When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child;
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I’m not a child psychologist. Nor do I have a terribly accurate or comprehensive memory of my own childhood. So I am struggling a little to get to the roots of what happens to children in adolescence that makes most of us stray from the art-making that is the hallmark of every childhood. When and why do we abandon crayons and coloring books and singing and dressing up?
My adolescence was somewhat unusual. I came to America three weeks before my 13th birthday and I didn’t fit in. I had spent the previous three years in an Israeli public school, speaking only Hebrew. Right before that I had been in an American school in Pakistan. And my elementary school was a Presbyterian boarding school in Australia.
I don’t have any distinct memory of drawing much at that age. I know I read a lot and I wrote stories. But I don’t think I’d lost the pleasure of drawing. However, a couple of years later I’m pretty sure I was thinking of myself as ‘artistic’. I had friends who were ‘artsy’ too; my school didn’t have a distinct jock set but those of us who were interested in art were a clique of a sort, albeit with blurred edges. By sixteen, I’d begun to act in school productions, to write and draw for the school paper and by seventeen, I was selling buttons I made out of little drawings and was then asked to teach a class on ‘Portable Art’ for other students. So by junior year, my self-image was certainly associated with, if not 100% tied to, making things and being creative.
I think what was going on in those years had a lot more to do with other people than with my own sense of myself. When I was a kid, I just made things, drew things, painted things, sang in the bath, made story books, but all for me. It was just stuff I did, like playing. I would no more have thought of myself as an artist than I thought of myself as a Lego engineer or a cowboy. If anything, I wanted to be a veterinarian.
I was pretty clueless in my strange new surroundings; I had no cultural history and was pretty insecure and awkward and shy (not to mention ashamed of the unwelcome hairs and pimples that seemed to be sprouting all over me). So being ‘artistic’ was a way of providing a label for myself –it beat the label of ‘fag’ that my nemesis Tim O’Brien gave me in 8th grade and ‘wimp’ (9th grade) and ‘nerd’ (10th grade). In 11th grade, in a production of Tad Mosel’s Impromptu, I got to kiss the prettiest girl in the senior class in front of the entire student body. Tim O’Brien was the ticket-taker.
So for me, this self-definition was a good thing. I drew and painted and acted more and more in order to solidify this image. (For my best friend, Julian, who was 6’3″ and captain of the basketball team, my image and my cynical, anti-authoritarian presence was a liability; the coach was constantly telling him to stay away from me and concentrate on his jump shot. Ironically, Julian’s mother is a successful artist.) While being a good student wasn’t exactly disparaged, it didn’t give one much social cachet. However, making buttons and painting on my shoes and donating huge canvases of feet to the library and doing snarky cartoons for the school paper was a way of being someone.
Senior year, things seem to have changed. Our school, being progressive and Quaker, didn’t give grades (this was in the late 1970’s) and so applying to college became an anxious affair. We had to do well on the SATs, as they were the main concrete bit of evaluation one had to go on. I. for some reason, became determined to go to Princeton, though I applied to other schools. Somehow under this whole academically intense period of scrutiny, I reinvented my notion of myself as a serious person, a writer, a scholar. Sure, I had diverse interests, but I dismissed all that painting and acting as folderol. I was going to be a typical creature of the 1980s –not quite willing to be an investment banker, perhaps but aware that conformity and Donald Trumpery were the hallmarks of the day. Within a year or two of college, I had more or less stopped painting and drawing and was majoring in Political Science.
I don’t know if my story is typical. However, there is no doubt that adolescence is a time of self-consciousness and identity molding. Added to that pressure is pour society’s deification of wealth and the sense that art = penury.
I worry about my boy –eleven and so in love with drawing and filmmaking and acting and singing and fantasy –will he be twisted away from these loves and become stifled and embarrassed by Art? Will he choose some identity that forbids an acknowledgment of the need we all have to make things? I hope not. And I think, having the sort of family he has, that this is less likely than for most.
But I get a lot of mail from people who have lost their long-ago urge to be creative and who feel very afraid and anxious and unsure about picking up the pieces again. Is there some sort of crossroads we all come to? And what can we do to make sure that we don’t suffer some irrevocable break with our creative selves. I believe very strongly that Art can be spelled with a small ‘a’, that one doesn’t need to be a professional, celebrated, wealthy creative person to be creative at all. I believe that creativity is like exercise or cooking, something that can and should be just a part of everyday life or everybody. Without it, we suffer individually and collectively. It took me two decades to regain my love of making things for its own sake and I mourn those lost years, the painting and photos and films and drawings and sculptures I might have made but didn’t. Now all I can do is make up for that lost time and vow not to lose my way again.
I will admit that my self-image is still tied up with making art. I am part of a community of creative people now – the readers of this blog and my books, my many new friends who make art – and that this community is part of what keeps me going … to an extent. I am working hard to loosen the grip of the ego and I am making progress. Honestly, even if I dwelt in complete obscurity and my internet connection was severed, I would draw just as much for that pure feeling that floods my skull when I concentrate and let the ink flow.
How about you?