20 Jul 2020

A Belligerent Style Of Play

Rituals are important for a person's well-being.

April 9 is a kind of personal holiday, which I have observed for nineteen years, starting in 2001 on the day that I launched the original version of this website. I'm using holiday here in the OED Definition 1 sense of a "consecrated day, a religious festival" – less about getting the day off work, and more about reflection. Commitment Day, as I call it, is the time that I set aside each year to quietly decide for myself whether writing is something I want to keep doing. Am I going to "re-up" for another year of art, or is this the year that I finally give it up?

Most years, Commitment Day has been a non-event: I wake up in the morning, realize what day it is, and and think to myself, "Yes, of course I want to keep doing this." Some years, I spend the entire day agonizing about this. What are my goals, here? Are those goals achievable? What do I even get out of writing? What is the point? In essence, is what I spend so much of my time, mental energy, and focus on is worth doing? 2020 was one of the "yes, of course" years – but I was thinking last night that I should probably circle back and interrogate where I am at as an artist.

The twenty year timeline here should tell you that I'm getting older. When I was in my 20s I felt time on my back like a demonic goad, constantly whispering to me: "Now – you have to do it now. Now, before it's too late. Now, while there's still a chance. Do it now. Do it. Now, now, now, or you'll miss it." With "it" here standing in for all kinds of different ego-stroking outcomes: publication, initially; fame or notoriety; success generally. I think everyone has a fantasy image of what their own success looks like – and I know for sure that every artist does. The big gallery opening, or whatever. For me, the repeated fantasy is twofold: I have always wanted to see a book that I have written on a library shelf; and, more importantly, I have always wanted to be interviewed about my work. Which is hilarious to me, and says more about how the media I consume shapes the narrative of my life than it does about actual success: I have seen, and absorbed, quite a lot of interviews with people I would consider literary giants; I have read their letters answering questions; I have seen endless films and TV shows about artists that either begin or end with dramatic interviews. To my mind the Capital A, Captial I Artist Interview has always been the key marker to me of whether someone has succeeded enough to be worth paying attention to. All rubbish, of course. Vanity, in both the narcissistic sense and the futile/pointless sense. I've read interviews with dogs for chrissake.


As I've gotten older, time has been, as the Very Online say, "hitting different". I still feel oppressed by my awareness of time, but rather than hearing the voice as a goad, I hear it as a high-pitched whine, like tinnitus. Like a poor surfer, I have missed the wave and now can only watch it roll to shore. A lot of parts of my life feel like that. I'm getting to the age where having children is, while not impossible, certainly not advisable. Besides, the whole point of having kids is watching them grow up – and even if I had them tomorrow I probably wouldn't live long enough to see that. So, that wave rolls to shore without me. I can still marry and buy a house and settle down, but I don't know why would this point. An empty house is dreadful thing. Living a life concerned only with yourself is a dreadful thing. Watching your partner grow old and die is a dreadful thing. So, that wave, too, rolls to shore. I can keep going down the line: career, friends, family. My elderly relatives have already begun to die. My parents will follow soon. Then it will just be me, and then I too will die. Then there will be nothing left. And with no one left, and no children – what becomes of all this material I've piled up? Nothing. It's all vain and pointless. Wave after wave rolls to shore.

Is writing, is the pursuit of art, another wave that I need to just let roll to shore without me?

What does success mean to me now? I don't know. Publishing seems almost redundant at this point. We're in a period of history that I've heard called The Age of Infinite Content – and that phrase chills me like the sound of my bedroom door opening in the middle of the night when no one else is home. Infinite content. All infinities are terrifying, but an infinity of hack artists is the most terrifying of all. So, publishing isn't really success. And, besides, you can get anything published if you try hard enough. It's more about persistence than talent. And, on a related line, making money from art seems silly, since I've already arranged my life in such a way that it pays the bills and leaves ample time to work on what I care about.

What about the other old fantasies of success? Is success still about getting a book into the library? Not really.

Is success still about being interviewed? Sort of, despite knowing how vain and conceited the image is, I still secretly cherish the desire to be asked for my opinion. I think a lot of people have this same secret desire. But in terms of Commitment Day, a vestigial sense of self-importance isn't very helpful.

