Make Her a Damn Burrito: Raising the Young Artist
Here at chez delagar, we’re all working artists. Dr. Skull is a poet and a musician; I write science fiction. The kid runs a web comic which has (literally) hundreds of dedicated fans and (now) a spin-off comic of its own.
This is exactly the sort of life I always wanted, mind you. If I had designed a life on spec at thirteen and submitted it to some Galactic Designer/Overlord, it would have looked pretty much like this. (Maybe a cooler house. With more money? And a robot maid?)
All day long (and most of the night) we are all furiously at work in our own areas of the house – Dr. Skull in his man-cave, the kid in her room, me in my corner of the living room, there by the window with the cats – each with our headphones so our music doesn’t disturb anyone else; each only emerging for more coffee (me) or diet coke black (Dr. Skull) or to demand that I make her a burrito (the kid)…
Here is where paradise comes screeching to a halt.
The kid, of course, is perfectly capable of making her own burrito. (It’s two minutes in the microwave, c’mon.) What she wants is not a burrito, per se. It’s for her mother to take care of her, even for two minutes. She wants her mother’s attention, even for two minutes.
Which, you know, I understand that. I was a kid once. I had a mother who worked. I used to climb the tree outside our house, winter afternoons, so I could watch for my mother’s car to turn onto our street – that’s how much I hungered for my mother, that’s how much I needed her.
So I know what she’s feeling.
On the other hand: creating art of any sort – writing fiction, writing poetry or music, drawing comics – that’s not something you can shut off like a spigot. When artists get interrupted at their work they tend to be – how will I say this? – cranky.
“I never know when it’s okay to ask for something and when it’s not,” the kid says to me from time to time, ruefully. “Sometimes you’re like, oh, sure, babycakes, I’ll be glad to make you grits and eggs. And other times you’re like AARGH A BLARGH A BLARGH I WILL KILL YOU!!!”
“Yeah, well,” I say. “What do you say when I interrupt you when you’re drawing?”
She makes a face. Then she says, “This is why I like having a writer for a mom. You understand.”
I do try not to interrupt her when she’s drawing.
Even when the dishes are piling up, or it’s time for dinner.
Dinner is the rough one – we try to eat together, which is hard with three artists in the family. And in truth we only manage organized dinners a few times a week, and even for these I have to go around making the announcement at about noon. “We’re having dinner tonight! Schedule it! Dinner at six! Did you hear me?”
“Um,” the kid says.
“What did I just say?”
“Dinner. We’re eating dinner.”
“Don’t get involved in a Join-me, understand?” (This is a kind of conference-call/joint-drawing session.)
“I hear you.”
“Dinner!” I tell Dr. Skull.
“We’re eating at six. Together. Tonight. Dinner.”
“Dinner. At six. Did you hear me?”
“You want me to make dinner?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. We’re going to have dinner! Tonight at six!”
“It’s time for dinner?”
The other excellent part about raising a young artist in a house full of artists is that when we do share a meal, we can talk about art, rather than – well, honestly, I don’t know. What do other households talk about? Football? Politics? We do occasionally talk politics, especially around elections. But mostly we talk about what we’re working on, or what our students are working on, or things we are currently reading or watching – you can’t be a writer or an artist, as I tell all my students, if you don’t read and look at art.
“This is the best part about having a writer for a mom,” my kid told me, after I helped her out with a problem in the structure of her newest comic. “I can get artistic advice.” Then she added thoughtfully, “I just wish you knew more about drawing.”
“Because I could really use some advice about color palettes.”
“Better luck with your next mom.”
Rolling her eyes, she retreats with her burritos (which, yes, I have made for her, to assuage my guilt, tonight being one of the nights we will not, in fact, have dinner) to her room, where she will work until four a.m. on drawing her comic, with intermittent forays into homework, meanwhile chatting via Skype with various artist friends as far away as Scotland and New Zealand, and as close as Louisiana and Boston. As I stagger off to bed (at two in the morning) I will hear her singing along to the Mountain Goats and laughing hysterically at something one of these friends has said. “No, do it! You’ve got to do it! That’s a perfect plot twist! If you don’t do it, I’ma steal it for my story!”
This is (maybe) the best part about raising a young artist – the fact that she spends fifteen hours a day in her room. It’s like raising a hermit.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding!
The best part is watching her grow as an artist.
I do give her advice – some advice – but in fact, though she takes direction well, and though we have provided her with as much help as we know how (an art tutor, art supplies, trips to museums, books and music), mostly we have just gotten out of her way and given her room to work.
The internet these days is an amazing resource for young artists. There are venues like Deviant Art, and others like Tumblr and Etsy, Blogspot and Kindle Direct, and (I am sure) others I don’t even know about*, which give young artists places to publish their work – publish in the original meaning of publish: to put it before the public.
This is all to the good. When I was a kid, and maybe when you were as well, the only way to receive feedback on your work was to show it to parents and teachers and friends. This was of very limited use, at least in my environment. (Maybe yours was different!) One thing you can do for your young artist is encourage them to show their work to a broad and useful audience. Criticism, and by this I mean useful and helpful criticism, is oxygen for the artist; they won’t get that without making their work public.
They’ll also risk receiving negative and harmful criticism when they put their work out in the world; this is why you should ride shotgun on these publishing voyages. Make sure your kid knows about good and bad criticism, good and bad readers, good and bad comments, and how to tell these apart. (My general test for these has nothing to do with how it makes you feel: it’s whether the comment is useful to the work or not – whether it teaches the artist something that will make the work a better work. Though yes, if the comment or criticism is phrased in such a way that it makes the artist feel like a terrible human being, maybe also the critic is an asshat?)
Other things you can do for your young artist:
- Take them seriously as an artist. Pay attention to their work, critique their work, read or look at or listen to their work.
- Find some way, if you possibly can, to help them get better at their work: lessons, books, trips to museums, whatever is within your reach. This is another way of taking their art seriously.
- It may be true that they can’t make a living as an artist. And you might, being a really good parent, be deeply concerned about their future, and blah blah blah. Don’t mock them or tell them not to quit their day job or tell them no one can make a living drawing pictures or whatever you think you just have to say. Instead, encourage their art and – maybe – help them find a way to also make living. For instance, many musicians also teach music.
- Give them time to work on their art.
That last is really the best thing you can do for the young artist: give them room, and time, to work.
Let the dishes (and everything else) pile up. Make them the damn burritos. Give them time.
*Feel free to mention these in the comments!
(Image credits: A kid drawing, Wikicommons; Dirty Dishes, Wikicommons.)