In 2013 I read this article ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’ by concert pianist, James Rhodes. His words have stayed with me.
‘We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.’
Rhodes had wanted to be a concert pianist since the age of seven. He goes on to describe how, after years of not playing, ‘only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted…’
He worked hard. Really hard. Marriage breakdown, poverty, starvation and commitment to a mental hospital kind of hard. And he transformed himself, to his own astonishment, through hour upon hour of sheer dedicated daily effort. He went from being somebody who wished to do something, to someone who could do the thing he had wished for, and who made that thing his life.
Was it worth it? His answer – absolutely; though he cautions that the life he now has is nothing like he imagined it would be.
This article has stayed with me for a few reasons.
The picture Rhodes paints of a transformation accomplished through personal pain and complete dedication to practise is an alluring one. On some deep level I believe that to do anything truly worthwhile in life, you have to give up all the things that are getting in the way, even if those things include people who love you, financial wellbeing, sleep, mental stability, and any hope of a career outside your passion.
I’ve done a half-arsed job of this in the past. Yes I gave up studying law to pursue my love of philosophy. (Also I didn’t want to be a lawyer and was happy to prolong my years at university). Yes I gave up the chance of an academic career for the aspiration of writing fiction. (Also, I had spent too many years at university and didn’t want to be an academic). Yes I’ve walked away from relationships partly in order to focus on my own creative projects. (Also, there were probably many unresolved issues built up over years due to my reluctance to confront difficult or uncomfortable things. Go me!) But despite a long period of aspiration and gestures towards creative commitment, it has only been in the past few years that I’ve actually begun to really be productive.
Unlike Rhodes, who starved and lost a lot of weight in the process of becoming a virtuosic concert pianist, I have less-romantically sat on my arse for too many hours, grazed on too much peanut butter and chocolate, and gained probably a good ten kilos for the cause of my (perhaps mediocre) novels. TAKE THAT WAISTLINE!
Still – I do have some questions about the picture of creative attainment presented in this article. I have even more now, two years after I first read it, as the mother of a one year old baby who works to pay a mortgage and occasionally uses junk TV as an end of the day sedative that the whole family can enjoy.
There is something to the picture of utter dedication to creativity that is, well, kind of selfish.
Sure I sometimes wish I could find a small run-down lean-to in the middle of nowhere, subsist on lentils and rice, and Write Great Literature, waking to hear nothing but birdsong and the gentle breeze, and living by the uninterrupted click-click-click of my fingers on my solar-powered keyboard. I’m sure if I did this, each word would be pure brilliance. I’d no longer get lost in my own plot twists or forget who my characters are or wonder if I can actually do this writing thing at all. It would be great, wouldn’t it?
But you know what, I can’t right now.
I grab time to write between doing all the other things I also have to do. Like making sure my son gets fed and loved and prevented from having terrible accidents and bathed and put to bed on a regular basis. Like talking to my partner, even when he needs to talk about programming and I don’t understand half of it but I know it helps his thinking process. Like staying in touch with friends and family, and making some modicum of effort towards looking after myself because actually, I can’t afford to spend nine months in a mental institution. I HAVE THINGS TO DO.
Yes, I see that I am that mortgage paying worker who sometimes feels they are sleepwalking (due to actual lack of sleep) that Rhodes laments. I do sometimes eat pizza and watch Pretty Little Liars on Netflix in my pyjamas after spending an hour chasing a hyperactive baby who was meant to be asleep.
But I’m also a writer.
Some days I’m more of one thing, some days I’m more of the other thing. Most days I’m a bit of both.
And I have found that it is possible to be creative, to learn and improve and build my craft, to actually be productive, while still taking care of myself and the people around me. In fact, I get a lot more done when it doesn’t seem like my world is about to fall apart. I have ever-increasing faith in the power of consistency and routine.
I know this sounds a lot more boring than ‘dying for your art’, but it is an approach that has worked for me. It’s the only approach that realistically could work for me, at this point in time.
This is all not to say, though, that deep personal crisis and questioning and living on the knife-edge of your passion cannot bring you to new realisations. Experiencing pain and difficultly in life can allow you to access the kind of honesty that is central to making art. Skating shallowly along the surface of things does not. But in my experience, life throws shit at you on a pretty regular basis, whether you go looking for it or not.
Another story that has stuck with me is this one that I read about a young Australian author who died alone in Ireland after a period of isolation and intensive work. She was a year or two younger than me and for a period of time went to the same high school I attended. I don’t remember her. I found the story of her death terribly sad. She was passionate and talented and by all accounts brave. She had found the thing she loved and she had dedicated her life to doing it. She shouldn’t have died.
I think we need to change the narrative that so deeply links pain and creativity. Yes, we need to clear space in our lives, whatever that looks like, however big or small, to do the thing we love. (Nanowrimo is great for this for writers, by the way.) But we also have to care for ourselves and for one another, and to know that our ability to continue the work we do is bound up with our wellbeing.