Something to Fall Back On

So you want to be an artist? Don’t tell your family.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Lissa Kapstrom
  • Illustrated by
    Christine Georgiades

I am a creative person. It’s something I’ve known about myself since experiencing the thrill of drawing a Thanksgiving hand turkey in first grade. The fact that five digits could become a beloved holiday bird blew my mind. I never looked at my hand the same way again. I never looked at anything the same way again.

My childhood was spent endlessly drawing, painting and writing. Heaven was being alone in my room, cross-legged on my pink shag carpet, creating the perfect piece of art to give to my crush, Tim, who by seeing how gifted I was would realize I was his soul mate and dump stupid Gina the prom queen. I had so much inside me that needed to be expressed. It was as natural as breathing. My “Paradise Lost” moment occurred after proudly showing my father one of my many masterpieces. His response was, “You should enlist in the military.”

When I landed my first staff writing job, I could finally say “Ha!” to all the haters and doubters—especially the ones inside my head.

Part of becoming an artist is doubting you’re going to be one. This is a result of the messages from your family. They squash your dreams because they love. They don’t want you to starve to death or, worse, never move out of the house. You straddle a life between being a sane person with a paying job and pursuing your passion. As much as it would’ve made my dad happy to see me in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet, I went to art school.

Fueled by a healthy dose of “I’ll show them!”—I got a degree in painting, became a set designer and was actually able to pay rent, pretty much. But during one particularly vulnerable period when I was “between jobs,” my dad sent me an Air Force recruitment brochure with a note that said, “Something to fall back on.” This was a pivotal moment. What was I doing with my life? It was time to make a responsible decision, so I became a comedy writer. Comedy writers made more money than set designers when they were actually working.

When I landed my first staff writing job, I could finally say “Ha!” to all the haters and doubters—especially the ones inside my head. But I was thrown when I discovered that another writer on staff was going to law school at night. Even though he was making a six-figure salary at 25, his parents wanted him to have a real job. Were they right? I felt for my colleague who, exhausted after a long day of pitching clueless dad jokes, would race across town to his Constitutional Criminal Procedure class at USC. What was he chasing? And should I follow him? It takes courage to live life with no net.

And speaking of no net, I married another writer. His father also wanted him to go to law school. This was ironic because his dad was a successful film composer, whose own father wanted him to go to medical school, even though he was a concert violinist. I found an odd comfort in the fact that family doubt is eternal. But its kryptonite is passion, because a creative person has no choice but to create.

My son has shown talent as a writer and a composer, but he’s a cognitive science major at Yale. I thought I dodged a bullet until he called last week and announced that he’s thinking of switching his major to English, with a minor in music. As I try to breathe, the legacy continues.