Art Needs You
I wrote my first story in Kindergarten. Someone else wrote down the words for
me, but the story was my own. It was about a rainbow-colored dragon. I remember
"writing" that story with the help of my teacher. As soon as I was in first grade, I
began to write my own letters to make words, stories about giants and heroes and
fantastical creatures and ordinary girls who went to new worlds and were scared
and kept on going anyway. In junior high, I wrote several novels, one of which I
sent to a local publisher and got a very nice, personalized rejection from, asking
me to send them other submissions if I had them.
Then when I hit high school, people told me that writing was a "hobby," that I
needed a "real job" for the sake of practicality and because writing would never
pay. I didn't know anyone who proved them wrong, so I began to believe it was
true. What else could I do with my life? I was good at lots of things in the way that
bright teenagers often are. At the level that you need to be in high school to get an
"A," I was good at everything that I tried. Which didn't make it any easier to
figure out what I should do with my life while I was waiting to figure out how to
be an author. Eventually, I figured I should be a teacher of literature, because then
I could spend time with the literature I loved and have an excuse to read and write.
And if it didn't pay well, at least I would have a steady paycheck and benefits.
For almost all of my high school years and through college, and nearly to the end
of graduate school, I stopped writing stories for myself or anyone else. I told
myself I was working "too hard." But really, the truth was, I had lost faith in
myself and in my dream. I had started to tell myself the same thing that other
people had told me, that writing as a profession wasn't a good career choice. In the
back of my mind, what I believed was that I was never going to be good enough to
ever get published. And also maybe that stories didn't really matter in the scheme
of things, that writers weren't important people, and that I needed to stop
dreaming and live a real life.
I was writing my dissertation, spending most of every day with books in a quiet
office space, typing in front of my computer when I needed to get down some
notes. And I realized that I needed something more. So I made myself work at my
regular job for eight hours a day, and then gave myself a mere 30 minutes to work
on a project of my own. First, it was a coming-of-age story about a young girl and
the rigid grandmother she lives with. I realize looking back that this was a story
about my own rigid expectations of myself and my desire to get free of them. After
that, I wrote a romance about a character who was dying. Again, looking back, I
am a little amused to realize how much I was writing about my own sense of
impending death if I truly gave up my creative dreams and threw myself
completely into a life of teaching about the novels of other writers I wanted to be.
Eventually, I did get my PhD from Princeton University in Germanic Language
and Literatures. And I taught for several years at Brigham Young University in the
German department. Mostly, I taught language courses, but occasionally I was
lucky enough to get an intro to literature course and I read student papers and
critiqued them. I was rigorous and some students complained that I was
When I applied for a full-time position because I was tired of living the financial
life of a student, I watched myself as if from some strange distant position, saying
things like "I'd rather work as an author than a full-time professor." Not the best
way to get a job offer, to say the least. But it was true. It was a truth I was finally
acknowledging to myself and to the world, and that was an important moment for
me. It was painful beyond words. It took years for me to get over the feeling of
rejection that came from not being offered a position I felt very qualified for, and
that I had spent all of my adult life working toward.
On the other hand, no longer teaching gave me the time that I had needed to really
try out my writing skills, dusty at that point, but not irretrievable. I had to spend a
couple of years unlearning the rather pedantic style of academic writing (there's
no bonus in subtlety there and plenty of bonuses for using the biggest word instead
of the clearest one). And then I spent a couple more years sending out manuscripts
and collecting rejections. I had by then found a writer's group, and I knew that
collecting rejections was what aspiring writers did to prove how serious they were.
I saw the path and I hoped it would lead somewhere.
In the meantime, what did I do about food? Well, my children and I survived on
my husband's meager salary as an entrepreneur and a wonderful government
program called WIC. I spent about $200 a month on food and for a good while we
didn't have a car because we couldn't afford one. Luckily, we lived right around
the corner from the grocery store, two blocks from the park, and I could walk the
kids to the library with the stroller in a pinch. I discovered that I was much happier
struggling to become a writer than I ever had been doing the more sensible job of
being a teacher. I won't say that everyone should do this. It was a scary time in
many ways, and it put pressure on my husband to earn more because I was no
longer helping out until I sold my first book a few years later. On the other hand, it
was right for me.
When the kids played by themselves, I read books. When they didn't, I read to
them. I was hoarse at night sometimes because I read books so much. We didn't
have cable or a television, so I was their main source of entertainment. And when
it was naptime, which I rigorously enforced, I wrote. I got in about 2,000 words a
day and I found that I wasn't hungry when I was writing. I needed those stories to
come out of me more than I needed food. I loved reading other stories and
thinking about how I could do it better. Sometimes I would rewrite the text of the
children's books I read out loud to my children.
In 1999, I got my first offer for a book contract, two years after I left teaching at
the university. It was for a tiny amount of money, but it was at least money.
Looking back, I am well aware that the people who told me that being a writer
wasn't a practical career were absolutely write. I would probably have earned
more in terms of dollars per hour if I had worked at McDonald's than I have as a
writer. But I couldn't have done that and survived, I don't think. People who
become writers aren't the kind of people who would make great CEOs or
politicians or maybe even good neighbors.
But writers are important. Stories are important. Not everything that matters in life
is about money. Or even food and shelter. There are deeper needs. Self-expression
is one of them, and that is what art is, at its base.
If you're someone who can't remember when you started telling stories or creating
other art, if you're someone who has started to listen to people who say that you're
not good enough or that your art doesn't matter, please -- don't believe them.
The art you create matters.
For you, and for however many people are lucky enough to connect to your work,
Some of the books I read from the library during those early years are books that
feel like they are part of my life. I think of the characters from Lois McMaster
Bujold's Vorkosigan series as members of the family. They talk to me sometimes
and tell me snarky things. I lived Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt as if it were my
own life and sometimes have a hard time remembering which parts were really
mine and which were part of the fiction I imagined I lived. I swallowed some
books whole and other books I argue with in my head. Why do I do this?
Because books matter to me. Sure, they are just squiggly lines on paper (or on a
screen) that connect you in some way to the mind of another person. But those
squiggly lines are still things that I stay up late for. I soothe myself by reading old
favorites on a hard day. I cry along with favorites when I need a good cry and feel
like I can't justify it for something that happened to me alone.
Some of the authors whose works I swallowed whole are authors I know
personally today. Many are not. But that's the thing. You don't have to meet an
author to feel that important connection to them. An author doesn't have to be the
characters in the book. An author doesn't even have to be a nice person. An author
simply has to create something. This is a bridge that matters, even more now in a
world where we see and touch and breathe next to each other.
The book you are going to create will be a book that someone, somewhere, takes
out and rereads. Your book may save someone's life. Your book may be a book
that is shared between parent and child umpteen times at bedtime. Your book may
be the book that makes another person want to become a writer.
Even if only one person finds your art and realizes it is the one thing that truly
speaks to them, that makes them feel their life is worth living, that their point of
view is real, that they matter -- you have done your job. You have proven your
point. You have shown that you are good enough.
Stop listening to that voice that tells you to stop. If you have to have another job to
create, then do what is necessary. But don't give up your art because you don't
believe in yourself or because other people don't believe in you.
You are a unique person and only you can write the stories that are inside you.
Someone else needs those stories. And I think art itself needs you to make it grow
and change and become better than it was before.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison