This is from a writing prompt I did in a writing workshop a few months ago. The prompt was, “When I look in the mirror…”
When I look in the mirror I see an artist. Those are ten simple words but it’s taken me over 40 years to write them and feel confident that they’re true.
When I was a child, I loved to draw and make up jokes to make my parents laugh. We moved around a lot because my dad was in the military and when we were finally a big enough family to merit housing with a garage, we were in Southern California, where thankfully no one uses garages for cars and I would delight in recruiting my brothers and our friends to perform plays and reenactments using the garage as our makeshift theater. I would write and direct the plays, create the playbills, act in the plays, even make snacks for the “concession stand.”
In elementary school I lived for the annual school play. I was crushed when I didn’t get the lead in the fourth grade play – a spaghetti western about a cowboy named Jones. I still remember the theme song, “Along Came Jones.” Because I knew how to play piano, I was cast in a small role as Miss Kitty, the owner of the local Saloon, and when Jones said “Hit it, Miss Kitty” I had to play the Scott Joplin rag, “The Entertainer.” I don’t even think I had a line; I just winked back at him and played the piano.
I exacted my revenge for this crushing miscasting by spending the next summer writing a play to be performed for our 5th grade year. It was a study in what aliens would think about Earth if they landed in Camp Pendleton, CA and only learned about our society from watching television commercials. I guess it was actually funny because my teacher, Miss Bobo, agreed to let us perform it.
I had to write out the script because I didn’t know how to type, and then make copies using that carbon copy paper and I can’t remember what it’s called now because it was 1977 and we’re so beyond that archaic method of copying. I loved every minute of putting on this production – the staging, the directing, the coaching, wondering which jokes would land and which needed to be juiced up a bit.
My parents were lukewarm about my enthusiasm for art and performing. I could sense their disapproval in the way that they talked about famous actors…”Oh, he was so entertaining in that movie, too bad he’s as queer as a three-dollar bill.” Wanting to please my parents, I started thinking about other careers. I loved animals, so one night at a family dinner I announced (to my parents’ delight) that I was thinking about becoming a veterinarian, which meant I would need to go to medical school (much better than scandalizing the family by becoming an actress).
Within a week, my parents bought me a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. I think they were so thankful that I had apparently moved on from the ridiculous idea of becoming an actress that they neglected to actually look in the book and realize that the huge tome of medical information also included diagrams of reproductive organs, a verboten topic in our catholic family. This was a major score for an 11 year old. Finally, I got to see a decent drawing of a penis. And a vagina, for that matter. I so had the fear of God drilled into me about sex that I had never looked at my own genitalia in a mirror because I couldn’t bear the thought of telling a priest about it in confession. It never occurred to me to just not say anything.
High School came and my main activity, other than school work, was drama. I was drawn to the theater. I felt at home on stage and behind it. I loved the teamwork involved in putting on the show and the creativity and the service to the audience. My parents and I had some tense conversations about my college and career choices. I wanted to study acting and art, but my parents pressured me to study something else, anything else. I had grown up hearing about how artists were weird, were perverts, were people who weren’t skilled at anything else useful to society and so they do art. Don’t think you’ll ever get rich by being an actress, my parents constantly reminded me. All my childhood I heard that being an artist would set me up for failure in life. When I went to college, I took the road my parents wanted me to travel because they convinced me that the path I wanted with lead to sadness and poverty and nude photos that would destroy any artistic career I could cobble together in the first place. I had been told my whole childhood that being an artist was bad, so when I looked in the mirror, I told myself you’re too good of a person to be an artist.
And yet the artist inside me wouldn’t go away. I did some community theater after college. In the navy I made music videos for my squadron. I started painting 7 years ago and I make time to write. I started accepting that just because my path created a successful business career, it doesn’t mean I can’t create, in bits and pieces. I look forward to the future, in a few years, when my kids are grown up and I can move someplace less expensive and take a lower-paying job, and I’ll change my LinkedIn profile to only say “Artist.”