Why on Earth Did You Choose this Profession?
You didn’t, it chose you. Or you were born to it. Or it’s something leftover from a past life that you’ve yet to satisfy. Or maybe you don’t buy any of that and it’s simply what you want to do. Either way it’s all good and sometimes bad, but mainly good if you want it to be.
The journey is long and the rewards many, it’s just that they rarely come as soon as we want or in the way that we first envision—like many things in life.
Most artists think their work will be ready to show to the galleries long before it actually is—just like writers and publishing. You may believe this too. Good. In a sense you must. That will help sustain you while you go about the process of getting ready. And the ego that sometimes made you ashamed when you were younger, for perhaps being too cocky or arrogant—don’t toss it away just yet. You may need it to help bear you through the privations, rejections and periods of self-doubt you’re bound to go through. But I do feel it’s wise to tame the ego. Let it serve you, not you it. Eventually your work will speak for itself anyway, and your ego will have nothing left to prove. And if you never went through that in the first place, congratulations—you’re rare.
Your journey toward master status may be brief or long, depending on the level of your talent and how the breaks fall. If it proves to be long, don’t worry—the greater the struggle, the greater the rewards, as long as you don’t give up. Learning patience is an ancient and priceless virtue. I’ve certainly had to learn it whether I liked it or not—and many times I didn’t. So have the vast majority of artists that I’ve worked with.
So, why did you choose this profession? In all likelihood you didn’t. Like me, you were born to pursue it with all due vigor, damning the torpedoes as you left shore. Cool. I applaud your courage. Now, did you remember to bring a life preserver? You may need one before the voyage is over. At least I have, more than once.
Nonconformist or Conformist?
An artist can be either. There is no written rule that says you have to be radically dressed, tattooed and pierced to dwell in the arts. All you have to be is open-minded. If you can’t be that, at least be bloody good at what you do. Chances are though, if you were born an artist you were also born a nonconformist. This is something you won’t be able to help and shouldn’t want to. In fact you should be proud of it.
Grandma Moses, in her quiet way, was a nonconformist. So was Whistler—God rest his turbulent soul. So were Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Miller and Simone du Beauvoir. Nonconformists play an important role in our world, forcing conformist society—which also has its place—to question itself, its direction, and purpose. Nonconformists succeeded at this during the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, and gradually during the escalation of the Iraq War. Conformist society always attacks nonconformists for this, resisting humane change until finally, when outnumbered by voices of reason, they’re forced to acquiesce.
Personally I feel obligated to question society, although that has a tendency to cast me beyond the pale. Fine. The artist normally lives beyond the pale, and is often something of an outcast anyway. At first this may anger you. But later you may see the need for it and the anger will slip away. Let it, although there’s nothing wrong with letting it slip back in now and then. Good work can come from that emotion if taken in doses, but self-destruction is more likely if it isn’t accompanied by self-control.
Where does this nebulous, hard-to-explain, harder-to-define quality come from, and what is it that, well, drives it? I haven’t a clue. Is it essential to what you do? You bet. How will you know if you have it? Because of the way it rides you, rarely letting you rest, never letting you forget your calling. Drive is merciless, ceaseless, and in the worst cases heedless. I ought to know. I’ve been guilty of all that.
My own drive is never-ending. If I don’t write, I don’t feel fully alive. I feel as though I’m skipping out on an ancient and time-honored responsibility, regardless of whether I feel equal to the task or not. I also begin to feel like my emotions will explode. Does that make it any easier to face the blank page each day? It hasn’t yet. Does it give me confidence, even when a day of hard writing may not? Almost always.
Do you need to feel that same drive in order to create? On some level, yes—that is if you want to mature as an artist. Your drive can be mild, impassioned, or insane. But you should feel it in some measure; it’s partly where your inspiration comes from.
What if you feel no drive, but simply enjoy working in whatever medium calls to you? Great. You’re free of a terrific burden, which will allow you to just take pleasure in your art. After all, it’s not required that you be a tortured maniac in order to create. But if you’re trying to reach the higher levels of your discipline, being tortured, as well as something of a maniac, can be a handy thing—if you know how to take it. How do you take it? Like most things, by making mistakes then learning from them. I’ve made plenty. Does that mean I’ve learned a great deal? That depends on who you ask.
Contrary to a commonly held notion, we do not suffer more than other people. There is so much unspeakable suffering in the world—especially from poverty, war, and disease—that many of us in the industrialized nations don’t even know the meaning of true suffering, including me. I’m not saying that artists don’t have it tough, I’m just trying to put things in perspective.
