Notes to My Younger Self From the Artist Careening Into His Dotage, Grace Unknown
Your elder self is charging into winter. To be more exact, it’s the hours that charge forward; I follow, slower and less certain. When the time comes, you’ll find me less a comet and more like Riley, the chocolate Lab Retriever who lives next door. Grey-muzzled and slightly stiff, she still — charmingly, to me — strains at the leash when pointed towards the park, splendour and lavatory calling like sirens.
You may be tempted to dismiss this letter as the product of old age. Careful with that. (And for god’s sake, avoid the word curmudgeon — if not for my sake, then yours.) Ad hominem arguments — as your wonderful college teacher, Barbara Struck, will explain to you — aren’t arguments at all. They’re just another tired way of trying to win (something you’ll want far more than is good for you, by the way). But as Maynard Keynes noted — in perhaps the only valid axiom ever articulated by an economist — winning is something nobody does, not in the long run. And for us human types the long run isn’t long at all.
So, in the spirit of December reflection, grey and late, I offer you the following fourteen thoughts, their order unrelated to their relative (un)importance.
You may one day choose to make art your vocation. (You will.) If so — and even if not — please try this exercise. Go to a museum and choose a picture that appeals to you. Any medium will do. Then look at that picture, and that picture only, for 30 minutes. Or, better still, an hour. You needn’t stare at it like a meditation flame. Just look. Contemplate the image; let your thoughts roll over and through it. Observe these thoughts as well, without judging their elegance, merit, or lack thereof. Take in every detail of the picture, including the most minuscule and seemingly unimportant. Don’t run off or search for distraction elsewhere.
You may be bored at first, though this feeling may arise simply because you expect it. You may feel restless. Or self-conscious. But after some minutes, these feelings will change to something else.
Afterwards, you’ll feel different. You’ll see differently. You may even feel like you are different. It will change the way you experience art and, in turn, the way you create it — for the better. It may change more than that.
2. On Pollutants and Forgeries
If you find an audience for your art — and particularly if you find one that pays — resist the powerful but insidious temptation to thereafter make forgeries of this, your own work. Bless their hearts, Robert Frank did not make The Americans, Part II and Piotr Rawicz never wrote a novel save for Blood from the Sky. As Marina Abramović says, “An artist should avoid his own art pollution.”
Speaking of which, it will be important to read Blood from the Sky— not enough people will — so do that sometime in very early adulthood. I now reread Rawicz’s book every two or three years. It’s a palate cleanser, a book reminding me that it’s possible to make poetry out of our daily betrayals, that an artist who faces savageries without recoil can lead us somewhere both higher and closer to sanity.
Annotate the book as if your life depends on it. Its cover will develop this beautiful patina and, in a few years, you’ll return to lovingly worn pages bearing notes scrawled in your younger hand, comments such as Heads like cabbages! (you won’t forget why you wrote that), and underlined sentences like
Can it be that our only real betrayal is the one we commit against silence?
As a small aside, Blood from the Sky is what some might call “disturbing” reading. I say this only to show you an example of a 21st century reiteration newly christened a “trigger warning.” This form of cultural prophylaxis— condescending, fearful, and dreary—is old as history itself.
4. You and I are the Measure of Nothing
There is a default impulse in us all to take ourselves seriously. Resist ferociously. Be vigilant and wary of all manifestations of this urge, including what I’m writing now.
Like so many other things, you’ll fail often at doing this. Don’t take this failure seriously either. Recognize the obvious—that you can be a real ass, and often. For what it’s worth, you’ll have company in this, a few making enjoyable comrades even.
And if you manage to laugh at yourself, take note. Be glad and repeat often.
In addition to being silly and uncharming, taking yourself seriously is, dramatically put, an essential part of the instalment plan for suffocating your soul.
Following on that, remind yourself regularly that much — most — of your so-called “accomplishments” will come not from your individual brilliance and effort but directly from dumb luck or the foundations laid by such dumb luck. Contrary to what many (almost always the fortunate) will suggest, you live in a world where a child’s postal code is a good to excellent predictor of several measures of so-called future success, from health to economic prosperity.
