Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Courage to Be …

A writer, an artist, a creator, a free spirit, your authentic self.

The title comes from Paul Tillich’s book of the same name, which I’ve read twice, both a long time ago. Maybe it’s time I read it again. Tillich writes about modern life and the anxieties it engenders: fate and death; emptiness and meaninglessness; guilt and condemnation; despair. Tillich says, ‘I have chosen a concept in which theological, sociological, and philosophical problems converge, the concept of “courage”.’

Life can be a struggle at times: we question our decisions, wonder if we’ve ever done anything meaningful, wonder if we’ve fulfilled our potential, been good enough parents. We can go round in circles, get stuck. It takes courage to live, to face the challenges of life, to follow the byways and highways, as well as to wack our way through the tangles of jungle that appear to bar our way at times.

It can be even more difficult if the path you choose is one of the arts. For some people it doesn’t seem to be a choice – they are driven to create in whatever medium. They cannot survive without that art practise; it is their meaning. However, the arts generally don’t provide a lot for the basic essential needs: food, clothing, shelter. Many artists died poor, or struggled to survive, to find patrons.

Tillich: ‘What conflicts with the courage of wisdom is desires and fears.’

Our society is based on money; one needs it to pay for all those basics and the non-essentials that improve our lives, of the things we think we should have. We are expected to grow up and find jobs. Some are lucky enough to find work that feeds their passion and to be adequately and even occasionally well paid for it. Others give up their artistic passions to work in other occupations that will provide the necessities. They do their art part time, set it aside for years, or leave it altogether. Some get stuck in a sort of limbo, never quite satisfied with their lives, not able to move forward in a way that gives satisfaction.

I wrote my first story when I was about nine years old. I planned to be a writer, and thought I could become a journalist because at least that was a job that could actually be paid. But my family didn’t have much money and I couldn’t afford to go to either of the universities I would have liked, that offered journalism degrees – they were both out of province, one out of the country. I didn’t consider a technical school which was available not so far away – was I wrong? I opted for a Bachelor of Arts in English. Then realized it wouldn’t get me a job either and took teacher training, which did result in paid work. I always continued to write.  Moved on from teaching to other jobs, married, had a child, still wrote. Always felt a need to find paid work, though sometimes it was part time so I could write more. I didn’t have the courage to be a writer full time, to put myself in that precarious position. Or did it take more courage the other way?

Eventually I took a writing course at the Summer School of the Arts in Saskatchewan and was inspired and felt I’d found my community. I began to have short stories published.

Tillich: ‘Courage … is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives, anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity. … Biological self-affirmation needs a balance between courage and fear.’

Art is about creation, but it’s also about sharing. If no one sees or reads what you do, does it have the same meaning as doing it only for yourself? There are different satisfactions. And you still have to find a way to support yourself, unless you are lucky enough to live with someone who will support you financially and in other ways, or you need to find one or more patrons. One of my favourite mystery writers, Dorothy Sayers, still received money from her parents after she found a job as a copy writer because the job didn’t pay quite enough. Eventually Sayers succeeded as a writer.

I owned hardly any furniture for years, didn’t buy a house until in my forties. My jobs were mostly short term. A year or two or five here, there, then moved on because it was no longer satisfying and the money wasn’t enough. Though I never stopped writing, even if at times it was just journals.  I got tired of times of poverty.

Then I found a job I could do for longer, and I stayed for fourteen and a half years. I was getting older and wanted to buy a house, a place I could retire to and write. I also travelled a little, bought some furniture. Continued to have success with short stories published or broadcast or winning awards.

Tillich: ‘… anxiety is the awareness of unsolved conflicts between structural elements of the personality, as for instance conflicts between unconscious drives and repressive norms, between different drives trying to dominate the center of the personality, between imaginary worlds and the experience of the real world, between trends toward greatness and perfection and the experience of one’s smallness and imperfection, and between the desire to be accepted by other people or society or the universe and the experience of being rejected, the will to be and the seemingly intolerable burden of being which evokes the open or hidden desire not to be.’

At the age of 45 I felt that existential anxiety again. I had a good job that I liked, was supporting myself financially, but would I ever get a book together? Get a book published? What meaning did my life have if I didn’t follow that passion and develop my gift with words?

A really good counsellor helped me sort out a path. I would work to the age of fifty-five when I could take early retirement and have a small pension.

So I did it, and eventually opted for self-publication. I have my personal publishing company and have three books out, another forthcoming. I don’t have a lot of money, but the essentials are covered. Sometimes I’m totally happy, at other times I’m not. I see friends who have worked longer or have partners who can help with expenses, and they travel, spend time away from the cold in winter, etc. I can’t afford to do those things most of the time. Writing is a solitary art. It means I have to face myself every day, face the blank page or the page that was written previously and suddenly looks like crap. I have to find ways to cope with dark days, as anybody does. I am following my passion, and I’m glad for that.

Many of us choose different lives than our parents did. Our children may follow other paths than we do. I don’t think there are wrong answers. Each of us must seek the routes that lead to our own satisfactions that work for us. Just because someone we trust, love or respect tells us things, facts, etc. doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine those in light of our own beliefs. I learned long ago that constructive criticism in regards to writing can be very useful, but I don’t accept everything – I have to choose which criticism I agree with for any particular story. I think that applies to life.

 It takes courage to live, to find what one loves and pursue it. I love to write, to create a story, a book, a world, characters. It’s hard work at times, too. I’ve had recognition from peers and others, which is encouraging.

It’s easy to look back and think why didn’t I have more courage and choose to give writing priority earlier. How would my life have been different? Perhaps I could have had more success if I’d spent more time writing. But I can’t change the past. I made the decisions that seemed right at the time, and I continue to strive to do that, to find a balance that satisfies me. I think it’s the best anyone can do.

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself …”

Paul Tillich

Today, driving out to have Thanksgiving lunch with my parents I listened to a CBC Radio program about Victor Frankl and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I haven’t read that book, though I had heard about Frankl before. Perhaps it’s time to read that book.

I’ll end with a quote from one of my favourite poets, e.e. cummings, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”


  1. Found an old letter I'd written over 40 years ago while in a dysfunctional relationship. I felt so terrible about myself. Thankfully, I have come a long, long way since then.

  2. Thank you for this! I'd like to read that book sometime soon :) Big hugs to YOU <3