If Wishes Were Horses
February 22, 2019 § 29 Comments
by Jan Priddy
In his 1943 novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner blames the life struggles of Bo Mason on the drag of his responsibilities for his wife and children. Without them, Bo might have become a great man.
Can anyone expect to make a life in the arts while simultaneously supporting themselves and a family?
The short answer is: probably not.
Through my undergrad years at the University of Washington, I won scholarships, but mostly I worked at least eighteen hours a week, thirty hours when I could get them. I lived at home and then in absolute squalor. It was a long while ago, and both minimum wages and tuition were lower, but even in the 1970s and 80s people graduated with debt or had parents able to pay support them. I expected to become a full-time artist.
Early on, I was advised to marry money. Instead, I found a day job.
My first post-college job was teaching visual arts part-time at the second-lowest-paying school in the State of Washington. At that time, my husband and I were both working, both pursuing personal goals. When we left Seattle to live in my great grand-aunt’s house, our plan was to start a family. My husband was the primary breadwinner when our children were first born, and I was the primary breadwinner for a long time after that. My husband and I always worked.
John Gardner, in one of his books about writing, warns the would-be writer against choosing to teach as a means of support and especially warns not to teach writing. Creative energy and teaching energy come from the same place, he wrote, and it is better to choose a mindless day job as a means of support. I recall reading that advice and knowing he was right. But I did it anyway. I became a high school English teacher, and I could not go back and change that, because teaching is also the reason I turned from visual arts to writing. I became a writer because I was teaching writing.
Teaching is exhausting and meaningful and interesting work. I never had the time I thought I would outside my obligations as a teacher—time for my art. That fabled “three months in the summer.” There was no leisure time early on as a visual artist teaching Art, and certainly not later as a mother teaching English. I went to graduate school and worked those ten summer weeks. It was hard, but our sons earned college degrees with modest debt (theirs, ours not-so modest), and we had frugal habits. We live in a beautiful place we could never afford to buy, but if we’d stayed in Seattle in the house we could afford, we would likely have been better off financially as employment opportunities were better. We might not have had children. We made choices. We raised our children.
Most of the full-time writers I know have or had a spouse who supported them—both men and women—or some other means of financial support. Most recognize they are lucky. Some others demonstrate little understanding of my struggle to stay afloat without outside help or a trust fund. I have worked with writers who have never worked, or never needed to work for pay.
A visual artist visited me after the birth of my first child, a friend from college who asked, “How does it feel to have given it all up?” The assumption was that as a mother, I had abandoned my goals as an artist. I was still in my twenties and I cried for days after that friend drove away.
Years later, in conversation with a writer friend, I complained about the challenge of finding free time, genuinely free time as a mother. My friend said, “We make sacrifices for our art, if it matters to us.” That person had a private income, and I resented the reproach.
I have always believed that I could accomplish a great deal, that I could not have everything I wanted, but a lot even if I could not have it all at once.
My MFA was something I had promised myself for after our sons graduated from college. I kept that promise. I had been writing seriously for years—whole novels and hundreds of stories—before I began the program at the age of 52. Perhaps it was already too late to accomplish what I might have had I jettisoned marriage and children, had I the leisure or financial support to be a full-time creator in my younger years. I developed habits of hurry and compromise and that impact my work even now. Perhaps my publications came too late for a “career.” Well, of course it is too late. Too late to have a first book by age 40 as I might have. If things were different. In another life.
We all make choices. I was not born with money, and I did not marry it or inherit it. I chose to have children, and I chose a creatively taxing occupation to support myself. We all have regrets, but living and working here and marrying the man I love and raising my children are not among my regrets.
Stegner blamed the wife and children for his character’s failures. Stegner, who borrowed liberally from the memoirs and journals of wives and mothers in more than one of his novels, can stuff it. So can Ray Carver, another man who off-loaded the burden of wife and children.
I might have done what they did. Anyone might have planned better or at least differently. I might have chosen writing as an undergraduate goal rather than turning to it twenty years later. I might have ridden that flying wish-horse.
That is not what I chose. Writing is what I do. It is not all that I am.
Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as Brevity Magazine, CALYX, The Humanist, Liminal Stories, North American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is still struggling with a utopian science fiction story and nonfiction structured like a sonnet.