So, let's set the material visions of success aside. When I write anything, the hope is that someone will read my words, and feel about them the way I have felt about the words of the people I have read and admired. That's a little loosey-goosey, but it's at least true. Again, it comes back to being admired – but at least in this case is it being admired for the work itself and not whatever comes out of my head in an interview. The problem is, I don't have any control over whether somebody gets anything out of the writing that I do, so it's sort of self-defeating as a definition of success. You can never know. Only measurable outcomes can be proper goals. Everything else is just hope.

We can continue on this line for a very long time, but I will tell you right now that I've never found anything that constitutes a satisfactory definition of success. All the measurable outcomes are futile, and all the immaterial outcomes are out of my control – and what animates my desire for those outcomes is more about narcissim, ego, and libido dominandi than anything real. This means the only thing left to fall back on is personal satisfaction. Do I enjoy the writing process? Do I enjoy having written things? Do I feel good about the work that I have done, independent of any other consideration?

The writing process is horrible, and hurts, and takes forever, and never turns out quite the way you think it will. I can put words on the page all day – Lord knows, this blog is evidence enough of that – but putting good words on a page takes a lot of blood sweat and tears, and revising bad words to something tolerable never ends. So, no, I don't actually enjoy the mechanics of writing very much. Sometimes it feels good to have put together a good sentence but finding that sentence is like trying to do calculus in a room full of flies.

But I do enjoy having written things. And I do feel good about the work that I have done, some of the time. Writing feels a lot like exercise in that sense: it is more satisfying when the work is behind you, and you can enjoy both the results and especially the memories of all the hard, miserable work.

This may be a sign that I have taken on projects that are simply too difficult, or have too many restrictions placed on them. That I have aimed too high. That's possible. And at the same time, I hear that line from "Andrea Del Sarto" – "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Never that the poem is supposed to be kind of ironic, and the character is supposed to be kind of loathesome.

If material success isn't the goal, and the social cachet of being known as a writer isn't the goal, and the respect of my peers isn't the goal – then the goal has to be in the work itself. And if I am going to do work that is worth having done, it has to be hard work. I have to risk failing.

That's really the thing, isn't it? Risk. I value my own work as a function of how how much it succeeds compared against how much was risked to create it. I am not impressed by a trapeze act performed in full safety gear, with harnesses and nets and wires. I am not impressed when the child of a millionaire grows up to be a millionaire themselves. Importantly, though – despite the metaphors – the risk that I am talking about here cannot be monetary or material: the risk must be personal. Good work cannot be done in psychological or personal safety.

The paradox is, in order to take these kinds of risks you have to have a different kind of safety or security in place to operate from. Material safety and security help, but only in the sense that artwork requires a significant investment in time, and if you're working two or three jobs just to get by you'll never be able to fit much else into your day. But what you really need is psychological safety, and a secure sense of your own intent. Your mind has to be able to withstand the possibility that you won't like what you find out about yourself or the world when you scratch the surface, and be open to the possibility that either the world, or your own self, are vastly different than your conceptions of them – both good and bad. You have to be able to look at your own failures and addictions and faults and sins and cruelties and all the things that make up your ego without flinching. You have to be able to find in yourself both heroes and villains, good and evil – to look at a death camp and see yourself in the guard and the prisoner and the liberator and the judge of the crime and the man who ordered the cattle cars.

And that desire for self-knowledge, that internal fluidity of identity, has to be wedded to certainty that the game you are playing is worth the trouble. Certainty can take any of several different forms – the certainty that what you have to say is important, the certainty that what you have to say excites or pleases you, the certainty that what you have to say pleases others, the certainty that what you have to say cannot be said by anyone else, and so on – but that certainty is the animating spirit behind every artist. Psychology provides the materials, but certainty provides the will.

You can doubt whether a work will turn out the way you wanted to, and you can doubt whether anyone else will find your work interesting – but you cannot doubt yourself and continue working. You have to believe that your instincts are good, and that your drives are fundamentally good. And you have to accept that success or failure, however you define them, are someone else's problem.

And in that sense, this year is still a "Yes of Course" year – recommitting myself to a task that I have unwavering faith in is easy.

But checking in on yourself every now and then is still good for the soul.