But even if we don’t suffer more than others, we do tend to feel things more deeply. This, combined with our acute sensitivities, intensifies the suffering. Couple that with the usual insecurities, spells of depression, and years of rejection, and baby you’ve got one suffering artist. Or to quote good old Scott Fitzgerald: “…There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pinprick, but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye…”
He wasn’t lying either, since that dude suffered greatly—not necessarily because of what he went through, but because of how he took it. His wife Zelda too, although some claim that by the time she died, in that fire in the asylum in Ashville, she didn’t feel those things anymore. Maybe not, but I’d hate to be the one to speculate on the nature of her emotional state when the flames finally reached her.
Will you suffer? As surely as you eat, drink and breathe. Will your work benefit from it? If you choose for it to. Is this a necessary condition of being an artist? I don’t know about necessary, but I do know it’s common.
All right, so we suffer. But by God, we know how to live too. And by we I don’t mean just artists, but anyone who lives through the power of their creative drive. Few people are given the gift to live this way, few are able to feel so alive between the spells of suffering. That suffering is simply a part of the price you pay for your talent, and since you have to pay it anyway, you may as well pay willingly. The alternative is to live an unenlightened existence, and in the end no one really wants to do that.
Inspiration is in many ways an inexplicable thing as it tends to come from different places for different people. No one can really tell you how to gain it, maintain it, or renew it. But then you won’t need anyone to, since you’ll know this for yourself.
As for me, it tends to run like this: New people who intrigue me; old friends I adore. Riding my bike at night through rough parts of the city, or at 150 down the interstate. Inline skating for miles on a July afternoon. Four belts of whiskey on a Saturday night. No whiskey on other nights. An arousing flirtation. Great music. Great books. Teaching my kids to play baseball when they were younger, teaching them about the world as they grew older, or simply how to give. Telling my wife and sons I love them, but more importantly proving it. A hot night of hard sex where mild pain is as fine as the ecstasy. A cool night of gentle sex where all is sensitivity and warmth. Several nights without sex, since that act must remain special. Backpacking in New Mexico, snorkeling in Key West, canoeing in the Ozarks, surfing at Santa Cruz. Making a sad woman smile. Making an angry man do the same. Entangling myself in a risk that could possibly destroy me. Sunday dinner with friends.
The list is endless. Everyone has their own style, and mine likely couldn’t be more different from yours. Find what keeps you alive and challenged then. If you don’t regularly renew the challenge, you and your work will run the risk of going stale.
For me, inspiration is at its best when I can weep. I don’t mean publicly. I mean when my writing brings tears to my eyes, or some piece of music does, or the thought of an old family tragedy. The tears mean my emotions are fine-tuned, and if my emotions are tuned, I know I can work. If they’re dull and flat, then I have to try to work anyway. You have to work through your depressions, bouts of loneliness, dejection and despair. The work might be abysmal during these times, but it might also be great. Don’t rely too much on inspiration. Rely on day-in, day-out discipline. That will bear you through more than dreaming, although dreaming certainly has its place.
Wherever your inspiration comes from, whatever you must do to keep it stoked, do it—as long as the process is reasonably sane. Like drive and talent, you must maintain this most mysterious of the artist’s traits. Without it, we’d all be lost.
Are You Selfish?
I hate to say it, but selfishness has its place among us. This common but ugly trait can help sustain you through your initial years of struggle. As those years fall away, you’ll likely learn to temper it with a more balanced attitude. But probably the selfishness will, to some degree, always remain. Without it you couldn’t work as well, or with the devotion you’ll need to realize your vision. At least this has been the case with me.
Eventually, if the work is good enough and your confidence strong enough, the selfishness may evolve into selflessness. You may find yourself spending time guiding younger artists, or teaching low-income kids, or guiding your own children, realizing that helping them with their little victories and traumas is far more important than anything you’ll create. Oddly, realizing this often helps you create even greater work. It’s one of those strange contradictions in life, but a damn good one.
So go ahead and keep certain aspects of the selfishness if this is one of your faults, but more importantly, keep it in check. Otherwise you may find yourself without friends, lovers or family. If you’re cool with that, fine. If you’re not, please just be aware of the risks of this trait when left unexamined.
The Bohemian Life
This lifestyle is often overrated. It doesn’t tend to produce great art so much as it does the people who talk about it, and live it. You’ll have to taste of this world to know where you fit in, or don’t, or whether you even care. Life in the cafés and along the endless trail of gallery openings can have its charms, but you’ll likely find that the people who attend so many openings, and adorn so many cafés, rarely create art, they just love being around it. Many of them have either rejected conformist society, or been rejected by it, and wound up finding their home in the art world—a very cool and time-honored practice. After all, this has been a grand tradition since the time of Dante.
