A few months ago, my husband was offered a fantastic opportunity. This piece of information is mostly irrelevant to the topic at hand, except to say that while the opportunity was fantastic, “seizing it” meant some sacrifices for both of us. More hours away from the family for him, and a few more chores and responsibilities at home for me.
Now, because my husband is pretty great, he has always made my son’s lunch for school. (How’s that for gender equality?) On the odd occasion that he couldn’t , I stepped in, awkwardly, as I do with most things, piecing together my son’s lunch box like I had no idea what young humans eat in the middle of the day. Smoked Salmon? Blue cheese stuffed dates? Kids like those things, right?
Anyway, in the past, when I made lunch I always put a funny sketch on my son’s napkin. And while he almost never ate the lunch I made him, he always mentioned the sketch.
So when suddenly via my husband’s good luck, I found myself having to make a lunch every day, my son had expectations. On days there was no doodle on his napkin, he would make sure to remind me to include one the next day.
This was no problem, honestly. The doodles are simple, they take five minutes and I never lack for material.
Now, I am a not an artist. I am an author. A serious one… or at least I consider myself to be a serious author, who writes serious books about serious things. And if I can just drive the “serious” point home a tiny bit more, because it is important; This practice of taking myself seriously is one that I instituted when I decided that if I was going to be a professional writer, that the very first person who was going to have treat me like a professional was myself, because if I never did, then certainly no one else ever would.
Eight years from that decision I am glad to say I am no longer the only person who considers me to be a professional writer. I have a book you can buy (in stores even!) and all the things that come with the trappings of a publishing career, like agents and editors and an inferiority complex.
So back to the lunches and the doodles. Around the time I began making the lunches, a fellow author friend told me how much she loved Instagram. I uploaded it and found it… well I found it to be fine. I followed a few people I knew, a couple I didn’t, mostly it was something for me to visit when I was taking a break from my serious work.
And then one day, I’m not sure when, I was particularly proud of one of my little napkin doodles. I snapped a picture and uploaded it as a Instagram “story,” which have the lovely feature of disappearing within a day of being posted… the app lets you know how many people laid eyes your picture, which is nice, but there is no mechanism for “likes” or even comments really. All it tells you is that you have been “seen.”
Turns out, it’s kinda fun to be seen. As an author I typically spend years on a project before it’s “seen.” As a screenwriter, I have worked on projects that experience has taught me will never be seen at all, because they will never be “realized” in their final form. This “serious” path I have taken is a long one.
Now, as a writer I try not to “hate” words as a practice, but I have come to despise the word BRAND. Jump into the writing community and it won’t take long to hit on an article about how to “brand yourself” as a writer of thrillers or romances or angry screeds about the electoral college.
I only posted my funny little sketches as Instagram Stories, quite frankly, because they were “off brand” for a serious writer who should only be posting about books and writing and… I don’t know, books about writing.
But I kept posting them.
When my toddler complained that she never got drawings, I started making them for her, pictures of her with her imaginary Tyrannosaurus. Family portraits I painted with the ninety-nine cent watercolor tray and the brush that came with it.
I sat to color when my kids did it and I noticed something. They also wanted their work to be seen, even if it was just the briefest glance (“Look at my picture, Mom!”) but as soon as I had looked, they moved on to the next.
That was when the strangest thing started happening to my serious work… it started surprising me. It got a little more playful and little less concerned with where it was headed. It was still serious, but somehow releasing the pressure valve on being seen lightened the weight I did not know I was feeling until it was gone.
And then for some reason I posted a sketch to my actual feed. One that wouldn’t disappear in 24 hours. And then I posted another one. And then another.
And almost immediately I began to be afraid… because, I’d gone “Off Brand.” I’d shared a part of myself publicly that didn’t quite jibe with the “serious” author jig I’ve been dancing for the past few years. I’m not a professional artist, I don’t aspire to be one… In fact to the few sweet people who commented that it was something I should pursue, my immediate thought was, “Why would I ruin this? This is just me playing.”
This is where President Bush comes in.
A few years ago, the President was hacked and several of his paintings were leaked to the public. The press had great fun mocking the self portraits he made of himself in the bathroom, of how presumptuous it was for the man who was formerly the most powerful person in the world to attempt to express himself artistically. And no matter how I felt about the man politically, as a creator of things, the way the world laughed at those pictures made me want to hide in a closet. “How humiliating to be exposed like that. If I were him, I’d never paint again.” Likewise I cringed at the thought that anyone would think that my sketches were “presumptive.” Who does she think she is?
But, boy, did I like what sharing them was doing to my “serious” work and I did not want to give it up.
I decided that I could continue sketching, but only if I somehow make it “on brand” by making it book related. I decided to make a Book Portrait (Or in the parlance of Instagram a #BookPortrait) of my favorite book of last year… Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC. Only as I was painting the image I made did I really take in the subtitle on the book I have gifted to so many of my friends; “Creative Living Beyond Fear.”
I was trying to hide my creative fear behind a book about pushing beyond fear. The irony was not lost.
Before I sat down to write this, I looked up the search terms, “George Bush Paintings” just to be certain of the dates the President’s paintings were leaked. I discovered that he has a collection of his work due out in January… so I guess he didn’t end up in that creative closet after all. And, yeah, there will probably be some finger pointing and laughter at the work contained in his book, but he went ahead and put it out there anyway.
When the organizers of SnoIsle Libraries’s Tedx approached me to read a piece I’m working on for their event, I had to sit with that same discomfort. As I was preparing I felt the impulse to “pretend” not to be a trained performer… “that’s not how authors behave,” I thought… and then… I went ahead and I did it the way my heart told me to do it anyway. Off Brand.
It turns out being “Off Brand” is good for my work and it looks an awful lot like me just being myself. I can shout “look at this,” grab a few eye balls, maybe make a few people feel something and then move on, just like my kids. It is not a mistake that most of the drawings I make are meant to wipe the mustard off of my son’s face before he goes to recess… I am the first person not taking them seriously.
And yet… something else has since occurred to me.
One of my favorite authors, someone both I and the rest of the world take quite seriously, once drew a picture of an asterisk in a book… and then surprised and delighted his readers by telling us it was actually a picture of an asshole. His drawings weren’t particularly good, but they were confident and fun and told you something about the man as a writer and a person. And while I wouldn’t presume to be like Vonnegut, it is good to remind myself as an artist that one of my heroes didn’t seem to think being playful and being serious were mutually exclusive.