My mother is an artist, and growing up I watched her work. I saw her produce thousands of pieces throughout my childhood. She built a four-room installation of multimedia interpretations of the Grand Canyon—styrofoam, embroidery, hand-pressed prints the size of a Volkswagen. She turned hundreds of artifacts from her childhood into hundreds of six-inch by six-inch tiles. She created a series of self-portraits in oil pastels of herself swimming in pools. She was prolific and talented, and like little kids everywhere, I wanted to be my mother when I grew up.
By preschool I had unrestricted access to her art supplies. I sat in a corner of her studio and sketched stick figures with highlighters, finger-painted, molded dragons out of clay. It seemed like I was on track to take up the mantle of visual artist from my mother and her mother before her.
But in kindergarten I began using her art supplies to make journals. It wasn’t long before I started filling those journals with stories. A few years after that, I packed better-bound notebooks with poems. In college I studied creative writing. Eventually, I began to work on a full-length book. I applied to MFAs. I became a working writer.
My mother did not protest this shift away from her own genre of art. She celebrated my move toward creativity. Though our tools were different, my painter mother taught me some of my most important lessons about writing:
- You don’t need fancy tools to do your best work. I had the same laptop for six years. But it typed fine to the very last day, and instead of replacing it when the newest model came out, I stuck with something functional, not fancy. Some of my earliest memories are of rummaging through my mother’s art studio’s supply closet. She kept expensive dyes and fine brushes and oil pastels on the highest shelves, but she also made art out of pom-pom’s and plywood from Home Depot and index cards leftover from my spelling bee preparation. She was equally proud of each. The writing desk I sit at today cost $39.99 and I use CVS store-brand college-ruled notebooks. If I can get by with cheaper materials, why not spend my money on writing classes and books—things that will actually improve my work?
- Rejection is not necessarily about the quality of your writing, but rather, the taste of a particular editor. At eight years old, my friend and I walked up to my mother, who sat drinking decaf tea at the marker-streaked kitchen table, and showed her our self-portraits. “They’re both so good,” my mother complimented us. I knew that my painting was more true to my real-life facial features than my friend’s; my mother, after all, had taught me how to sketch a face. Eight year old me said knowingly, “mine’s better, though, right?” My mother frowned. “No,” she said, “no, they’re just different. Hers is great too. Look at how she shaped her cheeks like triangles.” And I realized that realism is a style, not a benchmark. Quality is subjective. Taste varies. When my writing is rejected today, I know that at least part of the reason is that it did not match an editor’s taste—it does not need to change in order to be good.
- Practice creative habits that work for you. Though I pride myself in being able to write on airport floors, subway cars, and bustling cafes, my mother taught me to find a routine and rituals that consistently encourage focus and creativity. A couple years after the quality-is-subjective lesson, I sat cross-legged on the floor of her studio and observed her rituals. She organized pens and markers not by size or type, but by color. She put the West Wing on for background noise. She wore the same puffy-sleeved, cerulean fleece while she painted, stray strokes and blots marring its sleeves. From her I learned to keep my writing tools organized (fill one notebook at a time), to find music that inspired me (acoustic, almost always), to wear a uniform that wouldn’t distract (comfy, not stylish, clothes). When I stick to my habits, I know I’ll be able to sit down and get typing.
- Never be without a notebook—or at least the Notes app on your phone. I have written some of my best sentences in the pages of a notebook I carried with me because I saw my mother do it. My mother did not just work within the confines of her sun-flooded studio. In middle school I sat across from her at a chipping picnic table during our annual camping trip while she watercolored in the pages of her travel journal. “That’s pretty, mom,” I said, peering over the edge of my summer reading book. She smiled, unspeaking, her focus unbroken. When she sat down to work, no matter the location, she worked—because she was never without her tools. Today, I do the same. I captured a draft of the prologue to my memoir-in-progress because I had a pen and notebook on hand during an early morning coffee run.
- You don’t need—in fact, you may never receive—official permission from anybody else to do your work. My mother earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, but not from an art school—from a school in Oklahoma more concerned with sororities and homecoming games than the arts. She was not trained by experts in her field. She does not have paperwork that certifies her as a talented artist. I’ve studied creative writing with household-name authors. I have a fancy—or at least, fancier—undergraduate degree than my mother. I am headed to a top-ranked graduate program. My certifications are more important because of what I learned in the process of getting them, not the piece of paper I earned as a result.
- You don’t have to buy into traditional definitions of success. My mother taught me that creating for creativity’s sake was an option, regardless of others’ opinion of what counts as an “accomplishment.” When it comes to creative pursuits, we have the option to define success for ourselves. For such a prolific artist, my mother participated in few exhibits throughout my childhood. By the time I was in high school, my brothers and I had grown tired of asking her, “why don’t you send something to your favorite museum? To your friend’s gallery?” She always smiled, shook her head, and got back to work.
To my mother, creativity was about generating new work and honing her craft, not about prestige. When she did want to share her work, she participated in our city’s Open Studios. Friends, family, and neighbors stopped by for snacks and wandered our white-walled garage, hung with her latest project. This way, she didn’t have to cater her work to a certain audience or museum curator’s taste.
In the writing world, publication is the goal, the bigger the name the better. A traditional publisher, a long-running literary magazine—these are the marks of a talented writer. My mother showed me that by removing the pressure to exhibit, to publish, in a traditional way, you give yourself permission to experiment, to create. You give yourself permission to grow, and growth is the cornerstone of a creative career.
I may no longer want to be a painter when I grow up, but just like my mother, I will never stop creating, never stop growing.