“Art Is My Own Best Chance for Redemption”

In my thirties, I started listening seriously to modern classical music, to the point that I was able to distinguish between John Adams and John Luther Adams—and it’s the latter composer I’ll be talking about now, as I’ve recently had occasion to read his memoir, Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska.

As you might guess, a good portion of the book is about moving to Alaska as a young man, setting himself up in a cabin in the woods, and working on his music in isolation. “I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work,” he writes. “I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.”

Yet he’s the first to admit that this creative and personal freedom came with a cost: “For most of my thirties I really believed that I could have it all and do it all,” he admits several chapters earlier—but, even though he was getting some substantial creative projects done, “I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be. My music was suffering. My health was suffering. My relationship was suffering. Inevitably, something had to give.”

“I wouldn’t advise any young artist to do what I did,” he adds…. yet, paradoxically, he also tells us, “As difficult as that period was in some respects, it endures in my memory as a kind of dreamtime. This didn’t come cheaply, for me or for people I love. It nearly cost me the love of my life. But those years in the woods were essential for me, as an artist and as a man… And the visions of music and of the world that emerged in that cabin have sustained me ever since.”

I know I’ve nurtured similar fantasies of being able to largely withdraw from the ordinary world and dedicate myself to my craft; I’m sure many of you have as well. I suppose, in a way, I actually did get to live out that dream for a while, when I turned thirty; I had just left a dotcom job, so I had a small financial cushion that took me from Seattle to New York and made it possible to look for my next job without much immediate pressure, so I spent a lot of time reading novels and interviewing novelists and publishing the interviews here at Beatrice. Mind you, I also spent a lot of time doing much less productive things with my life, and then I got a job which, it turned out, wasn’t a particularly great fit for me, and a few months after that job ended, the pressure got to be a bit more immediate.

After that, I spent years wavering back and forth between freelancing and staff positions, focusing for the most part on situations that spoke to my creative passions in some way. So at least, during those periods when I was doing little of “my own work,” I would be writing about books and about the publishing industry, or trying to market books for one publisher, or acquiring and editing books for another publisher. Sometimes that was satisfying; sometimes it was frustrating. But I had obligations, to myself and my marriage, and though, like Adams, I wasn’t always great at fulfilling those obligations, I tried to find a meaningful balance between my economic reality and my creative vision, rather than simply grab the first flimsy rope that came my way.

I do feel like I’m better positioned now, and I’m profoundly grateful for that. I have a financially, emotionally, and even spiritually rewarding day job, and when I’m not doing that I’m able to approach this newsletter without having been drained of all my creative energy and passion. Instead of scrambling to find time to write, I’m able to imagine a creative future for myself—to approach my writing with intention and thus with confidence. That confidence didn’t come because I scored a book deal, although that’s another development for which I’m grateful, but because I have a pretty good idea what I want to be doing, and I can keep myself moving in the general direction of that goal. (That said, there’s still plenty of room for surprises—and now I’m relaxed enough to take my time with the story facets that catch me off guard, making myself the sort of person who’s able to consider, and contemplate, and learn from those “sudden” developments.)

Towards the end of his memoir, Adams quotes e.e. cummings: “I am a man. I am an artist. I am a failure.” I need to learn more about the “nonlectures” cummings gave at Harvard from which those lines come, but in the meantime, I’ve got Adams’ gloss to turn over in my mind:

“In some way, we are all failures. Yet, for me, the object of art and life is not success. It seems to me that the best any of us can do is try to conduct our lives so that, on balance, we give more than we take—from the earth, and from our fellow human beings.”

My life has been taking me in the direction of that concept for some time now, well before I picked up Silences So Deep, and I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the implications of choosing to live up to it. I know that I haven’t always lived up to it in my life, especially in those decades before I actually took it seriously. One of the reasons I’m pursuing the path I’ve been pursuing in the three years since I launched this newsletter is that I recognize all the times I’d fallen short in my life up to that point. I found myself in the midst of a metanoia, a Greek word that many English translations of the New Testament render as “repentance,” but which would probably be better described as “a change of heart” or “a new way of thinking.” Metanoia is not a one-and-done deal; rather, it’s a recognition that the way you’ve been living isn’t working out so great, and you need to commit to a better way moving forward.

I still make mistakes, but I get closer to getting things right, too. And, in doing so, I’ve come to take these lines from Silences So Deep to heart:

“Art is my own best chance for redemption. I intend to follow it as faithfully as I can until I draw my last breath.”

That doesn’t mean abandoning everything else completely, at least not as I’ve come to see it. It does mean seeing everything else in perspective, finding ways to achieve a more comprehensively fulfilling life. I’m still learning what that might look like for me—and it may bear little if any resemblance to the way it will look for you. We all have to find our own way, undertake our own retreats and returns. But we can still learn from each other’s stories… and, perhaps, we may be able to share what we’ve learned with someone else.

photo of john luther adams by louisa dedalus, from wikimedia commons

This post was first published in “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” a newsletter I’ve been writing since 2018. If you’d like to subscribe and get every new installment delivered to your email (free!), you can do that here.

10 June 2021 | newsletter |