“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 |

Everything You Write Is the Most Important Thing You Write

As the publication date for Our Endless and Proper Work draws near, I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from the actor Mads Mikkelsen:

“My approach to what I do in my job—and it might even be the approach to my life—is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film.… I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.”

What would it be like, I wonder, to fully live that way? What would it be like, in particular, to write that way? Without looking past the computer screen and the notebook page and setting your gaze on the potential book deal—or, if you’ve already got a book deal, on what reviewers will think of it. Dwelling on what this book, which isn’t even done yet, might do for you in the future, instead of concentrating on what you need to do with it right now.

What do I need to figure out right now, as I’m trying to write these pages? That’s where I have to put my attention. Ideally, I shouldn’t even speculate on what I’ll do with that hard-won knowledge once I’ve acquired it, because that might just increase the difficulty of learning what I need to learn right now. Later, I’ve finally put the story together the way it needs to be put together, I can carry what I’ve learned forward into the unknown. Today, sitting at my keyboard, or with my notebook, this unsolved mystery is the most important project I’ve got going. It won’t be any help to me tomorrow if I can’t move forward with it today.

I can get into that state intermittently, but it’s hard to maintain—and it’s not always the imagined future that distracts me. Sometimes it’s the past, and I don’t mean the useful parts of the past that might actually inform a particular piece of writing. Sometimes it’s the million and one things going on around me in the present. And there’s really nothing else I can do but to push through all that until, if I’m lucky, I can get back to that moment when the only thing in front of me is the question I need to answer today, and the process of answering it.

One thing I’m gradually beginning to understand more clearly is how to look at writing as a process rather than a product. Obviously, if you want to make any kind of living as a writer, even as a side gig, you have to give product some consideration; at the very least, you need to come up with something that can be published and purchased. But that’s just what you need to produce in order to participate in the publishing world, the market-driven world, the economic world. Beyond that, what was the book/story/essay/poem you wrote trying to tell you about yourself? And why did you need to be told that at that moment?

Stop thinking about becoming a famous writer, or a bestselling writer. It will either happen or it won’t, and the outcome depends on so many variables beyond your control that dwelling on it becomes counterproductive. Similarly, stop telling yourself you could never make it as a writer. You actually do have some control over that outcome, and you exert that control every time you engage in catastrophic speculation.

Instead, be ambitious with the blank space right in front of you. How will you fill it?

It has been, some of you will notice, a while since the last newsletter. So clearly I need to learn more keenly the lesson of concentrating on filling the blank space in front of me… and I’ve been reminded, over the last few weeks, that it’s as important to say no to a lot of work (and to a lot of things that aren’t work) so you have the freedom to say yes to the work that truly matters.

So when Mads Mikkelsen says “everything I do is the most important thing I do,” I don’t believe that he’s saying you have to do whatever comes along and treat it as if it’s the most important thing in the world. You have to look at your options and, whenever possible, pick the work that speaks most clearly to you. As he explains, though, that doesn’t always mean the work that will “advance your career,” because if you’re thinking along those lines, you’ve already got a preconceived notion of what your career will be like, when you need to make room for spontaneous discovery.

Of course, in the broader, market-driven world, the economic world, most of us don’t possess the privilege to operate in spontaneous discovery mode all the time. Sometimes we have to take whatever comes along because we have needs, and to fulfill needs we need money, and to get the money we need to do the work. If we write at all, it’s because we’re carving out pockets of time and space within that economic reality, moments in which we are no longer beholden to anyone else and can follow our creative impulses wherever they may lead.

Why not, given how rare such freedom is, exercise it to the fullest, whenever you can? Seen in that light, everything you write is the most important thing you write because it is in the writing that you are most yourself. You are, in effect, creating yourself, inching toward the best possible version of yourself, along with whatever ends up in the manuscript.

But I’d be the first to admit: As firmly as I believe that, it’s still intimidating as hell.

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.

17 May 2021 | newsletter |

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