"The only thing one can do is follow himself . . . dig in, discover what he is, and who he is, and reveal himself." – Henry Miller

Making magic

It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.

A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.

Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.

And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.

The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.

Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever…  you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.

Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.

A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.

But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.

One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.

Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?

No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.

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One response

  1. Sarah Fuller

    I have a friend, a doctor, who paints in her spare time and she is amazing at it! Like your friend who designs handbags, she says she does it just for herself. No matter what we do for a living, our creative talents always yearn to break free and find expression and that, I think, is when we are at our best & our true selves. A bit like the writing is for you, I suspect. Keep it up!

    March 22, 2011 at 17:42

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