Obscurity

Here’s a confession: I want to be famous.

I’m rather particular about the sort of fame I want, which is I why I haven’t gone and done some tremendously humiliating thing in public. I don’t want notoriety, and I have an over-developed sense of shame, so negative attention isn’t acceptable. I’d like the fame to arise from something I’ve accomplished rather than something that happened to me. I would very much like to be a best-selling writer, but I’d also be happy with recognition of any other talent; say, finishing a jigsaw puzzle in record time, or the ability to cobble together relatively impressive costumes with cardboard, duct tape, scrap fabric and safety pins.

I am not very proud of this desire. Pursuing fame for its own sake is pure folly. I know this. I try to seek for nobler motivations. If I can get my books published, maybe they can have a positive impact on a wider number of readers. If I have any kind of notice from the public eye, perhaps I can use that platform to speak up about things that matter. If there’s any good reason to seek greater acclaim, it should be in that direction. But there’s a childish, all-too-pushy part of my brain that cries shrilly, “I want people to notice me! Lots and lots of people! And I want them to looove me!”

If I have any sense at all, I should be glad that I’m unlikely to ever be famous. Any celebrity could tell you that fame is rather a two-edged blade. For all the acclaim and adoration, there are plenty of other people who despise you, resent you, criticize every single thing you do. You have no private life. Everything is scrutinized. Of course I don’t want that. I want an imaginary scenario wherein I receive all the pleasant perks of fame and none of the downsides.

But because I’m an overthinker, I want to pick apart this desire and figure out what’s really motivating me. I don’t have to look too far. As I explored earlier, in my heart I’m just an insecure little girl seeking validation. Fame, from that simplistic standpoint, seems like the perfect solution — an endless source of enthusiastic approval.

And even though I know I can’t set on my hopes on external approval, I could really use a little now and then. Motherhood can be a thankless task. The long-term rewards are significant, but in the moment you’re not likely to get much acknowledgement or validation for what you’re doing. In my personal situation, with my children at school most of the day, my role is more of an all-call type. It leaves me a lot of time to wonder what, exactly, I should be doing with myself. If I were a famous writer, the answer would be easy. Write. Provide my adoring readers with more of the books they love. (Now is the time for any hypothetical published writers to laugh hysterically, because the truth is, getting published just makes everything more complicated.) Instead, when I write, it’s with the looming awareness that it might only be for two or three readers. I might never get published. I will probably never be famous.

There is a quote from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that has been, I believe, a trifle misused. “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The assumption seems to be that it’s a dig at well-behaved women, living their meek and quiet and unimportant lives. Now, if it’s used as a rallying cry to fight injustice and call out oppression, that’s perfectly fine. But never to disparage those meek, quiet women. If they’re not recognized by history, the problem lies with the historians, not the women. Do we only value someone because they were well-known? Do we really believe that’s the only measure of a person’s worth?

If I want to recognize and honor the worth of obscure women, I should do it for myself as well. I’m not likely to “make history.” I may only ever be important to a very small circle of people. My husband, my children, my extended family and friends. But what I do matters. It matters to them. And it matters to me. No amount of fame can add to or diminish that fact.

Though it would still be awfully nice to get noticed…..

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Strong

It’s time for a rant.

We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.

That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).

I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.

First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.

Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.

Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.

To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!

I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.

Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.

And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.

I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.

I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Cimorene

This character and series of books (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede) provided one of my earliest encounters with the notion of turning tropes upside-down. I had a solid familiarity with the usual conventions of fairy tales and fantasy stories when I first discovered Dealing with Dragons as a pre-teen. A story that toyed with those conventions in such a playful, entertaining fashion was just about the perfect book for me at that time.

