I assume this post will go the way 90% of my posts go. Me deliberating and agonizing for YEARS (no, but it feels like that in the moment) until I get fed up with the entire idea of having an imperfect post and then chuck it into “Saved Drafts” where it will dwell for several actual years until I look back at all my failures and permanently delete them.
Which is a great way to start this one, because that’s what I want to talk about today.
My husband recently got into the Malcolm Gladwell podcast, Revisionist History. After weeks of casually dropping it into conversation, today he finally asked if we could listen to an episode he thought I would appreciate. I’m the queen of “you have to hear/watch/read this or nothing I say in the immediate future will make any sense to you, and you’ll dead to me so JUST DO IT!” I’m not great at promoting interests to other people, so I have to do it by force of alienating myself forever by being a dictator about it. This is why I’ve never created a cult, because I don’t think anyone would join based on my sell technique and the lack of success would be too burdensome to bear.
It’s rare to see that obsessed and repetitive attribute reflected back to me. It’s not that I’m always averse to trying new things, I just don’t prioritize them and usually forget about them completely.
The episode is “Hallelujah,” and how it took Leonard Cohen 17 years and multiple artists to transform the song into a hit.
My husband put on the episode and went into the kitchen to tend to some chores. When he returned, he saw me on the couch. Balled up in a fetal position. Hands over face. Sobbing and shaking violently. Probably not the reaction he intended.
Some clarifying light.
My two most prevalent passions are art (drawing, painting, miscellaneous crafting/upcycling) and writing. As most people do, I have a job I go during the day and, on good days when I’m able, create in my downtime.
As a child, I was a great artist. I know that most young humans are shit when it comes to art, but I wasn’t. Between the zen focus I found in creating and the praise I received for barely trying, I truly loved art more than anything. I lived to paint, I dared to draw long hours throughout the day, every day. No one had to tell me to practice; I legitimately wanted and needed to until the project was done or I was too weak to continue.
But reality slapped me hard. It told me that art was only good for profit, and even if I planned on becoming a “starving artist,” I should prep MANY backup careers and focus on those since so many people fail. Time I’d spent drawing early on was interrupted in my teens by homework, friends, chores, and school activities. My proficiency waned.
The year I was diagnosed with a mental and co-existing chronic illness within months of each other broke the camel’s back. I wasn’t improving, I didn’t have time to improve, and as much as I’d been praised in the past, I was now told by society that my talent was a waste of time. I wasn’t getting better, and if I wasn’t getting better there was no chance. There was too much competition, and I wither under pressure. I always have. The only art I created by that point made me irate, because the image in my mind got jumbled on the way to my fingers. I’ve never been a patient person, and now I was losing progress each year in spades.
I quit. I folded and focused solely on writing. It wasn’t treated the same. I could write and still work it into a career somehow. In fact, writing was almost my sole activity in college, so I only got better at it.
A few years back, I re-started therapy. Now with coping skills I had needed and lacked throughout my life, I was able to go back to art. I’d work on something, and if I hated it, I’d make it into something else.
Another thing that helped was Augusten Burroughs’ book This is How. In one chapter, he tells readers his childhood dream was to become an actor. It changed the day he saw himself perform a monologue on video. He was soul-crushingly foul. In order to find his true calling, he examined why he wanted to become an actor. He wanted to form a connection with people. He became an author instead. “Which is the same thing, but I’m better at it,” he wrote. “I don’t feel I gave up on my dreams. I gave up on my choice of vehicle used to deliver me to this dream. I thought it would be a big-ass Ford pickup and instead it was a pale blue hatchback.”
I embraced writing as a kid when I learned that I could tell the whole story in my head that was behind my pictures that no one saw but me. I liked writing because for me, some stories were too long, too intense, too complicated for my art skills. I was able to transcend the venue and achieve the desired results. It felt like a real life hack and still does.
So why did I start crying at the podcast?
When I went back to art, I promised myself that I would work on patience. I would research the mediums I needed and how to apply them. Through application, I would increase my talent. Limit/corral self-hate. Let the ideas flow. If I screwed up or created something I hated, I could fix it, correct it, or find a new way to make it work. It didn’t mean I had to give up. I wasn’t doing it as a career change. I was doing it for the reason I’d always done it: it made me feel alive. It made life worth living. To do it was to sing the song that was in my soul all day long, not for a penny or a dime but for lifting me up, bringing me higher than I could imagine. Dreaming myself into an impossible dream. Creating a new world, one I belonged in, one where I was queen.
Part of the reason I put art on the shelf was because I didn’t feel like I was good enough. Amanda Palmer calls the doubt one has about their abilities The Fraud Police, and I feel like they’re always coming to take me away.
I’ve never sufficiently grieved for all that time I lost on art. I’ll never be able to make it up. And writing? I’ve been editing the same project for years, and I’m still nowhere close to finished.
Welcome to Waterworld. Population? My face.
So when my husband came in and saw me huddled, flooding my hands with liquid emotions, he wasn’t surprised but he was confused. I explained that I knew how Leonard Cohen felt. You invest time in a venture, something you hope will succeed, but it has to be completed. But it might never be. What if I made it worse? Maybe the world doesn’t like it? Doesn’t notice? Doesn’t care?
I cried into my hands, because all I’ve ever wanted to do was drink in beauty and breathe out the good stuff, that same meditative and ecstatic state that embraces me while I’m constructing. To feel that accomplished wave of happiness fill my heart when I look at my work. Feeling it awaken from years dormant and fly back into my arms–strong and striking.
Art and writing feed my soul. They are my inner expressions fleshed out, more of myself than any self description. Having thoughts that materialize out of nothing? That’s magic. And achieving these ideals even in small spurts? That’s the power of a god.
It’s why I like Siskel more than Ebert. Ebert could crank out a review in ten minutes, but Gene would agonize at his desk for hours. I am Gene Siskel. I am Leonard Cohen. In his own words, “love is not a victory march. It’s a sad and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Just because art brings you joy does not mean that it always makes you happy. Art is wondrous and full of bliss, but it’s also exhausting and painful. Hemmingway once said, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. He’s not wrong.
After chewing and spitting out a piss poor explanation to my spouse, I added soberly, “I do really like this podcast episode. I relate to it very much.” He said, kindly, “Do you want to take a break, go to the store with me, and pick back up in a couple of minutes?” And I was very grateful for the reprieve.