books you may love: And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman

I had now been on this earth long enough to realize that if I was to sacrifice other parts of my life to writing, it guaranteed nothing other than the sacrifice. ~ And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman

books you may love: And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

I've been meaning to write about this book, 'And Then We Grew Up' by Rachel Friedman, but I've only managed to mention it in passing in a handful of posts over the past fortnight.

But this is one of those books that hilariously and poignantly calls BS on many of the myths I had bought into as an artist (writer) making a living from her art (writing).

Paperback copy of And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman featuring a splash of bright colours

Friedman, who had shown promise as a young violist in her childhood, quit music in college when crippling anxiety began to grip her. Yet, she was unable to stop fantasizing about how her life might have turned out had she continued to play the viola.

Years later, she turned to freelance writing in New York, and continued to grapple with the vast contrast between the fantasy of an artist's life versus its messy and complicated reality.

Seeking answers to this inexplicable conundrum, she reached out to the childhood friends she made while at Interlochen Arts Camp to see if their adult lives bore any resemblance to any fantasies they may have had as young adults with respect to their creative ambitions.

Friedman might have very well slipped into my mind somehow and recorded my thoughts on the subject, so much did the book speak to me.

For years now, I've been grappling with my creative ambitions, the fantasies I've held about what it means to live a writer's life, and the crushing disappointment at the realisation that reality always, always falls short of that idealistic verison I hold in my head.

Because, in that fantasy, little D is miraculously taken care of without me playing any part in it, food appears on the table without any thought or action on my part, the house somehow cleans itself without me having to lift a finger, and weeds know better than to grow in the little yard we have!

Such a person is not an artist, such a person is an Art Monster, as Friedman defines for us.

On Being an Art Monster

One of the first childhood friends Friedman talks about is Jenna, a gifted violinist who now teaches music to high school students, and has a musician spouse and also a baby.

When I visited Jenna in Chicago, the impression I got of her life was that it was a balanced artistic one. Her job as a music teacher fed her creative side while also giving her summers and other school breaks off to spend with her husband and baby. If I hadn't known her as a kid, this would have struck me as perfectly lovely. But I'd witnessed her abundant early talent, and caught up as I was in conflicted feelings about my own potential, I couldn't help but feel like she kind of, well, owed her talent an attempt to be the absolute best on the biggest possible stage.
And it seemed to me that people who strove for that kind of greatness weren't well-rounded spouses and parents and high school orchestra conductors. They were art monsters. I stole that phrase from Jenny Offill's brilliant novel Dept. of Speculation, about a woman considering what it means to be an artist once you become a spouse and mother.  In it, the unnamed narrator tells us she had planned to be an art monster instead of getting married: "... art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him."
I believed that real artists are art monsters. They choose art above all else.
Regardless of how great artists see themselves, our culture romanticizes artistic suffering. We aspire towards balance while we are simultaneously captivated by stories of reclusive writers, eccentric entrepreneurs, and beautiful-mind mathematicians. Any tortured genius will do, really.
I believed from an early age that to pursue an artistic passion meant I needed to be dedicated as exclusively as possible to it—potentially sacrificing happiness, family, even sanity. I believed what the writer Susan Sontag said: "There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work."
Art monsters definitely didn't become teachers instead of performers, as Jenna had. And they'd rather starve than take day jobs, as I recently had. They followed passion, not paychecks. This is art monster mythology sprinkled with a dash of American dream "do what you love" cultural messaging, of course.
There is a hidden challenge in this art monster mythology. If you can be happy doing something else, if you would survive untortured not Making Art, not sacrificing everything to the muse, then you weren't really an artist in the first place.
~ And Then We Grew Up, by Rachel Friedman

Meeting Jenna convinced Friedman somewhat that one didn't need to be an art monster in order to live a creative life.

Art monsters definitely weren't moms, at least not ones whose kids didn't end up with hefty therapist bills. You have no choice but to adjust your ambitions somewhat if you want to balance your various identities: teacher, parent, spouse, musician, and so forth. Jenna understood this and didn't see it as a cost—she saw it as necessary compromise—but I wasn't so sure.
And forget the high stakes of relationships and babies for a moment. I was wary of anything that ate into my writing time. More and more of adult life these days seem to be taken up with, well, adulting. Just those basic boring tasks that eat up huge chunks of time: cooking, commuting, cleaning, folding, grocery shopping, financial planning, insurance getting, apartment hunting. Ad infinitum.
Art monsters didn't care about dishes. They didn't care about picking up the dry cleaning. They cared only about—you guessed it—art. But when I spent time with Jenna at her house with her baby and Kent, I didn't see her resisting or resenting these mundane tasks of domestic life. There were times she was overwhelmed, she told me. There were days it felt like she was spread too thin. But on the whole she was thriving in a balanced space she had created that encompassed both the creative and the practical.
And anyway, what if I did sacrifice it all to the muse, if I doubled down on the idea that having a partner or kids or steady paycheck or consistently clean dishes would spell the end of my artistic ambitions? Then what? I had now been on this earth long enough to realize that if I was to sacrifice other parts of my life to writing, it guaranteed nothing other than the sacrifice.
~ And Then We Grew Up, by Rachel Friedman

These parts of the book spoke to me so much. There is so much wisdom in these lines, because even in the writing community I see so many people touting these idealized versions of a fantasy writer's life.