Cimorene is a princess who voluntarily runs away to live with dragons rather than being kidnapped by them. In addition to managing the household of her dragon, Kazul, she has to fend off the countless princes who keep trying to rescue her. Eventually she discovers, and subsequently foils, a secret plot to overthrow the dragons’ ruling structure. Along the way there are amusing bits like outsmarting a vengeful genie (“CHOOSE THE MEANS OF YOUR DEATH” “Old age, please”) and discovering that wizards can’t be melted with plain water like witches, but if you add soap and just a little lemon…

First and foremost, it’s funny, and rewards those readers who know the typical tropes by heart. Second, it portrays several well-rounded female characters in addition to Cimorene — one of them, a witch named Morwen, is the main character of the third book. Thirdly, the plotlines are engaging and contain just the right level of peril for young readers. There is some romance, but it doesn’t undermine the rest of the story or character development as is too often the case in other books. It’s a series that I was happy to recommend to my own daughter.

There are, of course, plenty of stories that subvert familiar conventions (my sister has noted that it would actually be subversive, at this point, to have a princess who enjoyed embroidery) but this is the particular one that encouraged me to really start thinking outside the box. I started actively looking for other books that told their tales with a bit of a wink or a smirk. In later years, I learned to deconstruct tropes as I studied literature, acknowledging what made them work but also seeking fresh, creative ways to remake them or do away with them altogether. And in my own writing I have gleefully looked for ways to turn conventions inside-out. I have no doubt that all of this carries the influence of Cimorene, who ignored the protests of traditionally-minded sorts to find her own peculiar path.

Well, that’s 26 posts in this series. I’ve spent a year on it and enjoyed it very much; now I think it’s time to wrap it up. There are, of course, countless more women writers and characters that I could discuss, but I’d like to move on to something different next year. To start with, I’ve just finished another novel — hooray! –and I have a few things to say about that. Let’s be honest; I’d love to see my own characters showing up on a list like this someday. Anything is possible…

Women of Speculative Fiction: Luthien

I would be remiss if I failed to mention J.R.R. Tolkien, the widely-acknowledged father of modern fantasy, at some point in this survey of speculative fiction. And yet when it comes to female characters, it might seem like there’s not much to write about. His famous works — and therefore most read — are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but among all the characters of The Hobbit, the book contains literally not a single woman. The trilogy fares a little better in this regard, with several significant female roles including the powerful elf Galadriel, Arwen of Rivendell, and of course the sword-maiden Eowyn. There’s something truly epic about how she reveals who she is just before slaying the Witch-King, who believed himself invincible because of the prophecy that “no man” could destroy him.

Still, it could appear that as far as Tolkien was concerned, powerful women were the exception, not the rule — unless you dig a little deeper. If you’re willing to crack open The Silmarillion,  you’ll find that Tolkien was perfectly happy to create striking female characters. The ratio is still skewed toward men, true, but it’s a marked improvement over zero or three. And then we have Luthien.

As her story begins, you might fear that she’s playing the passive part of a typical princess in a fairy tale. Luthien, the daughter of a elven king and a Maia (basically the angels of Tolkien’s world) falls in love with the mortal man Beren. Her father demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Morgoth as the price to marry her (thinking it impossible) and then imprisons Luthien to keep her from going to help him.

But this is not the tale of a helpless maid in a tower. Using the powers she has inherited from her mother, Luthien escapes and goes to Beren’s aid. She befriends the mighty hound Huan, defeats Sauron (currently the servant of Morgoth), rescues Beren from captivity, transforms herself into a vampire and Huan into a werewolf to infiltrate Morgoth’s realm and mesmerizes him with song while Beren steals the Silmaril. Oh, and she also travels to the realm of the dead and manages to persuade the Lord of the Dead to return Beren to her after he dies, then chooses to become mortal so they can remain together.

If that’s not enough to impress you, Luthien carried deep personal meaning for Tolkien himself. He was greatly moved by the sacrifices his own wife had made, particularly her conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism so they could be married. On the Tolkiens’ tombstone, “Beren” is written below his name and “Luthien” is written below his wife’s. It was the highest tribute he could offer.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter

I’ve already written once before about this character, but since she’s one of my favorites, I wanted to include her in the this series. And today I really wanted to write about someone who is deeply principled, unselfish, and just plain good.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion, Elizabeth Moon set out to create a truly believable, well-developed paladin character. She felt like the ones she saw in Dungeons and Dragons games were kind of stupid and unreasonable. That seemed highly unrealistic to her. So she created a tale of a paladin’s origins, from her humble beginnings through all the travails that bring about her transformation into a holy warrior. Pakesanarrion isn’t flawless. She’s not just blandly good. But she wants very much to do right, to use her abilities for something good. And her understanding of how to do this matures and grows over the course of her story.

