Cajuns are truly innovative people. Everything my parents have been able to achieve, they have done so by their willingness to create and follow through. My mom wanted a Christmas village; we built it. When my brother was born and we needed a bigger house, my parents added on and then built the ‘big house.’ I have to give credit where credit is due. My desire to make something out of nothing is ingrained: the result of generations of Cajuns making the life they want from whatever they have.
I have been an artist for as long as I can remember, grooving to my own beat, writing what I want when, creating whatever comes to mind. But, I haven’t always felt like an artist, and it took many years to feel comfortable identifying myself as such.
Through the years I have questioned my identity and what actually defines me. Am I a mother, a wife, a daughter, a cutting edge poet, a flake with too many interests? My poetry collection, which still feels like it needs 7 more poems or so, deals with my questions of myself: my multifaceted and eclectic self. I have been struggling with these different persona for at least ten years.
It wasn’t until this summer that I came to terms with that fact that being an artist who is I am. I am a flaky, smart, intellectual, tattoo addicted creative individual. I embrace who I am more so now than ever before.
And so, like Alice Walker in “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden,” I have been searching for my own garden but also my mother’s, my sister’s, my aunts’, and my grandmothers’ gardens as well. What I discovered is that Walker, along with Virginia Woolf in “Shakespeare’s Sister,” were right on. Women are primarily all artists in one way or another. We create. Biologically we are equipped to create life. That in itself is a huge responsibility. One that women have been celebrated and scorned for, for generations. Frequently, within the female community, we are unforgiving of those who have chosen a different path: to be a mother or not to be a mother, to be a career women or not to be. And, frequently those of us who are really conflicted and feel an obligation to both paths try to do it all, often at our own detriment. I would be a better teacher were I not a mother; I would be a better mother were I not a teacher. Stretched as thin as I am, I have even more trouble valuing and sometimes finding the artist within.
Since graduate school, I have thought that to be an artist, one must be published, have artwork in a museum, or in the very least have some sort of following. But, then I remembered that when an artist experiences commercial success, he or she frequently does so at the sacrifice of artistic vision. I have NOT been willing to do this. The end result for me: inability to finish my PhD and a collection of poems that may be too personal, too visceral for readers. This is of course a simplified list. But, the actual and literal soul searching I have been doing has led me to these primary results of my Cajun ‘stubbornness.’ One of my biggest faults is my inability or rather refusal to sacrifice what I think it cogent and right. And, it has imbued many of my decisions in regard to my professional and creative lives.
In my creative life, I have made many terrible decisions. It is unfortunate to admit, but it is also true. Creative energy has been my fuel of choice for so long, but once I moved to DC and got even more firmly embedded in the world of academia, I lost a part of myself. I was so entrenched in the teaching, the research, that I forgot who I was. Well read and overly educated, I am.
When I was briefly working on my PhD, I was conflicted. As a creative writer, one usually has the insight into the written word to pick it apart, identify each metaphor, each carefully placed word; but as a creative writer, one’s explanation of those things is frequently too muddled to be considered true product of the academy. These pieces aren’t muddled because we creative writers are muddled. We just think differently than most other scholars; we see an interconnectedness that many are too jaded to even consider. Many times throughout history, these differences were valued and touted as necessary for the human condition. But, as the world around us has become more technologically driven, place for the artist has become minimal and devalued and respect has waned.Now, the vision of the artist has become a vision which includes internet fads, viral video craziness, and the ability to gain the ADD attention span of the American public.
Through this conflict, I sought the advice of my department chair, my then boss and professor. She gave me the same advice that she had given to one of my grad student peers who was experiencing the same struggle. She told both us: “If you are a creative writer, this program will ruin you.” And, she was right. That semester was the last one that my peer and I were actively in the program. She quit and went back home; I threw myself into my teaching, not officially withdrawing from the program.
What I found out while doing that program was that I needed to decide which side of the fence I should sit on because I was too creative to approach concepts in the desired manner and too stubborn to put aside my creative self and just do it. If one were to talk to my husband, he’d say I didn’t finish the PhD, not because I am not smart enough or too creative, but because I am too stubborn to do what I am told. I say I have too much integrity to sacrifice my view. Whether it be right or wrong, it is still mine. My interpretation is that we are all entitled to our own interpretation. I just did not want to play the game. I wanted to find my garden.
In search of my garden, when it became glaringly clear, like a streak of sun on the windshield, that I was not going to find that dream job in time to avoid this last year as a professor and the impending unemployment, I began to write again. Slowly at first, a poem here, a poem there; I forced myself to write when my students were writing. I encouraged them to write everyday, but I was not doing that. What I found as I began to write is that that is what makes me happy. That is what I create well. Poems. And these poems are harsh; they are filled with all the thoughts and feelings that roll around in my head that I do not always voice. (Yes, those of you who really know me are shocked…you mean there’s stuff she holds back on?) The sheer nakedness and rawness of these poems is staggering to me, and I wrote them. They are frequently too visceral for even Isaac, who is quite a handful all on his own. But, despite the rawness, I am about to put myself out there. I am so close to finishing this collection that I can literally taste accomplishment. And, it tastes nice. I want more.
As a result, I have this secret fantasy where I work diligently this year and do everything I’ve set out to do. Teach a 4/4 schedule at the university and a 2/2 at the community college, build up some sort of savings from the extra classes, and then go gentle into that good night. Be in a position where I can fully embrace being an artist, being a writer and just write, just create. Putting words on the page is what keeps me going. I have realized this, and I am devastated. Writing full time is not practical for me and my family.
We do not live in a time of patronage where artists and creative individuals are allowed to follow their dare I say ‘calling.’ We live in a time of technological advancement where logic and the race to the finish is all that is important. So, still I wait. I wait for that time when I can focus on myself and what truly makes me happy. I keep meditating for patience. The patience to hold on to it for 15, 20 more years when the kids are in college, when my husband makes more money, so that I can just write.
Despite the mediation, I am impatient. I have waited so long and life is so short. I don’t want to spend my life waiting. I want to do it now. But, I can’t ask my family to make that sacrifice. I can’t ask Isaac to move to the private sector; I can’t ask the kids to do without while mommy chases pipe dreams. So, despite the impatience, the hunger to create, I wait. Impatient and unfulfilled.