"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I seem to have this pattern where I am able to perform at a high level and with confidence only when I am driven to “prove myself” to women.
These imaginary relationships are powerful, poetic and beautiful things and the passion from them spills over into my work, my spiritual practice and my general sense of well-being. When I cannot maintain them vividly in mind I become quite tentative, unconfident, self-disparaging and scattered.
I must add that these women are real women, friends in most cases, whom I cannot approach because of distance or mainly because I am married.
The obvious problem with this pattern, which is a deeply embedded part of my creative self, is that it is playing havoc with my long-term marriage, and this destabilized relationship is not good for either of us or our children.
My wife and I met physically after a long period of correspondence where she was then the object of my projection. We married quickly after meeting. The immediate problem in our marriage, from the very beginning, was that most of our infatuation was based on projection. While we share some solid basic values, my wife took it as her mission to bring me down to earth, to make me socially “normal,” while I saw my mission as liberating her from conventional fixations with the hopes that we might conspire together on a greater social mission.
In the end I flew off in my mind while she stayed stubbornly rooted, becoming increasingly disappointed in me the more I disappeared.
But the killer is my feelings for these other women are real even though my relationships with them are not.
I’ve been fooling myself trying to think I can have it both ways. It is not that I completely blow off my wife. I am attentive to her requests and try to be nurturing and careful, but internally it is like having a list I can tick off to say, “Gee, haven’t I been a great husband.” The reality is she can read me and this creates a great sadness in her. Thinking of us splitting up over all this makes me incredibly sad as well.
I know the answer is not expecting her to change, to become my co-conspirator and muse. Been there and she doesn’t want that. Frankly, I don’t know of any real woman who could live up to that fantasy. The question I have is this: How do I balance reality and creativity when both seem so tied to my sexuality, while making that work in a real relationship?
Addicted to Muse
Dear Addicted to Muse,
You are not seeing your wife. You are seeing your wishes. That is what makes her sad: She’s not being seen. She’s a screen for your projections. This deprives her of her being.
Perhaps your need to project and your need to prove yourself are linked: If you do not fully exist then you must project some image of yourself onto others and try to exist through them. To find peace and strength, you must fully embody your own self; you must come into complete existence; you must drop through the trap door of your illusions into your belly and live there.
I think the solution is in your body. I also think it might be useful for you to read the Wikipedia entry on liminality.
Why do I think that? Not sure.
A good therapist could help you become aware of what you are doing in the moment that you are projecting. Then you could distinguish — in the moment — between your wife and your projections. That would help you to see her for who she is and accept and appreciate her for who she is.
Incidentally, or not so incidentally, creative work involves seeing. Seeing your wife exactly as she is will actually have a good effect on your creative work. It will ground it and give it new force.
So try to see your wife as she is.
Something that might also help is to allow the world to work on you — to see you as you are. I was working with a therapist once who suggested that when I leave the session that day I allow myself to be seen by the trees and buildings, that I allow myself to be regarded by the other, to be an object in the world. This simple suggestion was startling in its effect. It lifted the burden of seeing and judging. This meant coming down into my body so that I was just another animal ambling along the street like the cats and dogs, regarded by the trees and autos as part of their world — not special, not some writer, not part of the human world but a part of the larger, nonhuman world. What a relief. I had been forcing the world to be only what I saw in it and believed to be there. What a relief to let go of the great burden of always seeing the world. What a relief to be not the seer but the seen.
You have touched on something fundamental. In a dream, it might be something like this: You and I are making our way along a narrow ledge on an enormous sandstone wall high above the city, feeling our way, suspended above the world, thinking if we keep going we will eventually storm the castle. Now we see we will never get over the wall. The ledge does not spiral up; we will always come back to where we were. The only thing to do is to let go and fall backward into the world, where we wake up.
That is the only way. Step away from the ledge and let yourself fall into the world.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)