To Struggle with Feeling Ordinary
And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood
“All melodramatic, existential despair of mine described in these pages is entirely unaltered.”
Is your childhood passion still something you’re practicing today? If not, why? Entering her thirties, writer Rachel Friedman thought back to being a talented kid violinist at Interlochen: a summer camp “built on the premise of potential” that embraced “a Flaubertian philosophy of art: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life...so that you may be violent and original in your work.’” As Friedman finds herself “facing a gap between expectations and reality…wondering what it meant to endure as an artist,” she decides to re-examine her younger self alongside some of her fellow campers to see just how youthful ambitions align with adult realities.
And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood. By Rachel Friedman. Penguin. 2019. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
Last year, I reconnected with writer Ada Calhoun to ask her to speak at a fundraiser for The Rational Creature and about reviewing her latest book, Why We Can’t Sleep, which I highly recommend. She, in turn, invited me to Sob Sisters, a women journalist bar club run by her and fellow writers Karen Abbott and Susannah Cahalan that in the before times met monthly in New York. I attended their December book swap. After hearing Friedman read from this book, I lunged to get it from the exchange pile.
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What did I think?
Friedman has been conditioned to attach her identity to her work, something she sees as a side effect of creative career paths. “I believed from an early age that to pursue an artistic passion meant I needed to be dedicated as exclusively as possible to it—potentially sacrificing happiness, family, even sanity,” she writes. “I had no idea how creative ambition and life balancing could coexist, because achieving balance seemed to imply being content, and didn't contentment mean you were no longer being ‘hungry?’...You stopped making art. You stopped being passionate. You stopped being you.” Friedman begins writing the book with curiousity about how other creatives define “making it,” and finds that while many of her Interlochen peers suffer from varying degrees of koinophobia (“the fear that you've lived an ordinary life,” or, as she expands, “Being…one of the invisible masses when you had once hoped to stand out for your talent and achievements…your current life…is full of the mundane when it should be full of excitement”), they have also largely found a balance of paycheck-driven and passion-driven work.
Getting there, however, is difficult. Friedman blames society. “Despite it being a neutral term, in our culture, potential has become infused with promise,” she writes. “‘Follow your dreams,’ we're told, with not a whole lot of substantive advice about how to handle things not working out as planned.” This starts in childhood, where kids are frequently asked to form ideas about their futures with little outside context regarding how—despite the American Dream narrative—passion and perseverance aren’t always enough to bring forth opportunities, or that those who create “great art” are often also those suffering with mental health or addiction. Value is instead placed on passion and progress, leaving little space to learn about failure. “Everybody's special, so nobody's special,” Friedman writes, pointing an annoyed finger at the gig economy and “productivity-hacking tech bros” who have rebranded Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better” quote to be motivational rather than the words of “a depressed Irish nihilist.” And if you don’t “fail better”? Well, as Friedman sees with some of her camp friends, it can result in a certain sadness.
The ideal, of course, is to form a relationship with creativity that avoids getting too caught up with whatever it means to be an artist, to be able to “bear with maybe touching it, then maybe losing it, then maybe touching it again.” Friedman’s struggle throughout the book is to pull away from her “Serious Musician,” linear understanding of success, one always looking toward a final destination, and instead remember what about music first brought her joy. “We just understandably kind of forget how to play when we get older,” she writes, “or we get distracted, or lose confidence or time, or convince ourselves that creativity is worthwhile only if there is a specific creative output attached to it.” Friedman also must reckon with giving up music as she understands how passions and personalities can’t always align. “It takes courage to quit something you've built your identity around,” she writes. “It takes guts to let go of who you thought you were or what you thought you would achieve.” In this Friedman finds a certain kind of mourning. “The people we used to be or might become, the futures we imagine for ourselves—all of that is both real and not real. It both belongs to us and doesn't.”
🌟 3.75/5 — Very Good
Although much of the book deals with theory and research related to creativity, Friedman also infuses her prose with vulnerability as she admits to being horrified to learn all of the Victorian poets she’d loved in college were her age when they died or that she thinks she might be a bit of a Jenny Offill-defined “art monster.” Her ability to narrate “the frustrating gap between desire and ability” and to understand the complicated relationship between ambition and control in struggling to accept her failure to become what her childhood self envisioned makes it so the facts she shares feel less clinical/preachy and more like interesting articles quotes texted from your trusted, well-read friend. She instills trust in the reader.
Speaking of friendship, although the Interlochen group has landed all over the map both geographically and in their careers, Friedman expertly captures their shared sense of “what if” in how they use the success of fellow former camper, actor Ben Foster, as a touchstone for how their lives might’ve been. But Friedman herself uses the others differently, “to have someone who knew [her]” when she was at the height of her music ambitions, someone who saw it but was also able “to release [her] from [her] past with…gentle bluntness.” This relationship reflects something that Friedman writes about regarding Harry Potter, how his story ends in a place of “community and connection (things that are easy to lose if we're constantly focused on our individual potential and self-improvement)” rather than great magical success, because these things are actually harder to obtain. I loved this, and sort of wished the book had extended its epilogue—wittily entitled “coda”—a beat longer, to bask a bit more in who had helped make Friedman’s growth possible.
Beyond the book.
Friedman’s freelance writing during the pandemic has been filled with as much charm and candor as her memoir. For the Poets & Writers’ series “Postcard From the Pandemic,” she explores how her day-to-day life in Brooklyn started turning largely into fantasy during the first lockdown. Her piece in Elle UK this past summer unraveling what it means to breakdown a little in your 30s is so good I’m suddenly not worried about when I hit that age…well…almost.
Friedman also sat down with Kirkus Reviews earlier this year to discuss the idea of “creative potential” that flows so heavily through the memoir’s pages. However, if you’re looking for a book focusing on twentysomething crises, you may want to check out her debut, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost, about her post-grad travels in Europe, Australia, and South America.
See you again soon!