One of the outcomes that has always surprised the hell out of me about my own work is that, until I did it, I had no idea I was going to do it. Do you know what I mean? I wrote Book X and looked at it and said, “Where in the world did that come from?”
Then I wrote Book X+1 and said the exact same thing.
We discover who we are by the works we produce.
Did you know who you were when you were twenty? But who-you-were was already there. And a compulsion was on you, even if you barely felt it and could not articulate it, to become that yet-unknown commodity. When you encountered a force in opposition—a boss or a parent, a societal prejudice or expectation, even the snarky voice of Resistance in your own head—you instinctively reacted against it. You took steps to overcome that opposition.
To feel the pull of our calling and to follow it produces what psychologists call individuation. We become ourselves. To follow our Muse is a way of answering the question, “Who am I?”
We answer that question the way that artists have always answered it, by producing works. Consider Meryl Streep’s roles over a lifetime, or Bob Dylan’s albums, or the novels of Philip Roth. Each one of those works, in the moment it was unfolding, was for the artist a step into the unknown. Risk was present. It took courage to go forward. And a happy outcome was far from certain. Did Bob Dylan know when he left Hibbing, Minnesota that he would one day go electric, or pass through a Christian phase, or write a lyric like “I used to care but things have changed?”
But when we regard these artists’ bodies-of-work from the end backwards, when we view them as completed (or partially-completed) entities, they seem inevitable, don’t they? Like an oak arising from an acorn. The ineluctable flowering of an identity that was there from the start but that few, if any, perceived—including the artist himself.
Why do I keep writing this blog?
I’m making the case for this journey of self-discovery. What’s the alternative: to not do it? (Again, I’m aware of how high this stuff sits on the Maslow Pyramid. But I see no reason to apologize.)
Which brings us to the democratic side of this question. Not everyone is Meryl Streep. There’s only one Philip Roth and no duplicate of Bob Dylan.
What about the rest of us?
What if we try all our lives and never produce even a decent demo tape? Are we idiots? Look to your right, look to your left. Those poor strivers are clearly going nowhere. What makes you and I believe we’re any different?
If in this blog I’m encouraging people to pursue their artistic dreams, am I doing more harm than good? Lord knows I get plenty of notes from people who are clearly in greater need of psychiatric intervention than of creative encouragement.
Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.
But I’m an American and I love the little guy. I am the little guy. I was listening to a seminar about Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and what I took away was this: every point in the universe is just as valid as every other. That’s science, baby. And it’s democratic.
Should the individual, regardless of native talent or character, strive to live out an artistic or entrepreneurial dream?
The answer depends on whether you’re looking from the outside-in or the inside-out. From outside-in, maybe we should say no. Does it help the individual or the planet to have our heart-driven stuff wind up in some editor’s slush pile? Who are we kidding writing Godfather IV? Shouldn’t we be putting our time and energies to better use, for ourselves and our families?
If you look at it from the outside-in, that’s almost certainly the answer you’ve got to come up with.
But what about inside-out? Here’s John Lee Hooker from “Boogie Chillen”:
One night I was layin’ down,
I heard Papa talkin’ to Mama.
I heard Papa say, to let that boy boogie-woogie
‘Cause it’s in him and it’s got to come out
The dream inside us is not outcome-neutral. It is compelled by nature to create. It will create like cancer if we don’t act upon it positively.
The dream doesn’t dissipate if we turn our backs on it it. It inverts. It goes underground. It turns negative and “acts out.” It surfaces as a shadow form of our heart’s desire. And those shadow versions are never pretty.
So from the inside-out, you and I have no choice. We have to try, even if we can only pursue our calling for an hour or day, or by fits and starts, or even if we have to put the dream away for a year or a decade at a time.
You and I are not going to be Philip Roth or Meryl Streep or Bob Dylan. It ain’t gonna happen. But we have destinies just like these stars do, and the internal imperative to live out those callings sits just as strongly upon us.
There’s room on the bookshelf for your book and mine and a few million others. True, our stuff might be parked out in the “long tail,” selling only to our uncle Jack and a few demented fans.
But our little planet, even if it’s only the size of a Volkswagen, has got just as much right to orbit the sun as does Mercury or Saturn.
See you out there among the stars.