I know I can only do this, live my dream, with my husband’s help. If he was to divorce me tomorrow, I’d be forced to quit. paper_boats_208376Maybe that’s what parents want, to see their children able to support themselves no matter what. But can we ever be sure the job we chose will deliver at that moment when push comes to shove? I could be unemployed at exactly the moment my hubby files for divorce. What then?

In a way I truly admire all those artists in the world’s past and present, writers, painters, sculptors, musicians.., and how they affected whole societies, changed people’s lives, touched souls and altered history, sometimes. Artists enrich lives, and rarely are they rewarded for it. They do it out of an inner passion, an enthusiasm that never seizes, because they “need” to be creative and express themselves.

Am I arrogant or haughty in calling myself an artist, when so far, nobody has really “rewarded” me for my work and officially accepted it (like a publisher could. In this way I am accepted by the publisher I’m currently doing the serialised novel and editing for! Phew..)? Few artists stay accepted and rewarded, most struggle from time to time, and still they go on. Not to quit is the sign of a true artist, in my opinion, not even talent (what’s that?), just because she or he is burning from within. Whenever I sense that flame within someone, I straight away recognise him or her as a true and therefore valuable artist. I don’t need to see her bank account or contracts to say: “wow, go on then, do what you must, and show the world!”

I hope my dad will one day see it like that. I know I could never talk to him openly, because he’d change topic, like he did before, and switch to talking about my successful brother who travels the world for big companies and driving a big car.

In such moments, I feel deflated.

But then I can shrug and join in in praising my brother, because I love him and because HE of all people was the first one who sent me a lovely, personal, moving feedback of praise for my work.

And this is worth more to me than any cheque in the world! 🙂


Happy writing!diary_journal_book

Now it’s over to you, writers and artists: do you know the feeling of having to (secretly) justify your work or wanting monetary rewards to you feel “valued” by people/society? What kind of attitude should artists display and live by? How do you define “success” for yourselves? Please comment below or in an email, I’m looking forward to all aspects you want to share with us!


Comments (6)

  1. Avatar

    Eremi 22.05.2015 at 22:47

    Sarah, I think this is my favorite of your posts so far. Thank you for writing about this subject so honestly. Sometimes it seems like such a battle these days to argue for the value of anything that can’t be attached to a price tag (it makes me think of the old maxim “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist”). And yet often the people most concerned about earning money are those that take the most pleasure in movies or television or novels or various other forms of entertainment produced by artists. I’m glad your brother supports you though, and I hope one day your father will too.

    • sarah

      sarah 29.05.2015 at 19:29

      Hi Eremi, I love your description of “value without a price tag” — that’s exactly it! And I’d agree that most people would face a very bleak and bland world without any artists in it, who entertain, educate, colour and brighten their days. But I believe that a true artist will continue to produce his works, because (s)he has to, out of an inner drive, and not because the price tag is right. Thanks for your well wishes, but deep down I know my dad is proud of me, no matter what I do, even if he can’t understand or express it 🙂

  2. Avatar

    Jeanne 22.05.2015 at 12:46

    I’ve been working for over 40 years. In January I plan to drop back to part-time and devote the extra time to my writing. We’ve been careful and disciplined and we can afford to do this, but every time I see something around the house that needs replacing, I still feel guilty. On the other hand, I want to dedicate what remains of my life to my dream, not to a house.

    • sarah

      sarah 22.05.2015 at 14:29

      Hi Jeanne, thank you for the personal response, and yes, I often feel the same AND I also think that everyone deserves to follow her passion 🙂 Keep going and the best of luck for your writing career!

  3. Avatar

    Elaine 22.05.2015 at 11:29

    I think all artists can relate – successful or not … some time during our lives, we all had to (or have to) face that one person, that loved one, who doubts our abilities, or equates success to a bursting bank account. In the end, we soldier on, and those who support us make it worth while. We do it, because we can’t NOT do it … for us, that would be death. It’s hard to ignore the negativity sometimes, but focus on the positive influences, and you’ll be fine.

    • sarah

      sarah 22.05.2015 at 14:32

      Hi Elaine, thanks so much, yes, true words. And soldier on is just about right, there’ll be such and such times, and in the end, we HAVE to do the work we love most. Money or not. Good luck to all your writing and I know you’ll succeed one day!

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