In the first book of the trilogy, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Paks is a headstrong young woman who runs away from home to avoid being married off. She signs up to become a mercenary because it’s what her older cousin did, and because she’s heard positive things about this particular group of mercenaries. Much of this book describes the nitty-gritty details of (psuedo-medieval) military life. It’s not all glorious battles. There’s lots of training, doing chores, marching, and studying tactics and strategy. Her first experience in battle isn’t particularly impressive, but she’s learning.

Then they encounter a particularly brutal army whose leader doesn’t obey the rules of the other mercenary armies. The honorable mercenaries decided to band together to defeat him. Paks believes with all her heart that this is a worthy cause, and she is eager to serve, particularly to honor the friends she has lost. But the ethical implications are not so simple after their enemy is defeated. As the second book, Divided Allegiance, begins, she realizes that one of their allies is himself an unscrupulous man, and as a part of their alliance with him they are required to enact harsh retribution on his enemies. Paks struggles greatly to reconcile her conscience with what she is being commanded to do. Obeying one’s leader is a virtue, isn’t it? And her leader is a good man, isn’t he? But what if he has allied himself with a bad man? Does that make him bad as well?

Paks is very naive still. She doesn’t want to confront the complexities of human nature. She wants to believe that once she has made an initial judgment on someone’s character, it should be easy to determine whether they’re good or bad. At last, however, she can’t stomach what they’re doing, and requests an honorable release from the mercenaries.

She wanders a bit, offering her sword to whatever cause she believes is good. This doesn’t always work out well for her. Again her naivety leads her to trust people who aren’t particularly trustworthy. And her headstrong nature gets her into trouble again and again. Throughout all this, there are hints that her destiny is leading her to something greater, but she tries to ignore it. She resists the call of Gird, the patron saint of righteous fighters, until at last someone shows her how she has been blaming Gird for the death of her friends who followed him — blaming him for not saving those of his own. He explains that Gird’s followers are not sheep seeking his protection. They are his shepherds. And if they fall in their fight to protect others, they fall doing just what the code of Gird would have them do. Now Paks is happy, even eager, to follow Gird.

It is upon this realization that Paks is offered the opportunity to become a paladin candidate. She can hardly believe it. She has always dreamed of such a glorious thing; the regal mount, the shining armor, the admiring crowds. But all of that is a long way off, as she must learn her hardest lesson yet. First, the nature of morality is examined a little more closely. Though paladins can detect good and evil, that doesn’t mean, as one teacher jokingly describes, that “on one side are the bad people, and you kill them, and over here are the good people, and they cheer for you…It would be nice, but that’s not how it works…Most people — and that includes us, candidates — are mixtures, neither wholly evil nor wholly good.”

Paks tries to understand this. But later, when she is kidnapped and forced to fight for her life again and again, she cannot see that the fighting is providing an opening for great evil. If she is fighting against evil beings, surely she is in the right. Surely she is good. She learns otherwise, to her great sorrow.

At the start of Oath of Gold, Paks is at her lowest point. Alone, weak, despairing and afraid. She finds healing in the most unlikely of places, where she begins to comprehend the true nature of courage. She learns to see that the path of her life, though very painful at times, has given her an understanding that many paladins lack. She understands how it feels to be helpless, and so she is best qualified to serve the helpless with true empathy. She is unique among paladins, receiving her qualifications and powers through unconventional means. And so she embarks on a quest to restore a lost king to his throne, undoing an evil plot that has been going on for decades. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale in its own right, but I enjoy it all the more after watching the development Paks has undergone in order to prepare her for it. I’ve probably re-read the trilogy or parts of the trilogy at least a dozen times, and I never get bored of it.

