I once knew a girl in college who wrote plays as wild and free as a mortgage–backed security. They were structurally adventurous, grammatically acrobatic, symbolically swashbuckling. They played by their own rules, these plays. They were brash and spunky and wholesomely rebellious, they were the Sarah Palin of introductory college drama. And they sucked. They were awful. They were like listening to a drunken five-year-old summarize the plot of Game of Thrones.
It was from this girl that I learned two very valuable lessons. First: being cute lets you get away with a lot. Did I mention she was cute? Yes I did. Shut up.
Second: Rules are important to creativity. You don’t truly understand what you’re allowed to play with until you understand what’s forbidden and why. Until you understand the rules, it won’t mean anything when you break them. When a two-year-old pees on the floor it’s just another Wednesday. When a grown man with a B.A. in Anthropology pees on the floor, well, that shit’s deep. (I didn’t pee on the floor. That’s lemon-orange reduction, I was making a glaze. A glaze, dammit!)
Two years, four months and 24 days ago my son was born. At the point where he made his grand entrance (with much fanfare and waaaay downstage) my thirties were still a novelty, I had five years freelancing experience and a decade of professional theater. I was in demand, I was hungry. (Figuratively speaking. Literally I was quite well fed.) I would often read books without dragons or lightsaber combat. If I so desired I could start drinking at 3pm and sleep until that very time the next day. And creatively speaking, I was on fire: I was working on ideas to do an audience-interactive mashup video game/Greek tragedy called “Grand Theft Odyssey,” I was trying to develop a heavy metal musical, I was working on several web videos for my company, including one on the Ninja winter Holiday of Katanukkah, I was chewing over an arrangement for Bach’s Cello Suite #1 as played by ukulele, tuba and bagpipes. If creativity were cigarettes, I coulda been the richest man in San Quentin.
And then my son was born, and everything changed.
In most stories, this is where artistic dreams are shelved and real jobs are suffered. Where I hang myself a little bit with every tie I put on, and worry myself bald over TPS reports. All this for health insurance and the dignity of knowing my son will never have to rely on government cheese.
And employment-wise this was certainly something I’d considered. But for all my lugubrious shaping of the creative æthers, I got paid for my lugubrious shaping of wood, paint and Excel spreadsheets. Work for stage managers and technicians didn’t dry up with the baby drop, so I luckily got to stay on the scene.
What does dry up is time for anything else. Gone, the unstructured time that was my open line to the muses. Free no more was I for day-long excursions into the robot-rampaged Kung Fu Narnia of my creative processes. The 6-8 hours a day I had to craft theater magic from my persistent immaturity were washed away in one fluid-filled trip to the maternity ward.
That should have ended the artistically relevant movement of my song saga. Nothing to look forward to but a long, business-casual epilogue with the small chance of an encore. Should have, I say, but for the salient fact that it didn’t. I feel as creative as I ever have, if not more so.
Rules are important for creativity. Restriction and deprivation are, counter-intuitively, the bosom friends of artistic expression. Without the boundaries of phrase, rhythm, and rhyme, Bob Dylan is just that rambling hippy who never makes it past the screeners at MPR. Without 75 minutes of the world turning against him, Jean Claude Van Damme’s victory against Tong Po in Bloodsport is as empty as his beautiful Belgian facial expressions.
If I’m honest, for all that creative time I had pre-baby, I really got very little accomplished. Having all the time in the world left me in no hurry to finish, or even start my brilliant works. Another boon to creativity I’d never have but for my son is the very concrete sense of my own mortality. Any illusions that I had plenty of time to achieve staggering artistic success are long gone, and good riddance. I’m confronted with the reality that what I want will never happen by accident, will never simply ‘happen’ at all. If I want to be a Sith Lord in the next series of Star Wars movies (just call me Darth Fabulous) I need to carve out time for lightsaber practice today.
As well as unambiguously demonstrating how little time I actually have, I also find myself taking a hard look at this ruggedly handsome guy I call Matt Dawson through my son’s eyes. Did he do all he could? Did he actually try to pursue his dreams or did he spend his afternoons thinking up clever things he never put on paper, never took steps to bring into reality. If I’m going to encourage my son to follow his heart, then I better damn well do the same until I no longer can.
Creation, as they say, is mostly subtraction, just like 80% of writing is editing. Yes, the stereotype can definitely be true that having a kid kills the dreams of an artist. But I like to think that it just culls the herd. If your creativity can’t withstand parenthood, then it wouldn’t have lasted long anyway.