Artists Have to Got to Give A Damn

Ten years ago I was flat on my face, in the dirt, just barely recovering from a bankruptcy of the soul, spirit and pocketbook. I would sit at the desk of my dayjob—the only job I could get after losing my small writing business—and calculate how my barely-making-it salary was going to cover my teetering-on-the-verge life. I was depressed and hurting, and was running terrible self-hatred conversations in my head on an hourly basis. I had failed miserably, tanking in a fiery blaze, trying to fund a creative project that I thought would save me from ever having to have a dayjob again. I believed it was my own fault, and largely, it was. There were no excuses I could come up with that would explain my stupidity as some elevated, reasonable course. I had gambled big, and lost bigger.artists

But what was at the core of my face-in-the-dirt despair was this: I did not know what in hell to do to live, and live with myself, at the same time. I knew that I went right down the rabbit hole of awfulness when I did not do my art work, and I knew I had lots and lots and lots more creative stuff that wanted out of me, and I had no idea how to get it out while 1) having to have a dayjob, 2) needing to take care of my single self, and 3) finding a way to have a life—meaning, have healthy love relationships along with all of the other normal shit that everybody else seemed to know how to do but me.

I was desperate. Thank god I got myself to a support group for people in debt, because, though I didn’t want to harm myself, I very much wanted to be off the planet.

And right about that time some friends set me up on a date that turned out to be a one-time thing, but the man was a sculptor, and as he got up from the table, he handed me a small book that changed my life. The book was a slim volume that had only a few sentences on each page, and its message was simple: Banish resistance, and get down to work.

The author shared, in his little book, that his resistance had made him ruin marriages, drink to excess, tank perfectly good jobs, and generally ruin his life until he had gotten so low that he realized that any pain he might suffer at the hands of making art could not be any worse that what he had done to himself avoiding it.

I read it and re-read it and read it again. I saw myself on each page—my arrogance, my entitlement, my pendulum-swinging self-esteem—or lack thereof—my feeling that, on one hand, I was entitled to succeed in a blaze of glory (and why the hell was God, or the universe, or my culture holding out on me?), and on the other hand, that I was nothing and was going nowhere. I had left a trail of tanked relationships and dozens of messy job situations that I had ruined for one reason or another, geographic jumps from one coast to the other, and a wake of all kinds of other angsty behavior. And this little volume made me see all that crap for what it was: Just a smokescreen for blocking the suffering I had to be willing to go through to actually create something.

So I started working. I shut off the phones every Sunday, hooked a huge piece of canvas to my wall and rolled it out over the floor, leaned a large piece of Masonite against it, and started painting. Then I started writing. I began giving my writing an hour a day before I started my work—sitting there at my office desk—and in several months I wrote a half-decent screenplay.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I started to see the light at the end my black-hole tunnel. But I was still stymied on how the tight-rope balancing act worked as an artist, so I reached out to the author of the little volume that changed my life, and wrote about as much I have written so far in this essay, asking for any tiny bits of light he might be willing to shine in my direction on how to do that. I felt, writing to him, like a peasant on the outside of the kingdom walls, asking—so very humbly—for a scrap of his breadcrumbs of wisdom—just a tiny bit of encouragement to tide me over this horrible quandary I had been struggling with all my life. I typed my letter out and mailed it to him. About three weeks later I got a short response from him, and my heart leapt. Maybe I never truly expected him to respond, but when I saw that he had, a rush of hope filled my insides. Yes! There was another soul on the planet who had lived through what I was living through and he had responded! There was hope!

But when I opened his response, I saw in a sentence or two that he had blown me off. He wrote that he understood why I had written to him but he could not help me. That was it. No more. No compassion, no acknowledgement, no nothing. I was hurt—hurt by some author I had never met, and now never cared to meet. I vowed to swear off his book and never recommend it again.

I thought, later, that authors of such volumes must be so overwhelmed with “fan mail,” that though I had been sincere, he might have just been overwhelmed by mail just like mine. I have since had my own book published—on a topic that truly triggers terror in readers (learning to live debt-free)—and I know that the author of the little volume that saved my life was not inundated with fan mail at all. He simply didn’t care.

So when my own book got published and people started emailing me and calling me every month, I made it a point to respond—not with platitudes, but with something of substance. At one point it got to be a lot of work, and my husband said, “Hey, you need to stop doing that,” and I said, “I can’t. If someone’s drowning and they reach out a hand, I’m going to throw them something that floats.” I’m sure I didn’t do it perfectly—and I was often giving away for free what I should have been charging for—but I did it.

Just this week a friend told me to read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things—a collection of her responses in her Dear Sugar column for The Rumpus, and I was struck by how caring and involved her responses were. And I remembered again how stingy the author of the little artist’s volume had been, and I was sad for him.

Because here’s the thing: It’s hard to be an artist. Hell, it hard to be a person. And when we set ourselves on a creative course, we need support. We need to hear from others who are father down the road than us that we can, too, stand on our own two feet, we just need some time-in and some practice. We need to hear that it’s about the work and not the emotional distractions, and learn to follow in the footsteps of the artists, writers, sculptors, musicians and more who are doing their work no matter what. We need a touch on the wrist or a gleam from another’s eye shined toward us that says, “Hey, you can too do it. You just have to show up for it.”

I’m reminded that art is about being human. It’s a reflection back to others what we see from our vantage point—a view and a vision of being alive. It’s about beauty, surely—the messy, complicated, tranquil and sometimes exquisite experiences of our life here on earth.

So we have to, as artists, be generous of spirit. That doesn’t mean we have to let needy people who need professional help eat up our art hours with their codependency. (And generally those folks really aren’t ready to work; they just want to complain.) But when we encounter the truly honest questions in another artist’s face about how to walk this oftentimes very lonely road, we should stop, and breathe, and give ourselves over to the questions, even if it’s just for three minutes. We never know whose life we save by offering even sixty second of our generosity. That’s true as artists, and it’s true as human beings.

It’s so simple to offer a moment of our time, to hold out a hand to another creative person. To give a damn means something. We do not know whose life we change in those tiny, beautiful moments that we offer another person’s heart.artists

My husband’s mom was the director of community education in our town’s college, and she once had Anais Nin come and speak. After that, my husband Mike sent her a note, asking something along the lines of what I asked that other, small-hearted author. How does one write? How does one create and stay in? What is this life called ‘artist’? And she wrote back, offering a small yet meaningful message from her heart, written in her own hand:

Too overworked to write a real letter, until May when the 53 lectures at colleges are over. But I’m sending you a book which may inspire you with your struggle with writing—the story of my own. But don’t think about writing—just imagine you are singing instead. Close your eyes. Let it flow!artists

—Anais artists

It’s that simple. Just care. Offer something along our artist’s path. Be real. All of it, always, comes back.

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