Dear Dr. Donna,

I’m a writer who has spent the last few years exclusively focusing on editing, novels, and non-profit work. I’ve published two books, but the income of a mid-career author is far different from the life I led as a banker pulling down six figures. I can’t imagine a life without making art, but I’m worried about my partner. Though he makes enough to support us both, I think he feels trapped by my lowered income. We made the decision for me to stop working together, but I think he regrets it. His feelings came out in spectacular fashion over a holiday, where after a lot of red wine, he inferred that he wasn’t proud of the work I’d done because he’d paid my salary for it each year. I feel blindsided; I know I make less now, but I’d never been under the impression that he didn’t support me.

I’m at a loss here, Dr. Donna. We don’t have a money problem, but I’m not sure how to continue being an artist when the person I thought was my biggest supporter suddenly seems to resent my choice. But I don’t want him to be unhappy either—I’d go back to work in a heartbeat if that would solve things, but I’m not sure it will. I don’t want to choose between my relationship and my art, but I feel like I have to go back to work, regardless. Then I’m pretty sure I’ll be the one who is resentful. What do I do?

Frustrated Writer

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Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Frustrated,

Often, the stress of the holidays creates the perfect storm for the eruption of suppressed emotion. Add wine and the storm easily escalates to a Cat 5, in all its exaggerated and destructive glory.

At the best of times we all say things we don’t really mean. We become overwhelmed by our frustrations. Words that are less than kind, and usually less than a perfect reflection of our true emotions, come tumbling out. Just because alcohol lowers our inhibitions, doesn’t mean that it offers a perfect translation of our genuine and all-inclusive feelings. In fact, while it can lower inhibitions, it also certainly clouds judgment.

Also, you say “inferred.” That’s a dangerous verb. One ripe for misinterpretation. Since you are clearly upset by what you think you heard your partner say, you first need to make sure he said what he meant to say and that you heard what he really said. Time for some calm, honest and sober conversations about the underlying issues. Make sure that you both are on the same page. Or at least understand the page of the other person. Address what you both originally agreed to, how the situation has evolved in both expected and unexpected ways, and how that all plays out now that some time has passed.

This is a complex and multi-faceted situation. It can be overwhelming in both a practical and emotional sense. So take these conversations a bit at a time. You don’t have to “eat this elephant” so to speak, all in one bite. Talk a little, then reflect a little, considering both your own and your partner’s feelings.

Throughout time and across all venues, artists great and small have always had patrons. It represents a relationship that typically denotes a degree of sponsorship and financial aid, but also encompasses support and encouragement—sustenance as important to the artist as the monetary support. That said, like all reciprocal liaisons … it’s complicated.

One of the big difficulties is that money is clearly a tangible measure, while art, creativity, satisfaction, well-being and the like, are largely intangible.

Money is a highly emotional and sensitive topic. One of the big difficulties is that money is clearly a tangible measure, while art, creativity, satisfaction, well-being and the like, are largely intangible. Even though we understand that these intangible assets can be more meaningful in a long-term big picture sense, it can be hard to compare these proverbial apples and oranges. Thus, we can easily fall into valuing the tangible over the intangible, especially in our competitive western culture. It’s why so many people stay in jobs they hate for too long, even when their basic needs are otherwise taken care of.

Resentment is a complex and highly volatile emotion. It’s not as simple as anger or jealousy. Resentment entails a festering of unaddressed, unexamined and therefore often not fully understood issues. It involves the perceived repetition of ineffective patterns of relating. Often when these confusing and uncomfortable emotions surface, we tend to push them back down. Because we don’t understand them or they seem relatively minor or even unjustified, we don’t think we should confront the confusing conundrum. Thus, we relegate them to the psychological back burner. The problem is that it remains in a constant simmer, and given the right conditions, boils over, usually in epic fashion, with more intensity because of its long-term build up.

So, take a deep breath, keep love in your heart and remember the sage advice of iconic jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there’s love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

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Someone Once Said . . .

“Even with the great good luck of generous patrons, the artist is left where he has always been: attempting to master his craft, trying to narrow the gap between his talent and his ambition, alone with his mad passion, ill-rewarded if rewarded at all—a grant here, a small prize there—hoping to make a little dent in the world’s great yawning indifference.
―Joseph Epstein, review of Patronizing the Arts by Marjorie Garber

“If a patron buys from an artist who needs money, the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates.”
—Ezra Pound

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
―attributed to Carrie Fisher, Malachy McCourt and M.T. in A Sponsorship Guide for 12-Step Programs

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Recommended Reading

For more info on these topics take a look at these titles (synopses from Amazon.com):

Patronizing the Arts by Marjorie Garber

What is the role of the arts in American culture? Is art an essential element? If so, how should we support it? Today, as in the past, artists need the funding, approval, and friendship of patrons whether they are individuals, corporations, governments, or nonprofit foundations. But as Patronizing the Arts shows, these relationships can be problematic, leaving artists “patronized”—both supported with funds and personal interest, while being condescended to for vocations misperceived as play rather than serious work. In this provocative book, Marjorie Garber looks at the history of patronage, explains how patronage has elevated and damaged the arts in modern culture, and argues for the university as a serious patron of the arts.

The Angel Inside: Michelangelo’s Secrets For Following Your Passion and Finding the Work You Love by Chris Widener

There will come a time when you must decide to lead the life someone else has chosen for you … or the life you want. According to legend, when a young boy asked the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo why he was working so hard hitting the block of marble that would eventually become his greatest sculpture, David, the artist replied, “Young man, there is an angel inside this rock, and I am setting him free.” In The Angel Inside, the renowned consultant and career coach Chris Widener uses Michelangelo’s words to explore the hidden potential that exists within us all.

Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy by Joan Chittister

This book is meant to give someone in the process of making a life decision at any age—in early adulthood, at the point of middle-age change and later, when we find ourselves at the crossroads without a name—some ideas against which to pit their own minds, their own circumstances. Its purpose, as they wrestle with the process of trying to find and follow their own special call at this new stage of life, is to both provoke thinking and to clarify it.

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Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.