Nearly a decade ago, I took some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. It was in the form of this unforgettable, but retrospectively mystifying, line — “You have to decide — do you want to be a full woman or a writer?” The person who said it was encouraging me to quit my job and be footloose and foolish, both nice and sometimes rewarding things for a young person to be.
It was superficial advice without logistical backing, conveyed by someone not only with tremendous privilege, but who knew exactly what the effect on a vulnerable, hopeful person would be. It was cruel advice designed to ensnare: I would either choose ‘writer’, and suffer without grounding, or choose ‘full woman’, and simply leave the playing field. Either way, very little art would be made.
She knew I’d choose ‘writer’. I was fortunate to eventually be able to walk back some of my choices, and recoup some losses. But to this day, I’ve no idea what was meant by ‘full woman’, but an old note I found trying to work it out begins on an eerie and absolutely revealing line. “I don’t believe in sisterhood.” Certainly, the advice-giver wasn’t a fan of other women. So when she told me that it was alright to be financially dependent for the sake of art, what she was really saying was that it should not be possible for women to have full lives.
While I was still young enough to be living out that advice with relatively little consequence (there’s a finite period of time during which you can still do this; the trouble is that once you’re in the hold of that floating life, you won’t recognise when its expiry date has passed until your life blows up), I received completely contradictory guidance from someone who had equally wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t make art. She was not as eloquent as the earlier advisor, which is why only one line remains in memory — “You were younger then. You’re a woman now.” Funnily enough, this advice too had to do with being a woman. The advice was to ‘choose’ to compromise making art for the sake of the security of a full-time job, and to also give up any hope of leaving a situation that did not feel like home. I was a little older, true, and so I recognised: the advice-giver, stuck in a painful place of not being creative, just wanted company.
These two encounters were far from the only ways in which people I’d cared about or respected tried to thwart my growth as an artist. They are good examples, though. The first encounter was with someone powerful, the second with someone who was also struggling artistically. Both harboured bitterness. They are also archetypal, and many promising artists meet them in the forms of mentors and friends along the way. They may be gatekeepers, artists or peers. Such an influence is partly why so many promising artists also disappear. When they offer you a trap that implies that making art is a sacrifice, self-indulgent or an obligation, remember: it’s not, and you don’t have to choose.
The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction and more