Getting up at 3 A.M.

Getting in 3—4 hours of focussed, uninterrrupted work before the rest of the family wakes up.

Making a living from their art!

This is the one that has killed me with a thousand different cuts ever since I published my first book five years ago!

That if I wasn't earning money from my books, if I wasn't making a full-time living by writing and selling books, then there was no point to writing at all.

No wonder I had become an art monster too, often resenting my role as a parent, often hating the little tasks a grown-up needs to attend to in order to keep life functioning smoothly.

Please forgive me, little D! Please forgive me, KrA!

Friedman moves on, admitting that "meeting up with Jenna was sort of like starting a spiritual quest by dining with the Dalai Lama. Balance seemed to come easily to her, ..."

Friedman is the kind of friend I'd like to have; she must be my soul sister, so readily she has been able to glimpse into my own insecurities and doubts and constant yearning for creative fulfillment and lay them all out in a raw and authentic manner, without criticism or self-flagellation.

Her quest mirrors my own, and the conclusions she arrives at are quite like my own except I often failed to have the courage to voice them or even believe in them, so contradictory to popular opinion they are.

On the Nature of Ambition

I think a lot of ambition is, at its heart, about control. We convince ourselves that with enough ambition we can master money, success, clutter, time, parenting, mind-set—our entire world. And then our fantasy of our life will finally match its reality. (The flip side of ambition fuelled by control is that whenever we fall short of our own expectations, we believe the fault is entirely ours. That we must simply try harder.)
We love the image of the writer/painter/musician startled awake by the muse at 3 A.M. She grabs the notebook by her bed and scribbles furiously, committing her inspired vision to paper before it flees her brain. She loses track of time, is impervious to thirst or hunger. Eventually she notices the sun has risen. She hears people walking to work below her window. And once in a while, this scenario does happen. But mostly the words do not burst forth in a feverish dream state, so you wake up when your alarm goes off and start writing anyway. Or you go to work and write at night, or on the weekends when the kids are napping, or for an hour a day at lunch.
~ And Then We Grew Up, by Rachel Friedman

Friedman also highlights the role that luck has to play in the fruits of our endeavours, and how very few of the countless things that determine the outcome of our endeavours are really in our control.

I have always treated my life like a chess game—focusing on right or wrong moves and what I believed to be their attendant outcomes—when it turns out a poker game is a much more useful analogy.
"Wrap your arms around the uncertainty," Duke said. "Accept it. Know that the way things turn out has a lot of luck involved so don't be so hard on yourself when things go badly and don't be proud of yourself when they go well."
~ And Then We Grew Up, by Rachel Friedman

Spirituality in Coping with Creative Disappointments

The book is filled with so many gems, I can't stop singing its praises. And just when I thought Friedman had said everything that could possibly be said on the topic, she called BS on yet another topic that I've not seen anyone really address when it comes to coping with failures and creative disappointments.

Over the years I've tried reframing my relationship to feelings of disappointment and failure by reading spiritual authors like Eckhart Tolle and Louise Hay. I'm as tempted as the next neurotic New Yorker by anyone who comes along promising serenity through nonattachment, affirmations, and positively manifesting my destiny.
But ... I don't know. Somewhere along the way I always get frustrated by the premise that we have a mind-over-matter relationship with everything from our illnesses to our love lives to our finances. I don't want to be a victim of my circumstances, but surely I don't have control over everything.
And as much as I'm drawn in theory to the idea of non-attachment, it doesn't feel like a realistic or necessarily even desirable goal. I'd rather cultivate what philosopher Todd May calls a "slightly less lacerating vulnerability."
Obviously, I care about the projects and people I put my love and energy into, and that means caring about the outcome of that effort.
~ And Then We Grew Up, by Rachel Friedman

This is the most practical advice I've come across so far in my life on my attitude towards the outcomes of my creative projects.

It's OK to feel disappointed when things don't work out the way I want them to. We don't always have control over everything in our lives, but that doesn't make us victims of our circumstances either.

Many self-help gurus tend to swing towards either one of these two extremes, claiming that if life is not going the way we want it to, then we must be thinking the wrong thoughts, manifesting the wrong things, and not taking full responsibility for our choices and actions.

I can keep quoting passages from this book, and I'd end up writing out the entire book over here. Which is not a bad thing really, apart from the very serious issue of copyright infringement.

Because if that's what it takes for these messages to seep into my subconscious and guide every waking moment of my life, then I can spend the rest of my life copying passages from the book on to a handwritten journal for private use.

Art monster alert!

I don't quite remember how I came across this book in the first place, but I am so glad I did because it provided me with much needed perspective on how to live my own creative life.

Instead of throwing everything out of my life in the name of art, how about I fit art into my life like a responsible adult, without shirking the duties and responsibilities that adulthood and parenthood demand of me?

Such an attitude would definitely make for a happier me, and also transform the energy I bring to my creative practice.

And that's what I certainly want. For my practice to be pleasant and challenging, not filled with anxiety and angst.

Thank you, Rachel, for such an amazing book! I loved it so much I've ordered my very own copy. I'll be reading this book over and over again to remind myself of what really matters in life, to remember that it's not what we create but who we become in the process of creating that matters more.

Folks, go grab a copy of Friedman's book, and I'd be happy to discuss it with you at length any time of any day! So life-changing and life-accepting it is!