They say life is lived in a spiral. How queer that I am once again faced with the choice of art or business…
A life devoted to making art? Or, instead, a straight job? Every year this choice is faced by a surprising number of young people. As a youth I read a lot of pre-war W. Somerset Maugham stories dealing with exactly that issue. Stories, for example, of a hero never minding what parents and sane people would say while striving to become a poet, painter or concert pianist. And then sometimes admitting defeat.
Maugham himself originally trained to be a doctor. Dan Kennedy, a successful Canadian entrepreneur, has said in one of his little Self Counsel Press books (which I recommend) that he had considered becoming a novelist, but then he took a moment for a visualization: He didn’t want to be starving in an attic! Based on his writings, I’m sure he’s pleased with his high-powered life. As for me, back in my youth I decided that if perchance I ever felt a compelling urge to make art then I could do so just on weekends. That was my choice.
Years passed. In early middle age I would get a little exercise, on dark snowy nights, by walking more than a half-mile to a warm donut shop. Some high school students hung out there too, and one of them, a guy named Shaman, probably made the first move: We got to know each other. I learned that Shaman was an amateur singer-songwriter. We were both “saved” and we both liked the same Christian radio channel- in moderation, that is, as we both liked rock mostly. I said I listened to Shine FM in my car late at night because if I ended up in a lonely crash, car upside down, oil pan dripping, my life ebbing, then I wanted, at the end, to be hearing music of my lord.
Shaman was playing guitar at church events and coffee nights. Surely he’d go on to college after high school, but then what? Dare he be a full-time guitar-man? I answered slowly. “ Accountants my age… might wonder, they might regret they never tried to be a performer… but artists don’t say, ‘I wish I’d been an accountant.’” This made sense to the boy. After a pause I advised, “You could write to famous stars and ask them for advice.”
“Really?” Shaman must have wondered if I was crazy since “everyone knows” stars have oodles of fans. I have even heard how stars wear sunglasses to avoid revealing their tired opinion of such people.
“Yes” I said firmly. “Make it plain, up front, that you are writing not as a fan but as a fellow artist."
Our paths diverged. Seasons passed. One night I finally ran into Shaman again, in that same donut shop. Early in our conversation he reached down into his student bag and pulled out a manila file folder. He had taken the initiative to follow my advice: the file was thick with replies. Incidentally, the common advice they gave to Shaman was to seek out The Art of Lyrical Songwriting by Sheila Davies.
For the next few years our paths crisscrossed. After college Shaman became an entrepreneur, successful enough to buy a world-class bombproof guitar case, the same one used by household names in the music world. One year he closed his business and took his guitar to the pacific. Seasons passed. When we met again he explained how young people today keep in touch by using electronic mail in Internet cafes. Shaman told me of trekking up the west coast of Australia through various towns and, as he went along, seeing the same young faces in the those cafes. As for me, I suppose at their age I was in town reading James A. Michener’s The Drifters. Shaman was no drifter: Finally, feeling a strong urge to start up a business again, Shaman stopped walking and caught a flight home. His new business prospered.
Down the years we’ve enjoyed scattered evenings in taverns. Now Shaman’s gone off to university. I know he’s never regretted his time spent singing or traveling. As seasons have passed I am finding myself, in my middle age, patiently copying the masters by hand, word for word, and making my own compositions.
Yes Mom, I’m an artist. My chosen medium is not song but prose, not fiction but essays.
If I was a painter I guess I could take time out from my art to do stuff that sells: noble stags at bay, puppy dogs and nice English gardens. A fellow Canadian, a serious science fiction writer, told me how embarrassingly easy it was to pay the mortgage by whipping off a mere fantasy about vampires. Even more embarrassing: It led to a successful series and Hollywood came calling.
As for essays, you can’t take time out to do “stuff that sells”: Because nothing sells. I chuckled when Paul Fussell called his essays “observations” in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. He knew better than to drive people away with “essays”. Fussell is such an inspiration. I’ll never forget the excitement of reading his essay Thank God for the Atom Bomb.
Being fascinated by democracy, I was equally excited to read translations of the essays of a future prime minister, a young Pierre Elliot Trudeau. In Quebec, he rebuked the passive intellectuals and leaders of his day. He alerted people to the fact of their democratic deficit. At last his fellow Quebecers learned to act less like the Third World: They had their “quiet revolution” in which they learned to have much more initiative and confidence. Meanwhile Trudeau had moved on to take up a position in parliament.
I know what being a Quebec essayist is like because I know what being an artist is like: opening the doors to the id. It’s standing in a hotel room shower in Rome and suddenly creating the pop lyrics to “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet.” It’s abruptly getting up at night to hit the drawing board. It’s sinking into the bathtub and shouting “Eureka!” It’s walking along the sidewalk and considering whether to change a paragraph, before you can see the sky, and then later that evening, by the fireplace, wrestling with that paragraph yet again, before you can see the flames. Einstein asked, “Why is it that I always seem to get my ideas while I am shaving?” Because all the previous day he had worked the pump handle to prime the pump, that’s why.
