April 29, 2013

Find What You Love &...Then What?

Today I am thinking about the artistic life, in which discipline and excess are so often flip sides of the same coin. I recently stumbled across an essay on The Guardian's music blog by concert pianist James Rhodes, who advises us to "Find What You Love and Let It Kill You." This is how he begins:

After the inevitable "How many hours a day do you practice?" and "Show me your hands," the most common thing people say to me when they hear I'm a pianist is "I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up." I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they "always had a book inside them." We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend. 
[Full text here]

In pursuit of a career in music, Rhodes later says "Admittedly, I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight." He traces the title advice back to poet Charles Bukowski. But the specific provenance is iffy--the most credible source I've seen places the line in the context of a letter, the full text of which reads:

My dear, 
Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains. 
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it's much better to be killed by a lover. 
Falsely yours,
Henry Charles Bukowski

And one has to reconcile this advice with some of the other things Bukowski had to say about "love," which he compares here to a fleeting fog:



The pride of a full-time artist is that we make a living doing what we love. Of course, the reality is that our job then includes all kinds of things we do not love. We drown in email like everyone else. I lose sleep over my complete failure at keeping track of airline miles, Amtrak Rewards, or Hilton points. Rhodes mentions "hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews"; I would add to that list eight-hour drives, coffee machines grinding mid-poem, and casual delays in what to you is critical income and to others is a piddling honorarium not worth the paperwork. 

The advice to those embarking on start-up is often "Work, family, sleep--pick two." I would tweak that advice for those embarking on a full-time career in the arts, to "Location, comfort, children--pick two." If you can buck those hard choices, good on ya. I'm just being honest about what I've seen in my own experience. 

But damn it, choose two. You deserve two. Whatever your choices may choose to be, they should not be to let your art kill you. Rhodes knows that, deep down. His vignette of what motivates him to stay on this difficult course is an evocation of immortality through music, the very opposite of death:
The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. 

These moments of creative elation, of a communion with history, are real. To pursue them takes ego and sacrifice. Bukowski, that talented bastard, had the chutzpah to engrave on his tombstone "Don't try." What? Would Rhodes agree, given his own aggressive training? The phrase comes from a letter to John William Corrington:
Somebody at one of these places...asked me: 
"What do you do? How do you write, create?" You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: "not" to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.

You can get a longer elaboration on this idea in "So You Want to Be a Writer," a poem published posthumously in 2003. Bukowski articulates a great philosophy for the act of writing. Don't try. The best works are not motivated by the pursuit of money or fame or deadline; they cannot be forced.  Your strongest art will be hard on you in its creation. Physically taxing. Emotionally consuming. You want to claim you die a little death at the end of each major revision, and I'm right there with you.

But "Don't try" is a lousy philosophy for creating a career as a writer. That's why being a full-time artist is hard. You have to have a temperament that honors the muse in the individual acts of performance or creation--then harnesses her to the cart like a work horse. I'm not entirely sure I'm cut out for it, yet. I procrastinate. I panic. I shy away from perfectly reasonable non-invasive opportunities to monetize this blog. 

As I said at the outset, excess and discipline are not mutually exclusive; I would venture to say they are inextricably intertwined in creative types. We can sit at a desk or stand at an easel for five hours, enjoying refining a single small detail, then opt to drink away another five hours past the point of even the most general pleasure. We will obsessively proof a piece, but be unable to balance a checkbook. We can read an entire novel in one sitting or spend an afternoon flitting through clippings like a dilettante. 

The most unfair aspect of Rhodes' essay (well written, engaging overall) is his challenge to take advantage of an imaginary six "free" hours in the day--after six hours sleep, after eight hours at an office job, after four hours of housework--to pursue the dream of being an artist. I'll be honest: if I could have gotten six hours out of each day to write in the context of employment elsewhere, I might have chosen that instead of this trapeze act. But I have these things I'm annoyingly determined to keep a part of my life too: Friends. Parents. Trying a new wine flight on a breezy day. Walks through the National Zoo. Seeing plays.  

For every six hours I write well, in ascetic mode, there are two hours I need to fritter away first, not to mention the two hours zoned out after. That's how I free-associate the ideas that become poems or essays. "What if rather than a book club you joined a writer's club?" he asks. But reading is a critical part of my writing process. You have to gestate before you give birth. Supporting myself through my writing places an intense pressure on me, yes. It means I have to write really damn well, and often, and I have to pitch and market and hustle. But it's also the only way I could conceive fitting my writing into the context of the life I want to lead, and the person I want to be. 

Find what you love and prioritize it. Find what you love and challenge yourself to get better at it. Find what you love and share it with a community. But don't make what you love into a pyre to throw yourself on. There are lots of things in this world that can kill us. I refuse to let my decision to choose the life of a full-time writer be one of them. 

4 comments:

Kimberley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernadette Geyer said...

I wonder if the "Don't try" is more along the lines of what Yoda says to Luke -- "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try."

Sandra said...

Hmmm. That's a more appealing reading, but the metaphor he couches it one of resisting reaching--letting the bug (or the poem, or the career of poetry) come to you. He was able to become a "full-time poet" because at the age of 49, Black Sparrow offered to employ him as one; up until then he'd been working at a post office, where he might well have stayed until he died. So I'm pretty comfortable with my take here.

SB

Jeannine said...

I think if your art is killing you, you might be doing it wrong.