Dismantling the Committee
With the rebel exercise I jumped the gun—I was already talking about rebelling against the natterings of my Committee, without first focusing on where those voices were coming from.
My Committee expresses opinions like these:
- Art is a luxury that doesn’t help society.
- Art is self-indulgent.
- Art is for people with nothing better to do.
The Committee also personalizes things:
- You are not going to set the world on fire with your writing [or whatever you make].
- No one cares about your work.
- You are a poser.
I’ve had a tough time trying to figure out where these things come from. I was raised to appreciate art and have been deeply validated by my own artistic efforts. So what’s the problem? Who is on my committee? This has taken a lot of thought.
First Committee Member
I imagine mothers are on most people’s committees. My mother is a complicated person and consequently our relationship is complicated. She is deeply countercultural, went to art school for a few years, really values creativity. She’s the one who got me interested in quilting; she’s the one who predicted my passion for art quilting. She is one of my deepest sources of support for creativity. Like most moms, she thinks her daughter is a genius. And like many moms, she can be harshly critical. This same person has no filters and says things like this:
“What are you going to DO with that?”
“You must have had a lot of time on your hands.”
“A lot of those quilters are bored housewives without anything else to do.”
“Well, THOSE quilters must have gone to ART SCHOOL.” (Meaning the rest of us poor schmucks can never make anything as amazing as theirs.)
The biggest problem is that I feel a sense of betrayal when I succeed where she hasn’t. This is a very deep trough that I won’t go into here. The main point is that Mom Guilt has always held me back or even sabotaged me.
Second Committee Member(s)
When I was coming of age in the 1970s I was around a lot of very altruistic people who wanted to change the world. Many of them fought for social justice, and a few of them became heroes of mine. I internalized a lot of “shoulds” during my formative years. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from my teachers in alternative schools. However, I’ve never truly been the activist type, and I’ve always felt a little guilty about that.
Third Committee Member
My first husband was an activist. Michael was deeply moved to “make the grass around him a little greener.” His death left a big gap, but I did not continue any of his work. He has assumed a place on my Committee because of survivor’s guilt. I still can’t understand why I didn’t contract HIV and die like he did. It was probably the experience of being widowed at 37 that has made it difficult for me to fully claim my life. Time has helped a lot, but that experience runs deep.
It was probably a bit of survivor’s guilt that drove me to seek a career that would allow me to make a positive contribution to society. When I became a community college educator I focused my concerns on students who were often struggling to keep body and soul together. During the recession many students slept in their cars. Talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It was so tough for them to try and get an education when they didn’t have two nickels to rub together. This experience reinforced one of my core natterings: How can you make art when so many people don’t have enough to eat?
Though I felt good about the work, in the end it was staff personality clashes and institutional politics that drove me away. I wouldn’t say that experience was inauthentic for me, but the stress was killing me and I had to take a break, go back to the well.
Fourth Committee Member
I was in grad school getting my MFA when my first husband was sick and dying. It was a miracle that I could write ANYTHING during that period, but I finished my manuscript. I only told one advisor what was going on. Anyway, at my oral exam one of my committee members (male, famous) waltzed in late and delivered an impassioned excoriation of my work (the details aren’t important). This was someone I had admired and trusted, and he completely dismissed my work, dismissed me as a writer, and left the room in a huff. I dragged my annihilated creative self home and for the next few years focused on helping my husband with his illness until he died, while working a soul killing job in the software industry. That arrogant professor needs to get his ass off my committee.
I get to kick him off the Committee because of my realization that I’ve put myself in the position of needing approval from people like him. In fact, when I face up to it, it’s a need for approval that put everyone on my Committee. Mom’s approval, my high school teachers’ approval, my dead husband’s approval, my academic soul-killer’s approval.
So this is my big revelation: If I can put aside my need for approval, there will be no Committee. I can now see how seeking approval is my biggest booby trap, and this is huge. Just huge.