An essayist and computer millionaire, Paul Graham, was talking about any generic Silicon Valley “start up” business when he said there is only room in your head to think of one thing, one single overriding topic to drift into your mind during your shower in the morning and your idleness around bed time. He said this to emphasize you should be focusing on building the new business (creating software) and not focusing on raising funds. (From venture capitalists) Graham’s challenge is, “What topic does your mind keep returning to?”
And so there are three reasons why I respect Trudeau. The first two are obvious: his essays from before he got elected, and his political work. The third? He quit cold turkey. No more essays. Since governing is a 24-hour job he could not afford to be turning his thoughts to paragraphs at odd moments during his days of walking around parliament. If he got up at night it had to be to craft a better response to a head of state. As he showered it had to be the topic of "governing" that his mind drifted to.
Trudeau, a Jesuit trained intellectual, probably made his decision to quit in a heartbeat. For me the choice is taking a little longer. At work we’ve had some tremors. No Berlin wall has fallen, but amongst our perestroika and glasnost we are opening up three new company officer positions. Everyone knows I have the qualifications. If I applied, and if I was accepted, then I’d have a 24-hour salary, a 24-hour responsibility, and, knowing my humble temperament, a 24-hour guilt. And from then on during all my showers I would have to think about work. What should I choose? My art or this new business?
On the one hand my writings will never be classics; on the other hand the new position would mean guilt; on the gripping hand, as an artist who thinks in pictures, I can vividly see Private Sledge in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, where like me he faced a big choice…
Like me once, Sledge was a mortar crewman. Like me he was university material. In fact, after the war he went on to become a biology professor. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the war, he deliberately flunked out of Officer College in order to get to the war faster as a private.
Sledge was lucky to survive. During the Okinawa campaign the enemy fire was so intense that from his foxhole he watched the body of a fellow marine, out in no man’s land, turning slowly into a skeleton. It would have been suicide to try to cross open ground to retrieve the body. By the end of Okinawa he was one of only three original people in his battalion who hadn’t been killed or wounded. His buddies had gone from saying "When I get home... " to "If I get home..." to not saying anything because they were never going home. The next campaign was to be the worst of all... Operation Olympic: the invasion of the Japanese home islands. But then a miracle happened, and he was spared… Thank God for the atom bomb.
It was before Okinawa, but after a horrible campaign where Sledge had acquitted himself well, that he was summoned to a tent to meet with a seasoned lieutenant. The choice: Did Sledge want to go back to the states for a while to take officer candidate training? … I can imagine what went through the young man’s mind. Of course the call of God’s Own Country is powerful. Even today, in peacetime, people on UN postings are not given leave to travel to North America. I can well imagine the joy of a chance to Escape From Hell…
The young man replied honestly. No… he was doing more good where he was, helping to crew a mortar… Sledge no longer saw himself as officer material; he wouldn’t try to fool a seasoned lieutenant.
Do I digress by picturing that war? No, not really. While it is nice to be legally allowed to make art in this democracy, it never hurts to recall that freedom is a privilege, a privilege paid for in blood, sweat and tears.
Today, like Sledge, I’m doing good work right where I am: As I type this I can see my Tissot wristwatch, from Birk’s Jewelers, given to me by the boss for services rendered. Of course I'm tempted by a promotion. Like Sledge, I don’t try to fool myself as to whether I can handle the demands of the position; after due deliberation, my choice is made: I am declining to apply to be a company officer.
I am finding, in my middle age, that I’ve chosen to have a straight job, and to make art too. I would never have imagined, back in my youth, that my art would not be “weekends only.” Instead, it is weeknights and week mornings too. This without any hope to ever give up my day job.
At the rising up to go shower, and at the going down of the sun, I am an artist
In the foothills of the Rockies
~Out east in Quebec they caricature the Snowman like how Yankees caricature Uncle Sam. This week our national magazine, MacLeans, has a controversial cover story showing the snowman with a brief case full of money. The storey is that Quebec is the most corrupt province in the country. That’s no surprise to me since Trudeau’s essays show how deeply run the roots of the democratic deficit. I still believe in Quebec because Trudeau believed a nation can change and grow.
~Update I: Business guru Peter Drucker said an executive must ask, "How can I make a contribution?" while Hugo award winning writer Gordon R. Dickson said that writers are teachers. Combining those two thoughts, I have been asked to teach selected staff in "leadership" on a weekly basis. My class is going "fabulous."
~Update II: My writing output has declined, because I am creatively inventing the curriculum, but I'm happy. (And yes, in the past I've had paid leadership positions, both military and civil, but I was asked to contribute based on who I am now, not on who I had once been.)