Something I feel is true was said in a book about the life of Tennessee Williams I picked up by chance at the library today.
“Let me explain something to you: no one owes any of us anything other than respect, some courtesy, and the amount of time they deem necessary to hear our story, see our dance, judge our gifts. That is all. I operated for many years under the common delusion that artists are sensitive creatures who require husbanding, cosseting, extreme care to function in our brutal world. This is utter bullshit: all humans beings thrust into the act of living require the same amounts of love and kindness and patience, and I came to see than when I adopted the pose of the walking wounded, when I referred to myself as an open scab walking the mean streets, I was asking for forgiveness for a multitude of sins for which I was guilty: ugliness, laziness, a lack of discipline, the inability to make the words and the women that came to me work fully.
I was asking for a break I did not deserve at all. You either are a good person or a good writer or a good actor or you are not. You cannot then apply a collage of sickness and neuroses to your person and ask for exemptions. It is unfair; it is dishonest. Make this decision today: Will you be a good and honest writer, or would you rather be famous, loved, noticed? Tell me, because there are different paths for these two divergent goals. The decision to be a true artist is lonelier and slower, but it will lead to better work and, I think, a better life. Very rarely you will be a good and honest writer and also know a little comfort and some attention and the well wishes of a crowd. This is very rare.”
–Tennessee Williams, on lessons learned from Marian Seldes and Lois Smith
As I thrust myself out into the world on my own a few years ago, I came to dismantle many beliefs that I felt were suspect. Beliefs about what it means to be an artist, writer, musician, etc. I’ve always felt that perhaps I was sold a crock in the form of “artists are super special,” growing up, due to having a parental figure who was worshiped in a niche arts scene involving classical music. This belief has further been perpetuated by society in myriad forms–from television to twitter. But the talented classical pianist I call my father has assured me many times throughout my life that his “talent” so to speak, comes straight from practicing hours and hours in the studio throughout his childhood and adult life.
All humans are creative. All human beings need food, love, compassion and care. Some humans suck and are awful and are destroying the planet with gross incompetence and we are, many of us, wondering what to do about them. Some humans are loving, kind, generous and we wish we could be more like them. Most of us are a mix of multiple things: good, bad, ugly, brave, scared. But we are essentially a relatively new species on the earth that is rapidly destroying the planet. This is a fact. We’ve gone from about around 3 billion in 1960 to 7.125 billion strong today, 9.6 billion predicted by 2050.
Greater than our need to focus on myopic self-obsession and narcissism in the form of our tortured works of art is a need to figure out what to do about our looming demise if we don’t stop seeking greed and instead focus on feeding everyone while protecting our precious planet. Like a wise Native American man postulates in the documentary The 11th Hour (which came out a few years ago), if we continue to destroy ourselves, the earth will heal. It will continue. Without us. (If it doesn’t become like Mars or something…) Maybe new species will develop (hopefully) that may put us to shame, since 99 percent of the species that have ever lived on Earth are currently extinct.
Pause. Yes. 99 percent. We are a species too. That evolved on Earth. And we have this thinking sentient-being disease telling us we are special enough to brutalize and maim the very natural environment we are part of without being affected by this behavior.
What the fuck.
I sure hope we overcome this in my lifetime, but I’m feeling particularly stressed about it, as I’m sure many of you are too.
When I decided to accept that maybe I wasn’t so special after all, that my gifts weren’t any more precious to the world than yours, I realized that my circle of influence may not be wide, or, even important. Talk about existential crisis. But a couple of experiences have helped me to find new meaning in my art, such as that of using all my passion and resources to raise money to visit my friend in Canada when she was near death, in order to play her a song. That experience changed my life–I think I learned what it is to truly, selflessly love someone. Or to know someone who truly selflessly loves. I could see all of my flaws–my pretentiousness, my ego and self-importance–blown up as I put myself out there and tried to convince people that me visiting my friend to play her a song was very important. And, thankfully, those people, since they love her too, believed in me and her, sending me on my merry way.
Before this experience, I hadn’t given up on music or anything–because it is a great passion of mine and something I may even be good at–but I wasn’t sure what the point was to being good at music if I could barely even afford to pay my rent and the music circuit in my area was so hopelessly insular and reclusive– albeit fun and cool and hip.
I’m no more sensitive than the friend I went to visit who was struggling after a surgery went wrong. Nor am I more sensitive than a child in Haiti struggling to find a meal to eat. And truly, I’ve become a bit bored of self-absorption–my own and that of others. Sure, I will continue to be self-reflective and observational of the human condition. I won’t turn down a tour or a writing gig I like. But… I just don’t think we artists are that special compared to everyone else. And if that flies in the face of everything I’ve ever written on this blog…
I guess I kind of got my head out of my own ass, or am trying to.
But in spite of this realization, I still say thank you to all the artists and writers and musicians and friends who are being their natural creative selves who have inspired me thus far. I’m glad you keep at it. And for you obscure others–I wish I could see your work, too. Maybe it’s even better than that of the mainstream variety. I hope so! Because it could mean something to me, or someone else. You never know. Maybe it could even inspire us to turn our self-absorption off, to witness what’s going on in the world around us, especially those of us with enormous privileges that most of the world would love to have. I hope those of us with great privileges can use our time and resources and art to help the earth we owe everything to… and in the meantime, enjoy the fruits of our labor and that of all who came before us.
(No, this post is not a direct result of me just having been in Harbin again over the week.)