Consider your grandmother Leah, who spent her life illiterate and financially dependent. You, on the other hand, will get multiple degrees and spend enormous amounts of time studying — and taking joy from — all manner of squiggly black marks on reams of pages of paper. People will grace you on occasion by writing about the fruits of your imagination and listening to you talk about them. The difference between you and your grandmother has infinitely less to do with work ethic and cleverness than it does with the advantages and disadvantages afforded by your respective places, times, and stations of birth: yours in a beautiful Montreal neighbourhood, prosperous and peaceful; hers in a Russian village stricken by poverty and pogroms.
(Consider too how Leah came to Montreal—by ship, an eleven year old girl, the protector of two younger siblings, unaccompanied by adults. That she resisted deportation—by threatening familicide through drowning, the story goes—is the reason we got the winning postal code. If you get halfway to matching that courage—though I doubt Leah would have called it that—you’ll have done better than I could imagine.)
Knowing the truth about good and bad fortune won’t undermine your efforts. But it may sharpen the direction towards which you point them. And it will, I hope, leave you more kindly inclined to others, most of whom won’t be as fortunate as us.
6. Your Art Will Be Important to You Most of All
Don’t think that your art will be more important to anyone else than it will be to you. First of all, if you think that you’re almost certain to be wrong.
However, if it turns out at some point that your work is more important to others than to you, then it’s probably less an indicator of merit than a sign that you’re working on the wrong things (see #7, next). Your work should be more important to you than anyone else.
Creating art is one of the most self-indulgent pursuits there is and saying otherwise is to kid yourself. Being an artist may drive you crazy quite often (it will) but, really, it’s a grand privilege to spend so much time carousing in the corridors of your imagination. (And complaining about its downsides is mostly bad form, though I understand if you’ll need to get it out of your system from time to time.)
7. There will be a Gap…
… between the art you think you should create and what you most want and need to create. Figuring out the difference — which mirrors one of life’s fundamental problems — will be one of your great challenges as an artist. That you may well earn more external reward from the former than the latter will complicate things. That too will mirror the rest of life.
In addition — sorry to heap it on — figuring out what you really want turns out to be harder than you’d think. But that’s a big chunk of the work. And if you don’t do it, there’ll come a day when you’ll see what you’re left with, and pain will follow.
Over your lifetime, the trend towards making people think they want things, rather than making things they want or appreciate or even need, will accelerate. The spirit of marketing will extend beyond commerce to infect everything. The spirit of commerce will plant its flag any place it can, which will be everywhere. The territory of art will not be spared; it will be overrun.
Keeping this in mind, if you find yourself using the term “personal brand” in serious reference to you and/or your art, do the following immediately: Find a good friend and demand that she or he slap you, hard. On the face. Don’t take no for an answer.
If someone tries selling you on the cosmological importance of the artist’s “personal brand,” do not slap them. Slapping people is a bad thing, notwithstanding the above exception when it’s noble. Smile instead. (Vacantly — even stupidly — is acceptable.) Hide your alarm. (Hiding one’s alarm is a useful skill, as practical as sneezing into the crook of your arm, so take the opportunity to practice.) Then run, at least metaphorically, though the old fashioned way may be better.
9. Social Media
The Internet will come. It will turn out to be much bigger than you first think. (During the Internet’s early days, your older self, though younger than me, will stupidly say that it was no more important than the invention of television. See #10, coming up next.) The Internet’s loudest offspring will be something called social media, most prominently Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The people running these things will tell you their intentions are good (not true), that these tools will help people become closer (not true; they will slaughter even the word “friend”), and that they will change the world (they got that one right).
Understand that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (owned by Facebook) are just advertising companies using technology — fluffed up with a squirt of New Age bullshit — for the old fashioned purpose of getting rich, though on scales that will be difficult to imagine. (This is also true for Google and its monkey-with-a-machine gun subsidiary YouTube.)
You may not have the foresight or fortitude to resist entering the social media kingdoms. (You won’t. You’ll be suspicious but fear being left behind, shame on you.) However, once inside and once you’ve messed about for a while, try this: don’t use these platforms for a solid month. When you’re done you’ll feel like you’ve taken a shower after wearing the same underwear for the longest, hottest summer on record. (There’ll be plenty of those by the way, but I digress.) You’ll wonder how these psycho/spiritual dumpsters seemed important, irresistible, and necessary. That they did is testimony to the amoral shrewdness and technical acumen of their inventors and operators combined with the sheer numbers of their enablers and followers. In this, they continue in the tradition of grifters who have prospered over centuries — purveyors of lucrative horseshit and piecemeal soul extinction.
