The Selfish Artist: A Monster in the Mirror?

It’s not pretty being a committed creative. It can demand well-tended boundaries. Sometimes, for example, a love relationship suffers, in favor of a greater priority – the artist’s creative life.

Who’s in your circle?

Compare being a committed creative person to being a loving parent. How much will you sacrifice, when it comes to protecting the object of your devotion? You’ll need people in your circle who respect your creative process. And you’ll live with the risk of being characterized as self-absorbed, selfish, and inconsiderate.

When entering into a new relationship, if the partner has children at home, they will necessarily be important members of the new circle that you are forming. Similarly, if one or both of you are engaged in a creative life, your creative practice must be taken seriously too, as part of the family circle. Like children, creative lives can be inconvenient, frustrating, demanding, and expensive as well as satisfying and essential.

Susan Sontag’s diaries, edited posthumously by her son, David Rieff, also a writer, included this passage, written when he was a child: “I am waiting for David to grow up the way I waited to get through school and grow up. … The three sentences I’ve served: my childhood, my marriage, my child’s childhood. I must change my life so that I can live it, not wait for it. Maybe I should give David up.” (emphasis added)

black and white photo of an oval mirror in an ornate silver frame on a black background. Instead of a face in the mirror, there's a skull partly obscured in wispy smoke

Do we see a monster in the mirror?
Image by creatifrankenstein from Pixabay

How much will you bend for another person’s needs?

How much do you think they should bend for yours? Commitment – even devotion – to our creative work is essential if we want to support a career as an artist. How does that work, when you’re in relationship with someone?

Do they understand what it means to live / be a partner with an artist? Does being unpaid or insufficiently paid for your most meaningful work make sense to them? Can they accept that?

How much emotional labor are you expected to contribute to the relationship – and is the quantity related to your partner’s ignorance / misapprehension about what it takes to sustain your ongoing creative practice?

Can you / will you adjust your daily practices for the benefit of the relationship?

Do you know how to have conversations that begin with lines like these?

“You’re just sitting there. Why don’t you go to the grocery store now, since you’re not doing anything?”

“You haven’t left your computer for hours. I need to talk to you NOW.”

“I know yesterday went sideways, but the kid has to be picked up in 20 minutes and I’m tired.”

“What do you mean you can’t spare the time to go out with our friends this weekend? I told you about this dinner a month ago.”

“You dealer/agent/publisher called. No, I didn’t ask what it was about. I have a life too, you know.”

Low-budget scenario

Available money, time, and space can provide  a cushion. When those are in shorter supply, the crunch is likely to feel tighter and more difficult to finesse.

I was once in a relationship with a talented guitar player / songwriter who worked at low-paying clerical jobs to support his creative life. He would live in the skeeviest dwelling, and eat the cheapest food, to keep himself going as a musician in New York City. When we met, I had just quit a higher-paying white-collar job because it had gotten so intense I rarely had the space and time for my creative life.

Some time later, when my business was beginning to do more than just pay off loans, I received an unexpected and generous cash bonus from a client. When I mentioned this windfall to the guitar player, I remember clearly the next thing he said: “Wow, now you can buy me that cool guitar I’ve been wanting to get.” There’s a person in touch with their priorities.

Getting things done

Being an artist is a commitment. Brushing it off to the side, for the convenience of others or from an abundance of self-doubt, does not honor it. It may look selfish and it may feel uncomfortably self-interested to include your creative work among your top priorities. And yet – that’s how we get work done.

As Claire Dederer says, “Finishers are always monsters. Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.” (Rebecca Solnit’s insightful critique of Dederer’s essay is here.)

Is being selfish bad?

That’s another question, isn’t it? We can argue that a good artist is fundamentally generous, in their calling to share new work with their audience. Some selfishness is required to fulfill that commitment. If we artists blur or destroy the boundaries that keep our time and energy intact, we’ll never get to the place from which to be generous because we won’t have completed any work.

A kinder and gentler monster-lite?

Maybe there’s a middle way. Maybe we can identify and secure our boundaries, while remaining grounded and compassionate – for ourselves as well as for those we’re close to. Maybe we can become opportunistic enough to secure a creative life with moments of meaning, and open-minded enough to consider the needs and honor the rights of our friends and colleagues.

Maybe when we look in the mirror we’ll be able to see a cuddlier, more approachable person — with some edgy vibes — who still keeps their priorities straight.

The time may be right. Austin Kleon says “the cultural celebration of the Art Monster is fading, and the myth that being an absent parent, a cheater, an abuser, an addict, an asshole, etc. is somehow a prerequisite for — or is somehow excused by — great work is slowly being torn down. And if making great art ever let you off the hook for your failures as a human being, those days are going away, too.”

How do you handle these tensions? Do you have a poster child or role model who approaches their committed creative life the way you aspire to live yours? I’d love to know.


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