“I’m not an artist. If I was an artist, I would need to paint,” my mom explained almost gravely, flipping my heart-shaped pancake on the stovetop. Sitting on the edge of the kitchen bench, tiny legs swinging, I’d asked my mom if she was an artist. Looking for my stuffed beagle in the attic, I’d found a painting she had made, depicting my brother and I on the beach behind our house, filling a canvas bucket hat with rocks. Thick dabs of paint created a lake dappled with gleaming waves of sunshine, and my brother’s and my cherub cheeks were rosy and full.
When I was five, I didn’t think about what it meant to be an artist, or what it meant to have a job that socially defines an individual. If people ask a five-year-old who her dad is, she won’t think to say “an accountant” or “a store manager.” She will think of the strong, warm pair of arms that lift her from the floor to a terrifying-but-secure resting place on broad shoulders. A mother is not a part- or full-time position but a manner of living for someone else entirely, as a comfort and a source of strength.
Despite my mother’s attempt at hiding the painting, friends of mine over the years would encounter the easel upon crawling into the attic, usually breathing in awe, “Whoa, where did you get that?” I’d explain that it was my mom’s, and she sort of… stopped being an artist awhile ago, I guess. Though a tiny voice in me said that she hadn’t, that her art wasn’t now limited to the animals drawn up the side of the grocery list but also included the way she listened freely and helped her friends and family openly, with creativity and plasticity of mind.
“I don’t want to be a writer,” I say when they ask, shutting the lid of my laptop and pulling a textbook back out of my backpack. What are you going to write? Are you going to write a novel? What’s it ABOUT? Are you okay? Is this story about YOUR LIFE? Are you depressed? Do you have a crush on that boy, like in that story? How are you going to make that into a JOB?
“I want to work in communications. Journalism. Nonprofits. Public radio. I’ll still be able to write, but I’ll get to work with people. Plus I’ll have a job, and an office, and an income.” The stiff old men at the Scholarship Foundation nod at answers like this. A man with gold cuff-links once chipped in that it’s not too late to be pre-medical. Some of my friends nod at my answer, some don’t seem to believe me, but none really ask. My parents just agree supportively to what I say—no child of a Fine Arts major gets scoffed at for her English degree.
But what I say to myself as I lie in bed and stare up at the vacantly flecked ceiling, and when I’m a tiny pale dot running through the big city, is different. I say that I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, or even where I’m going to start. I don’t even know if I can formulate thoughts “complex” and “important” enough, whatever those mean, to turn into a book. What I do know, though, is that I have to fall asleep soon, because I’m going to wake up and write. I need to.