When my boyfriend Paul's kids stay over, they sleep in my office. If I'm not finished working by their bedtime, they have to go to sleep in our bedroom, and Paul and I move them as soon as I tear myself away from my writing, disrupting their sleep and keeping Paul from going to bed until I--the holy, creative one--finish my very important work. My peak creative time usually kicks in about four in the afternoon, after a good long day of stewing, staring, snapping my gum, and checking my e-mail. Though I hate to admit it, I rarely hesitate to be self-indulgent, self-absorbed, in regard to my loved ones. Much of the time, I want nothing more than to be left alone--often to write about them in a way that exaggerates their mishaps and flaws.
Does this make me a bad person? Or is all of it the accepted immorality of a creative soul? Mary McCarthy discarded one erudite bedfellow for another, only to write scathingly of each of them later. Philip Roth refused to live under the same roof as his stepdaughter, according to his ex-wife's tell-all memoir. If the age of public confession has only just dawned, it's not for lack of personality flaws in artists' lives. Pick up any biography of any creative person from any time in history, and there's a good chance the pages will be crammed with descriptions of mercurial personalities and stubborn, manipulative behaviors.
Living the "artistic life" means one is granted tremendous leeway we'd never give to regular working stiffs. On the contrary, we glorify artists' detachment and self-absorption, chalking up aloofness to some by-product of creative genius. The writer who blatantly cheats on his spouse is fueling his need for drama. The painter who doesn't come out of her studio for days on end, neglecting her family, friends, and perhaps not even taking a shower, isn't a malodorous egotist, she's following her muse.
I can sympathize. Blatantly thoughtless behavior like cheating shouldn't be tolerated under any circumstances. But the need for long periods of solitude, is, for better of worse, a fact of artistic life.
The lay world isn't organized to accommodate the artist's stints of isolation. Most people operate on a 9-5 schedule. They leave early on Fridays and meet their friends at happy hour. They go to parties on Saturday night and to the park on Sundays. They do not refuse to go to the movies because they want to stay home and work. They do not spend all weekend laboring at their word processors. They don't go to the kitchen every four hours, where they will add one more dirty dish to the collection piled up in the sink. They do not play little games with themselves wherein they won't "allow themselves" to the dishes until they have finished writing Chapter 5.
There's nothing immoral about refusing to go to the movies. But if you add up these actions, weigh the creative priorities against the family and social priorities, the typical writer or painter probably comes out smelling less rosy than the typical stockbroker. It's one thing to work 60-hour weeks if you're taking home stock options and a fat paycheck. It's quite another if you're working around the clock and the only checks that come in the mail are the ones you've bounced.
I never thought about this stuff very much until recently. When I lived in New York, freelance artists were everywhere. If I had to blow off my friend on a Friday night because I had to work, she was the first to understand. Now I live in Nebraska, in a town filled with university professors, state-government employees, and blue-collar workers, who all punch some variation of a time clock, I realize I often come across as a jerk. I left a Labor Day barbecue early this year because I had to finish an article. When I tried to explain, the hosts seemed insulted. Not only was my early departure an affront to the entire notion of Labor Day, it sounded like a blow-off as transparent as "I have to wash my hair."
So what's the answer? Should people like me confine our romantic partnerships to ship captains, truckers, and other types of absentee partners who will give us the time and space we covet? And what about our dirty habit of using everything in our midst as material? If I don't want to go out for a beer on a Friday afternoon because I'm too busy furthering my career, should I just pack up and go back to New York?
Well, no. I'd have to work even longer hours to afford New York these days. Maybe I just have to accept the fact that doing good, creative work doesn't always go along with winning popularity contests.
Working long, intense hours takes discipline, which is a moral value in itself. It's a factor not only in work but in the way we organize our personal lives. It takes discipline to be honest about how much time we're willing to put into a friendship or romantic relationship.
As long as I don't make promises I can't keep or hurt people via my self-centeredness, I'll be fine. Sometimes that means stopping what I'm doing to make time for others. Sometimes it means not stopping but living with the consequences of my self-absorption. There's nothing immoral in being unpopular, only in whining about it.