The Anti-Role Model: Can You Be Creative and Happy?

Dorothy Parker in backyard of residence at 412 West 47th Street, New York City
Dorothy Parker in backyard of residence at 412 West 47th Street, New York City, from the nypl.org digital photo collection

At one point in my young adulthood, I realized that all the writers I looked up to were either drunks, depressives, or both. As I’ve mentioned before, I live my life in a Midnight in Paris state of mind: I glamorize the past. Though I know that the 1920s saw an emancipation of sorts for women exerting their freedom, it was still a time of restrictions and rules and, of course, no legal bourbon. The 1930s were terrifying for people, wondering if they could keep their homes and their jobs. And yet, from the view of 2016, it all seems so romantic. Hanging with F. Scott and Zelda. Being at the beginnings of the New Yorker. Living the brash life of John O’Hara’s stories. Witty banter with Dorothy Parker and the other writers of the Alqonquin Round Table. But of course, none of them were happy.

The Fitzgerald’s path of destruction has been well documented in both fiction and nonfiction. O’Hara was known to be difficult. After his death, his former New Yorker colleague Brendan Gill said, “From the far side of the grave, he remains self-defensive and overbearing.” Parker had more than one husband, was a little too well acquainted with her martinis, and of course despite ultimately demising from a heart attack, her suicide attempts were well known. Dorothy Parker didn’t seem to want to be Dorothy Parker. And yet for many of my teen years, I did.

Dorothy Parker's poem "Résumé"
Dorothy Parker’s poem “Résumé”
The opening line of Hunter S. Thompson's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: 'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.'
The opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Let’s look at the others I’ve admired. We don’t even need to travel too far back in time to look at the rough-and-tumble role models. A college literature course introduced me to Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.” I memorized “Lady Lazarus” and quoted it to anyone who looked cross-eyed at me. A fling introduced me to Charles Bukowski. The fling ended quickly; my flirtation with Bukowski still lingers to this day. When I was traveling across country on my way to grad school, I let Hunter S. Thompson serve as my muse. Healthy, right?

For years I believed that happiness and creativity couldn’t coincide. All true writers were miserable. And believe me, I spent a good number of years teetering on the edge of depression, though I never quite fell in. I was commitment-phobic, fearing that if I were tied down, my inspiration would leave me. Relationships were temporary, merely fodder for literature. Oh, the angst I went through when I bought my first futon and bookcase. Furniture! You can’t get up and leave in the middle of the night when you owned a bookcase and futon. So many of my immature stories involved a young woman just up and leaving in the middle of the night, without a word.

Funny thing though. You know that novel I published during those intense, young person years? Yeah, me neither. Because while I was busy being dark and brooding, I didn’t write anything compelling and lasting.

As much as I tried to write during those years of sulking, the novel didn’t come. I produced a lot of crap. But nothing anyone would want to read. The novel stubbornly refused to come until I was situated in a life I actually enjoy living. Supportive husband. Loving–if sometimes irritating–children. A house in the suburbs. For the first time my head is clear enough that I have room to write. Before, when it was all doom and gloom, my writing was self-indulgent, lots of stories about doom-and-gloom young women living dark and brooding lives.

Boring!

Not until I could see the world around me and that there is actually some great stuff going on was I able to get out of my own head and write about things that might actually be of interest to other people.

Who are my role models now? My role models now are the women who are embracing life. Who aren’t romanticizing the bleak. The women who live their day to day lives yet still make time for their creativity and passions. People like my friend Kate who juggles a demanding job, the sports schedule of three boys playing multiple sports, yet still takes the time to go running, play hockey, and work in pottery classes. My friend Bailee who made a major career switch in close-to-middle age, took on a job that requires weekend hours, yet still manages to go back to school to further herself in her new career. My friend Leah who has three kids, one with special needs, yet not only reads voraciously but makes the time to write and has even started submitting to publications.

It’s easy to tell yourself that great writers (or painters or musicians or whatever) need to suffer for their art. At one time, I would have mocked you had you suggested otherwise. But at this point in my life, I realize that, while no one can have it all, you can get a lot farther when you stop navel gazing and start looking upon the world with joy and curiosity.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. Oh, yes, the romance of “being a writer.” I was a musician, and that has its own romantic lifestyle precepts.

    And, of course, it all depends on the accepted wisdom about what it was actually like to be Parker or Thompson or Hemingway or Plath or Burroughs — which have little connection to the reality.

    I think part of growing up is realizing that none of that matters. What matters is the writing, which is the only part that readers really get anyway. Keith Moon was not a great drummer because of how he wrecked hotel rooms and drove cars into swimming pools and so on — he was a great drummer because he played the drums amazingly well. The rest doesn’t matter at all.

    Orson Welles used to say that one of the great things about Shakespeare is that we know so little about the man — so we’re forced to concentrate on the plays.

    1. Also: the excess destroyed Moon’s creative gifts quickly and ended his life early. It didn’t enhance his abilities in any way.

    2. That’s a great line from Welles–I hadn’t heard it before. I agree that what matters is the writing; my thought is you don’t have to be a tortured soul to produce the writing. Growing up is good for our craft. 🙂

  2. I wonder if this struggle is specific to writers, or even to artists. I identify with what you are saying, and I am neither.

    “But again, he was enough of an artist to have faith in the universality of his own responses. He asked around [ . . . ] and found that it was so. It was in general—universal”.
    — Martin Amis, The Information

  3. “You know that novel I published during those intense, young person years? Yeah, me neither. Because while I was busy being dark and brooding, I didn’t write anything compelling and lasting.” I love this line! I’m gonna go tweet it!!

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