These folks—whether they be dilettantes, bohemians, or both—are essential to the arts. They help keep things vibrant. And while they almost never can afford to buy the art they adore, they do keep the openings interesting. Further, if a group of them take you up and talk you up, that’s good. They help spread the word about new talent, and genuinely admire what you do with all the passion of someone who almost could have done it, but didn’t. Hey, maybe they’re too content to bother with trying to get the world’s attention. I, with all the shuddering insecurities that first fired me out of the art cannon, can certainly appreciate the dignity of that.
The point is, you’ll have to decide which you are—dilettante or artist. Normally the two are different, albeit similar, types—and I do not feel that one is superior to the other. If you’re an artist, you’ll find you’re better off in the studio than at multiple parties. That isn’t to say you can’t party, you’ll just have to decide which pursuit is more important. As with most things regarding your work, there will be little to decide, since you’ll know the answer intuitively.
Speaking of intuition, is it important to develop that sense? To me it’s critically important, but only because I have an inner-voice that counsels me with relative reliability. For those of you who don’t hear that voice, or don’t believe in it, follow what you believe, whether logic or anarchy. But if you do hear it, please be sure to listen. Once well-tuned, that voice can become a magnificent guide through the maze of life.
Many of my friends became dope heads when I was thirteen, in 1970. So did I. By the time I was fifteen, many of us were addicts, forever listening to Cheech and Chong, tripping our way through Led Zeppelin concerts, always en route to the next party. My primary addictions were pot, hash and the occasional hallucinogen; smack and coke were preferred by my more reckless companions. By the time I was seventeen I began scaling back, fed up with the destruction of it all, while many of my buddies did just the opposite. I saw talent destroyed and families blown apart. Several suicides resulted, both the actual and the emotional. I watched as people I loved were reduced to lives of waste.
So if this is one of your struggles, naturally I’m a little biased if I urge you to quit or keep a firm handle on it. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s weed, coke, or ecstasy, you’ll never fully get in touch with your artistic power as long as this stuff dominates your life. It limits your growth, ushering in bouts of depression and paranoia, and will tend to make you lazy—a curse for any artist. Eventually good work, with a full life, should be all the high you’ll need.
I realized in high school that I would never become any kind of writer if I had all that ganja hazing my brain. I tried to imagine Mark Twain or Eudora Welty smoking a joint before writing, realized they wouldn’t, and began distancing myself from the insanity. To me the world is too mysterious and full of possibility to cloud it with such voluntary absenteeism. You couldn’t pay me enough to get high again. You could pay a great many of my old friends though, and they’d run right out and buy another spliff.
That isn’t to say I’m more virtuous, or without my own vices; hell, I’m as flawed as the average human being. But it is to say that I’m able to contribute more to my world than I would have otherwise. And I’ve inherited too much responsibility, as I feel we all have, to believe that I can carry out a worthwhile vision from within a cloud of cannabis. Maybe you can—Carl Sagan apparently did—but I find those instances rare.
So like a reformed smoker, I’ll probably never be open-minded about this. To me, rampant drug use was the worst thing that came out of the Vietnam Era—although many great things came out of it as well. We’re still paying the price, though not the way places like Juarez are paying, where thousands of people have been slaughtered in drug wars that are directly linked to our addictions. There’s nothing cool about that.
Even so, many people when young are convinced that they have to get wasted to seem cool. Then in no time their lives become a wreck. This is why so many celebrities go through rehab. Those who are unsure of themselves keep hoping they are cool, but are worried they’re not cool enough, so they mistakenly believe that getting trashed with their sycophants will fix it. The tragedies of Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Janice Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix indicate how well that works. Please don’t let it do that to you.
This is the same as dope, and just as bad. It’s also one of my vices. I don’t drink hard, I drink mostly on weekends, and then try to restrict myself to a few drinks a night. Sometimes I fail at this, mostly I don’t.
I have a few drinks in one of the cafés, my wife and friends have a few drinks, she and I go home, I wrestle with the dogs (my kids having outgrown that nonsense), wrestle with my wife (if she’s so inclined), sleep, and wake up the next morning with the sensation gone—as long as it was just a few drinks.
When it becomes six or eight, that’s different. The gray cells start dying off, your body suffers, the hangovers become a daylong hell, and before you know it, you’re addicted. That’s why I only drink moderately, although I didn’t always. When I was younger, if Saturday night wasn’t accompanied by six or eight drinks, I felt like I wasn’t living. Absurd. Eventually I learned moderation, as we all must. I also learned a little more about living.
I know I’d be better off never drinking, like my yoga instructors, but man that sounds so boring. Good bourbon, good gin, or a cold ale are things I’ve always relished. And I’m just stubborn enough to believe that this vice, in moderation, will never be as debilitating as the drug vice, even though of course that isn’t true. Would I be better of without the booze? Sure, and maybe someday I’ll even have the courage to drop it.