Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Curse of Creativity

I know that millions of people draw or paint or scribble out poetry. Some do it for the love of it, and it is a fulfilling, enjoyable hobby. Maybe they give their work away as gifts, and it is loved and appreciated by family and friends. Maybe sometimes they look for deeper acknowledgement of their talent and a wider audience, and their poems appear in the church newsletter, or their paintings win ribbons at the County fair. Are they content with that? Is that enough?

Maybe they yearn for bigger things, or, like me, find the creative process a compulsion, and doing something with the end product becomes almost a necessary evil. How many thousands and thousands of us are there out there, I wonder, sending our words off in envelopes, or tramping around to galleries with canvases under our arms or photographs in portfolios? And how similar, or different, are our dreams of the end result? How many of us really believe that we are special, and with what hopes and dreams are we doggedly pursuing recognition?

So few really achieve any success. For every million male adolescents dreaming of being a rock star, perhaps one will actually hear his own voice on the radio. In every city in the world there must be a dance studio run by an aging artist whose biggest dreams were never realized. There must be thousands of unpublished novels in cardboard boxes in dusty garages, and every thrift store has a stack of framed canvases leaning against the wall.

But we keep doing it, those of us who feel we must, or those of us who really enjoy it -- singing in the shower, dipping our brushes in paint, choreographing the middle school play, paying someone to bind our poems so that we can peddle them ourselves at small book fairs... or at the very least give them away as Christmas presents.

And despite our all-too-often blighted hopes, we can share that tiny, private satisfaction of having created something. We can stand back from that piece of art, or read that poem aloud to ourselves, and know that sweet, real kernel of joy that says "yes, this is what I meant, I have done this myself, and it is good".

If we can't have that, then maybe the rest of it doesn't really matter. The world-renowned concert pianist who is never pleased with his own performance, who never experiences that rare moment of creative pleasure is bereft, while the elderly woman who smiles with intense joy at the little painting of tulips is blessed, however poor her product may be in someone else's eyes.

Sometimes, too, there are the admonitions of others, who either genuinely see a talent in someone else that they admire, or who have their own private ambitions that are inexplicably bound up in someone else's success. They often intend to be supportive and encouraging when they say things like, "this is really good... why don't you publish this?" or "why are you working here when you can paint like this?" And in their naive way, they probably really do believe that it is only false modesty or lack of self-esteem that stands in the way, and are puzzled when their comments sometimes produce irritation.

But who wants to be reproached for not having "published" something when he is the not-so-proud owner of enough printed rejection slips to paper a room? Who wants to be told that she should "do something" with her talent when she's foot sore and dejected from knocking on gallery doors? "Oh well, just keep trying", these well-meaning mini-patrons say, and launch into (usually highly embellished) stories about famous artists and their long hard struggles to fame and fortune.

It might be better, I think, to look on someone else's creative output with a healthy dose of sympathy. It might not be as flattering, but it is certainly more realistic.

Monday, January 5, 2009

New Year... New You?

The first day of a new year, that proverbial clean slate where we are determined to suddenly become improved versions of ourselves, free of bad habits and vice, filled instead with unrealistic expectations and a rather dubious optimism. Instead of congratulating ourselves for having survived yet another series of 365 days, despite our inherent weaknesses and all-too-human frailties, we instead press on toward the hope of a string of perfect tomorrows that will somehow see us exercising regularly, saying "no" to dessert, hoarding our pennies, and remembering to floss before bed. Never mind that none of these things has been a part of our lives before; the fresh calendar on the wall seems bright with promise, and we are adamently determined that this time we won't screw it up.

And for a while - a day, or a week, or even the better part of a month -- we will even seem to have achieved it. Our muscles will be sore from unaccustomed forays into the gym, our beds will be made, our ashtrays empty, and only the kindest and most patient of words will have found their way off of our tongues.

But then something will happen... something we should have expected from the unpredictable, imperfect, often rather messy thing called life. The power will inexplicably go off late in the night, causing us to oversleep, to leap from our beds in horror the next morning, surrounded by silent electronic equipment ominously blinking 12:00. And there will go our string of punctual days, and we will once again arrive at the office harassed, and out of breath, and tardy. Or the cat will throw up quietly on the downstairs carpet, which we will discover only when we have trodden slipperless across it, and the kind of words we swore would not pass our lips again will stream with eloquence to our dismayed ears.

A long day at work, an endless commute in pouring rain with no umbrella, the beginnings of a cold, will see us arrive miserably, weakly, at home again, and we will reach for the comfort of the chocolate bar, or the cigarette, or the glass of wine.

And even if we tell ourselves that it is "just this once", we will know in our hearts that our solemn resolve has been irretrievably broken, and there is no magic in beginning anew on January 14th, or February 3rd. And so we will sigh, and since we have already blown the budget with the new clothes, we will decide that we may as well buy the new shoes as well, or we will go ahead and polish off the rest of the carton of Rocky Road ice cream. And after the wave of disappointment recedes, we will settle down with a certain relief into our usual comfortable overweight, overdrawn, overwhelmed routines.

Maybe we will be a little more conscious, having had a brief taste of virtue, and we may not smoke quite so much, or hit the snooze button quite so often, and we may opt for salad instead of hamburger more frequently. And when the new year rolls around again we may even be able to glance back at the previous 365 days with some small sense of satisfaction. We won't be perfect, or even close to it, but we will have done a little better.

And that, in itself, is worth celebration.

Happy new year!