I am in a rather ridiculous dilemma that is driving me mad. I have never been very happy with my life. I have worked jobs, such as in retail, the restaurant industry and business offices, that have left me bored, unfulfilled and feeling like my soul has been crushed. On the side, I have done creative things: singing in bands, performing in local theater, putting together and performing with comedy troupes. These things kept me alive and interested in the world, but never paid the rent. I tried studying some of my creative interests in a university setting, but honestly don't feel I could be happy teaching. I've been told many times I have a near genius IQ and have always been an out-of-the-box thinker. The whole career track, partnering up with someone, buying a big house and driving an SUV thing makes me feel suicidal.
So my current dilemma? I am tired of being unhappy and not being myself. I work in "cubicle world," with dull-gray cubicles and nasty, mint-green walls. The people I work with, while nice, are not in any way relatable to me. I view them as mindless robots who do whatever society tells them to do. I feel as if I am quickly dying and soon to reach my breaking point.
The one thing in life I truly love is music, particularly industrial music. I listen to an industrial/goth radio station on the Net, and would love to start my own record label and also record my own album. The complication? In two weeks, I will be 45 years old. This is not some midlife crisis. I have always been an artistic, creative person and have always struggled to integrate this into the "real world." My therapist says go for it, the world is a different place now. But part of me always stops myself. I feel like I am too old and people will laugh me right out of town. I don't want to have only 20-something friends and be the laughingstock of the city. At the same time, I need a monetary source that brings me joy and a way to live out my quirky nature. So do I just go ahead and dive into the music scene, unafraid of being laughed at? Or should I accept that this ship has possibly sailed and find some other way to express myself?
Lost in Portland
Dear Lost in Portland,
How do you and I, with our myriad difficulties and lack of understanding, our lack of connections and affability, our inner machinery of self-defeat, how do we reconcile this? How do we reconcile creativity with the practical requirements of living?
To be blunt: Maybe we do and maybe we don't. But we start by being honest. We start with a self-correcting catechism of ego deflation: The world doesn't owe us a living. Instead, we owe the world. We have been entrusted with something.
This is not easy. We are beset with problems. We are grandiose and irritable. In certain ways, we are the worst of people. We do not make especially good members of the community. We do not put out fires or save babies from pneumonia. We spend our days messing with paint or digitizing sounds. We are often egotistical and secretive, inauthentic and emotionally starved. We are not particularly good friends because we think mainly of ourselves. We do not necessarily make great parents or teachers.
And we get bored easily. We create artistic business ventures and have difficulties with them. We pay insufficient attention to the matter of revenue. In short, we act as if the world owes us a living. We say, "Come out and support the arts!" And then we sit on a Tuesday night in an empty club feeling betrayed and confused.
But the whole premise was wrong from the start.
The big picture is this: The debt is ours. We got a little extra soup. We found money on the beach.
Of course, we can deny this debt. We can avoid the situation altogether. Many people do this -- gifted with angelic voice or poetic storytelling ability or fine natural draftsmanship, they go into bond trading or auto repair. And why not? Nobody is offering them a job as a singer or storyteller or artist.
So welcome to the world. The world asks more of those in whom it has entrusted its gifts. It asks that we maintain a healthy standard of living plus devote many hours to music, practicing scales, and to art, drawing from life, working with color and meditating to keep the demons from revolt, and to writing nonsense that must be written, reading in search of wisdom or God, thinking, thinking, thinking -- and sometimes to more and stranger things: sleeping a lot to find peace, going on retreat, flirting with madness.
It is our responsibility to ourselves and to the world to do these things, to find ways to take care of ourselves, not to become a burden but to offer what we have. Toward that end, there is much to be said for scaling down our ambitions so that we can practice our art or our craft or our calling in a way that is regular and routine. We must work hard at it. We must work steadily. But we must not expect to be rewarded overmuch for this, any more than someone who works for 40 years in insurance should expect to gain worldwide fame for structuring annuities in original and brilliant ways. We work quietly and steadily on our craft.
Consider this as well: We know how but we don't know how we know how. How do we know how to do what we do? How do we know what we know? We don't know. We don't know how we know.
The trapeze artist flies through the air and says, Like this! Do it like this!
But how ... how ... how? We can barely follow her movements with our eyes.
We don't know how we do it, so often we cannot teach it. All we can do is offer the structure in which others may learn; we can maintain the space in which the practice can be learned. We can sweep up after class and answer questions. We can say, Keep going! Keep going! Keep going! Do not be afraid!
So I don't know exactly what you ought to do. I think mainly your task is one of managing and distributing your creative endeavors, and also managing your money so that you can support these endeavors. In doing this, I suggest you try to separate your ego needs from your artistic needs. They are not the same thing. Your ego, starved as it is for support and encouragement, may well be the source of your grandiosity and hostility, the far poles of egomania and debasement between which the unmoored ego swings. So think of this, if you will: Your ego hunger is not your creative side. Your creative side is that which actually works -- the joy you feel when listening, your actions, your performances, the things you actually create. If you are like me, you may often fantasize in impossible ways; perhaps you have fantasized since you were a young person that your creations will gain you worldwide adoration. I find myself -- ashamed as I am to say it -- fantasizing in this way. It has a childish quality to it, this fantasy. It feels like a narcissistic fantasy to some extent, the child imagining himself admired, like the baby Jesus, a hero born to a virgin.
This is crazy stuff, of course. That is the point. There is crazy stuff going on inside. But that is the deep structure speaking. And that deep structure is where we work. We try to create surfaces whose roots can be felt in that deep structure.
Have you ever seen kelp on the surface of the Pacific and marveled at how deep it goes, how far down in the dark, cold waters it is anchored on rocks and reefs and, who knows, sometimes on the hulks of shipwrecks? What we try to do is create surfaces that one feels are anchored deeply. You see the kelp bed, undulating in the waves, and you sense the depth of the water.
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What? You want more?