Paks is one of the most compelling, multi-faceted characters I’ve encountered in a work of fantasy, either male or female. I find myself identifying with her again and again, even though the superficial details of our lives are completely different. I recognize the deeper traits –her determination to do the right thing, to see the good in people, to put her talents to the best possible use. Her anguish when her dream seems to be ripped away from her forever. Her growing maturity as she walks a different path to her dream, no longer seeking glory, focused instead on doing the most good she can with what she has been given. I’d like to see more characters like her. I’d like to see more people in the real world as unreservedly good as Paksenarrion.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Agents of SHIELD

It’s a fascinating, though troubling, phenomenon that our perception of female-to-male ratios is considerably skewed from reality. Present a scene with women making up only 17% of the characters, and people will claim it’s a fairly even split between men and women. Raise the percentage to 30% or more, and then they’ll be sure that women are completely dominating. (This has played out in quite a few studies, but if you want an example, check out the Geena Davis Institute and the research they’ve done in gender parity.)

The reason for this vast mis-perception is easy to guess. If movies and television have been consistently offering a skewed ratio where male characters are always far more prevalent than female, we’re going to start thinking it’s normal. And the slightest bit of shifting the balance toward a more realistic 50/50 will have people raising alarmist cries that women are taking over and driving men out. It’s not any single movie or show that’s done this; it’s a long-standing pattern that we’re so accustomed to, it’s become self-perpetuating. We expect a predominance of males, and so we portray a predominance of males and thus continue to expect a predominance….

We can do better. Particularly in comic book films or shows, which create extravagant universe-bending storylines wherein the implausible becomes fully possible. And yet they still shy away from the shocking notion that women can be fully realized, active characters. Anthropomorphic raccoons and trees, sure. But women? Let’s not be ridiculous. (I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t get me wrong – but if we can swallow such gleeful nonsense, why can’t we wrap our minds around a comic book film led by a woman??)  Aside from a few exceptions, the top-billed actress in a superhero film is going to be playing the hero’s love interest. Other women might play a mother, a side character with maybe one or two significant scenes, or someone who shows the promise of an intriguing power and/or backstory…only to get sidelined by the hero’s far more important journey.

So when they introduced the main team of characters when Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD first premiered, I was inordinately excited to see there were the same number of female characters as male. Inordinately, because this really shouldn’t be such a rarity. Let’s hope it won’t continue to be. True, the show has undergone a few growing pains, and it hasn’t achieved the mainstream success of most of Marvel’s films, but it’s very satisfying to watch three separate women, each with their own personalities and storylines, play principle parts in the show. They’re not even all young or white. Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) is an experienced senior agent, both mentally and physically extraordinary, but reluctant to reenter the field as she hides the emotional scars from a long-ago harrowing mission. And she’s played by the woman who voiced Mulan, so extra awesome points for her.

Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a brilliant biologist, but her character is more than a collection of broad “nerdy girl” stereotypes (and there’s more than one scientist in the team, helping to at least partly undermine the ridiculous notion that one genius can do ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS). There is one particularly powerful episode in season three in which she carries nearly the entire weight of the storyline by herself.

Skye/Daisy Johnson is biracial, a fact that plays an important role in her origin story. And yes, hers is a superhero origin story, which I never would have guessed when she was first introduced as an admittedly rather annoying hacktivist in the pilot episode. Unlike in a superhero film, which usually tries to cram an origin into the first twenty or thirty minutes so they can hurry along to the  fight-the-villain storyline, the origin of her powers proceeded at an unassuming, leisurely pace until halfway through the second season. Mind you, the reveal wasn’t necessarily a pay-off that made up for every boring bit leading up to it, but it did merit a re-watch to catch the little clues I’d missed before.

Like a lot of tv shows, Agents of SHIELD has an uneven quality – some episodes are spectacular, some are lackluster. But one of the reasons I’ve been willing to stick with it is because it continues to maintain a near 50/50 gender balance in the principle characters, and the stories of the women continue to be some of the most compelling and engaging. And somehow the world has managed not to fall into an estrogen-fueled matriarchal dystopia. Imagine that.

