In my family, both my family of origin and the one I married into, there are artists of many stripes: writers, musicians, visual artists, actors. So if my sons show a proclivity for music or writing, say, I feel like I have a good handle on how to address it. Below, nine conversations I’d be having with my kids.
1. Separate art from money. The most insidious, self-defeating narrative about money—even more so than “I’m a woman and I don’t understand money”—is “I’m an artist and I don’t understand money.” Everyone has to understand money: It’s part of being an adult in the world. You can address this with your kids without the underlying message of, “You aren’t going to make it.” The conversation can be about finding a way to bring in an income, keeping expenses low, and having enough time to make art. Anxiety over meeting one’s bills is stifling to any creative enterprise.
2. Second-tier artists are dicks. A musician friend of mine said, “The top echelons of musicians are unfailingly warm and generous. It’s the second-level ones who are dickish to the people below them.” Act like the top tier, even when you’re not (I mean, until you get there, of course). It’s not only a mark of success, it’s the key to it.
3. It’s okay to live your life in serial passions. So you play the guitar obsessively from age 10 to 30, and then you go to school for engineering or respiratory therapy? That’s totally fine and a legitimate path. (But those decisions have to be under the steam of the kid—not pushed by the parent. Everyone has to feel like he’s in charge of his own life.)
4. There’s no shame in having a day job. Some of the best musicians I know are also lawyers or doctors. They essentially have two careers—because the kind of focus and grit that it takes to get, say, an M.D., is the same focus and grit it takes to practice the violin two hours a day for 20 years.
5. Learn the rule of 7. Quitting your day job is a lot further down the road than you think it is. I once heard a successful writer say, “Don’t quit your day job until you have a backlist of seven books.” Even if you have a healthy side income stream from painting or writing or music, it should remain a side income stream until you can hit your bills, savings and retirement goals with no strain for, say, seven years.
6. Broaden your concept of “success.” In my family there’s a wide scope of what could be defined as success: People who have, by every metric—financial, critical, superstardom—been successful. There are those (most of us) who never gave up their day jobs, but nonetheless keep on playing gigs and stretching canvases. There are those who made a living in tangential but related fields, like teaching, and kept their art as slightly smaller side careers or simply major hobbies. There are people who gave up in one artistic field and then found unexpected success in another. There’s no rule that says that art needs to be created 16 hours a day with no distractions. People make art in all kinds of ways in limited time. The real artists keep going in whatever capacity they can.
7. Treat the curveballs like they were your idea all along. The happiest artists I know have been able to take life’s various twists and turns and absorb them as if each one were an opportunity. In other words, every decision was framed as, “How can this have the best possible outcome for me?” rather than, “This is a choice between two terrible options and I’m doomed to be a failure.”
8. Being an artist means being part of a community, and that is valuable all by itself. I have a serious hobby of playing music. I have never once considered I might make a living at it. The primary value for me—aside from loving music, of course—is the community of musicians that I now know. It’s a huge part of my social life and an ongoing support system for my husband, me, and our kids. It’s an excellent hobby from childhood to old age, and even if I keep plunking away at the same three-chord songs for the rest of my life, the whole enterprise is worth it for the people I’ve met along the way.
9. The larger economy is really the X factor, and there’s nothing you can do about that. I graduated during a boom in the ’90s. I was able to get a day job that took minimal time but paid well, a situation that allowed me to weather the coming years relatively steadily. My husband graduated during a recession and had a much harder time starting out. If my sons were interested in pursuing, say, fine arts as a career, I would of course be rather apprehensive—not because I think the arts are unworthy or they would be no good at it, but because the economy is so much more unforgiving than it was when I was young. So, circle back to #1: Separate art from money.
10. Class is the other X factor. Any kind of precarious existence as an artist is less precarious when you come from a middle- (or higher) class home. This is a structural inequity, and part of one’s social responsibility as an artist is to at least recognize it and hopefully address it.
11. No one knows the future. In my family, the one thing literally everyone has in common? Their parents were dead wrong about what they would accomplish. No one’s life turned out the way they, or their parents, thought it would. The bizarre twists and turns of the larger world factor more into success or failure than individual circumstances. In other words, you might know your kid, but you don’t know the future.