Kids, want to be an artist when you grow up? We’ve got a check-list for how to tell your parents. Parents, oh no, you accidentally raised an artist? Don’t despair: There’s a check-list for how to cope; find both after the jump.
By now, whether you’ve watched the show or not, you may know all about Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking HBO series, Girls. Everywhere one turns on the Internet, there’s an absorbing blog recapping an episode or debating the show’s racism, authenticity, female empowerment, female degradation, and the industry’s inherent nepotism for giving Dunham, the daughter of artist Laurie Simmons, her own show.
The first thing that struck me about Girls: they’re ripping off my life!; and the second: the four leads are the offspring of highly accomplished, self-made entertainers. If Girls is a case of nepotism, then the stars’ famous parents—Brian Williams (notoriously funny NBC Nightly News anchor), Simon Kirke (drummer of Bad Company and Free), David Mamet (director and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer), and Laurie Simmons—must be the only four famous people alive.
All the money and connections in the world cannot buy talent; if that were true, then Paris Hilton would be the next Cate Blanchett.
The lead cast of Girls are indeed members of what Warren Buffet calls the “Lucky Sperm Club”— children of the rich and/or famous—because they have parents who understand first-hand what it takes to go after and achieve what are dismissed as “rock star fantasies” by most parents. As a journalist, I lost count of how many times a parent—usually a mother—says to me, with a look of forlorn, “You’re a writer? [Sigh].My teenage daughter wants to be a writer.” It’s as though said teenage daughter is a meth-dealing addict.
There is no cure for innate talent and desire—our gifts and passions never go away, no matter how long they’re stalled by well-meaning parents, the crush of day jobs, and fear. This is evident in the countless success stories of late-bloomers from George Orwell to Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin and Julia Glass.
Orwell wrote poetry as a child and loved to play fantasy games, yet he tried making a go of fitting into society with a normal job for many years during his twenties. The horrors of injustice he saw while working as a police officer in Imperial India made him, essentially, say at around the age of 30, "to hell with this, I’m going to be a writer even if I have to be poor." He then changed his name from Eric Blair to George (King George V) Orwell (the English river) so his writing wouldn’t embarrass his parents. How’s that for parental support?
Dunham, the 26-year-old creator of Girls, got her first taste of producing for a mass audience when a ridiculous YouTube video she shot of herself bathing in a fountain, while in college at bohemian Oberlin, went viral. It was meant to be a joke for friends. Humanity at its Most Anonymous and Vicious—the YouTube comments section—responded with a long metaphor-filled discussion about her body.
Possibly feeling already exposed and with nothing else to lose, Dunham generously shared herself emotionally in her directorial film debut, Tiny Furniture, universalizing those awkward transitional years after college. It became an indie hit.
Dunham has perseverance, voice, and work ethic—the ingredients of being a successful artist. Who her parents are also helps, tremendously.
She didn’t let herself be defeated by her YouTube adventure, or waste away post-college—she had her artist parents as models for using those things productively, as her material. Judd Apatow, a producer on Girls, pointed this out in his interview with New York’s Emily Nussbaum: ‘Apatow seems especially dumbfounded at the pleasure Dunham takes in the writing process itself. ‘Maybe because that’s what her parents do, she thinks that this is what life is: You make things.’”
Parents, pay attention to what your children gravitate toward, what’s natural for them, what’s fun. As a child, I wrote plays for fun, and as an adult, I recently sold a screenplay. There were many years in between where I did everything but write. Writing was a pastime, not a career, or at least that was the explicit message from my parents.
My mother grew up drawing for fun; she even got into New York’s LaGuardia Arts—the high school that inspired the show and film Fame. Her mother refused to let her go, wanted her to become a doctor instead, and beat her anytime she caught her drawing. Needless to say, my mother did not become an artist. Luckily for the state of California, my mother became an activist and passed the state’s seat belt law and car seat law, among others. Still, I think she should draw more.
How to Talk to Your Parents about Becoming an Artist/Entertainer
1) Congratulations. You’re about to receive your first rejection as an artist/entertainer. Being an artist or entertainer means handling rejection and criticism from many different sources—critics, audiences, industry execs—so use this opportunity to practice on your parents. If you learn not to care what they say about your “unstable” career choice, then handling the other noise will be much easier.
2) Embrace personal finance. Before the Big Talk, read a best-selling, highly rated book on personal finance. Accept that “artists are bad at managing or making money” is a myth! Even if your art or act will overturn the current monetary system, in the meantime, you need to learn how to manage and make money. By showing your parents that you’re serious about this part of the equation, and have already thought through how you’ll support yourself, you’ve taken away their trump card.
3) Maintain the long view. You have until now until your death to achieve your dream, not until the age of 27. Don’t make unrealistic projections about the future; only promise that you’ll work hard at getting better, for the rest of your life—which is what great artists/entertainers do. Unrealistic time pressures only set you up for failure.
4) Abide by the 10,000 hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours of work before you’re a master. If your parents push back and attempt to veer you off course by offering to pay for law school, tell them that you need to get started on your 10,000 hours sooner rather than later.
5) Learn the rules before you can break them. Salvador Dali is considered the greatest surrealist painter, and one of the greatest painters. He apprenticed for many years studying traditional forms of painting, and so did Picasso. Hemingway created an iconic writing style based on rules he learned as a journalist for the Kansas City Star. Before you go off the deep-end, learn how to swim. Accepting this will ground your attitude when you have The Talk.
6) Either recruit a mentor or adopt a historical figure, or both. Everyone who is successful had mentors. More than one. Email someone whose career you covet and ask him or her to be your mentor, or ask for advice on how craft and career security can go hand-in-hand—then show the response to your parents. Adopt a historical hero to be your model—read every biography on this person to understand how he or she did it. Biographies are portals to understanding process—what you must become obsessed with if you want to create for a living.
7) Have faith. You’re taking a leap of faith, and you’re essentially asking your parents to, too. Follow the advice of Steve Jobs, George Lucas, and Bob Dylan, and believe in something greater than yourself, whatever you want to call it. Go into that conversation with an attitude of faith, and ask your parents to share in an ounce of the faith you have in your decision.
How to Cope with Your Child Who Wants to be an Artist/Entertainer:
1) Billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg became billionaires by following what it is they love. Passion eventually breeds success. The old adage: Do what you love and money will follow.
2) If you’re concerned, set up meetings with professionals in your son or daughter's chosen field and ask them for insight. The more you know, the less you fear.
3) When it comes to natural talent, never shove a square into a round hole. That’s the quickest path to unhappiness and failure.
4) Your child is following his or her instincts. Instincts are the greatest defense and weapon in business. Instincts should be sharpened and never allowed to go dull.
5) Security is a myth, to quote Helen Keller. Creativity is the only job security. It’s what companies across most industries look for, and it’s an asset for dealing with an economic and life certainty: change.