Women of Speculative Fiction: J.K. Rowling

Since I wrote about Hermione last time, I’ve been considering whether to write about her creator as well. Again, she’s such a well-known figure that even the most casual Harry Potter fan could probably recite the details of her rise to super-stardom in the literary world: the idea for Harry came to her while riding a train; the tragedy of her mother’s death influenced how she wrote Harry’s loss; she was an impoverished single mother when she wrote the first book and did a lot of the writing in cafés after the walks had gotten her daughter to fall asleep; she’s the first writer whose career made her a billionaire (though Rowling herself has disputed the actual figures) and promptly stopped being a billionaire by donating a large portion of her fortune to charity.

Her tale has the sort of rags-to-riches trajectory that inspires many a struggling writer. Her books have gotten countless children interested in reading. She may have single-handedly jumpstarted the fantasy craze in children’s literature, or even a fantasy literature craze in general. But that’s all been discussed before. Her fame has also brought plenty of criticism, with a level of scrutiny that other less-famous books and authors never receive. I’m not going to dwell on the criticism either. What I do want to explore is just one specific aspect of her career that raises some important questions about writing as a profession, how we perceive writers and artists in general, and how women carry a disproportionate burden of scrutiny, particularly mothers.

Whenever Rowling’s rise to fame and wealth is mentioned, among all the admirers there is usually some sour commenter who feels the need to point out how she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. How appalling, they seem to say, that she could squander precious tax money just to indulge her little book-writing hobby. Now, I could get into an entire separate analysis of how we judge the relative worthiness of welfare recipients, but socioeconomic rants are not really within the realm of my expertise. I just find it interesting that the easiest response to the detractors would be, “Well, but look at what came of it! She became a bestselling author! She made millions, and gave back tons of money to the needy!” True enough – but does that mean that if she hadn’t; if publishers had all turned down her little wizard-school story – would all her work have been a waste? An unnecessary drain on society; a bout of neglectful selfishness when she should have been providing for her daughter? The fact that she was a single mother only seems to worsen the criticism, as if she ought to magically go back in time (by Time-Turner, of course) to undo the circumstances resulting in single-parenthood, rather than doing the best she could to deal with those circumstances.

The truth is, most writers don’t make much money. We hear about the rich ones. Of course we do, because we’re all buying their books and giving them lots of money. But the average mid-list writer probably has a separate job so they can actually pay the bills. And of course, many writers never get published, never make a penny off their work. Does that mean it’s worthless? How do we measure the worth of art outside of monetary value? Are artists less important contributors to society than those in the STEM fields, or the laborers who provide essential goods and services? If we were to judge their contribution solely by how much they get paid, most artists would be almost worthless, aside from the rare ultra-rich ones like movie stars – or Rowling.

This is obviously a very personal question for me, because I currently have no career outside of my as-yet unfulfilled writing aspirations. Now, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband has a steady job – he’s a theatre teacher, so we’re not exactly living in a mansion, but it’s enough. And I don’t currently work at a paying job because we have three children and until three years ago, at least one of them was at home, needing full-time care. But now that they’ve all been in school for a few years, I’ve been expending a lot of mental space on how I should spend my free time – whether I should be seeking employment or volunteering in the community or some other obviously productive activity. Yet all I really want to do is write. I’ve put a lot of time into it, but it’s hard to measure whether any of that time has been put to good use. I think I’m closer to publication than I was five years ago – I’ve gotten some interest from literary agents, and some very useful feedback – but there’s no money to show for it. What if there never is? Have I been wasting my time? No one’s ever accused me of this, but I can easily supply enough self-doubt to make up for it.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for some kind of indulgent artist utopia, where the soulful bohemian type is given a free pass just by virtue of their artistic-ness. If my husband weren’t able to support us, I’d find a job, writing-based or not, to provide for our needs. I wouldn’t sit around waiting for someone to gratify my pride and perceived genius while doing nothing. And for some people, they’re perfectly happy to create art as a hobby rather than a profession. They might make a little money here and there, but the joy of creation is sufficient – presumably because their career is sufficient to meet their financial needs. Yes, the world would be a dismal place without art, but without basic essentials like food and shelter, we wouldn’t be around to know it. So there has to be some kind of reasonable balance between supporting artists while also taking care of practical concerns. I don’t have the answers. I only know that a writer shouldn’t have to be as successful as J. K. Rowling just to validate their desire to write.