And on this topic, which grows tiresome fast, I’ll say no more.
10. You Will Know Sweet Fanny Adams, And Doubt Will Be Your Friend
Be conscious of how little you know. Be conscious of how little you can know. You’ll eventually repeat yourself paraphrasing the philosopher and historian Giabattista Vico who said something to the effect that what we don’t know is vastly greater than what we do know. Of course, he was right. That something so blindingly obvious still needs stating with gravitas is testimony to a slew of human weakness.
Remember also that even within that sliver of what you supposedly do know are great dollops of misconception, bullshit, self-deceit, and outright nonsense. Thinking you know a lot will make you a lesser artist. Inevitably, it will also get you into big trouble personally. And make you a giant bore, besides.
When it comes to art — perhaps life too — it may be that scrutinizing our own ignorance and then tracing its contours is as good as it gets. And not so bad, really.
Yes, I know. I could wrong about this too.
10a. In that first paragraph of this section, try substituting the word “control” for the word “know.” It works.
Try not to make the mistake of creating art to show people what a good person you are or how high your consciousness is. Many more of us do this than will admit it. Many more of us do this than know it.
Creating art to show people you’re a good person is an egotistical, insecure way of avoiding things that scare you, one more default inclination. Depending on the zeitgeist and your mastery of craft, you may get kudos for making work from this place. But it’s a recipe for puerile work and, ultimately, far less than you’re capable of. As well, if you spend years making work that runs away from yourself, you may eventually realize what you’ve done. (These realizations really do come at the proverbial three in the morning.) And then you’ll feel more than a little ill.
As for being a good person, let me save you the trouble of worrying about it. You won’t be. You’ll just be a person. Period. Rather a mess, actually. Just like everyone else.
Acknowledge other people for what they do. And if you like what they do, take a few minutes to tell them so, throwing in a few details. Besides being truthful, other people will like you for this and you’ll like yourself better. You’ll both be happier. And if that’s not nice, I don’t know what is.
(See the postscript at the end of this letter for the people I credit.)
When you’re angry, or after you’ve been angry, try stepping back and teasing out the difference between two things: your fury with the world for the truly shitty things that regularly happen there and, on the other hand, your unhappiness with your own life. The two may well be connected, but rarely in the way you first think. Contemplating this difference may not be easy, especially when you’re raging. But thinking about it seriously will lead to something better than apoplexy, and certainly less obnoxious.
A day will come when the poet Michael Whyte will tells you a brief story about the time he was walking through a small Irish village. He came across an old man and asked how he was that day. To which the Irishman replied, “I’m stumbling between the immensities.”
That will be one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever hear. It may embarrass you to learn that when your elder self sees those words in print he occasionally tears up a little. The nearer one is to those two immensities, the more freely tears flow.
I could write more, I suppose. But it’s late, I’m tired, and I suspect you’ll only discover any of this the same way I did. By stumbling between the immensities.
So…. I wish you more than luck. Thanks for listening, and take care of yourself. (And, by the way, don’t worry about losing your hair. You’ll shave it all off eventually — three bladed razors work best — and a few folks will even think you’re cooler for it.)
As you stumble along, pay close attention, though to what I can’t tell you. (Everything maybe?) Enjoy this very day as much as you can, as if your life depended on it. Because it does. This day — this moment — is what you’ve got. (That was #14.)
We’ll see each other so very, very soon.
I’m indebted to Jeannette Winterston for writing about #1 years ago. I got the Marina Abramović quote in #2 from the superb book Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, which I recommend to all artists. In the same book, Stephanie Syjuco has some brilliant elaborations on #7. She’s super smart. My friend and colleague Martin Weinhold reminded me of #8, but he’s a nice man and so had nothing to do with the slapping recommendation, which came from me, naturally. There’s a vast literature on #10, but it’s worth reading Einstein’s lovely library metaphor for being human in a mysterious universe, of which I was reminded in an article by Peter Hitchens. In one of his novels ( I think it was The Human Stain), Philip Roth explained #11 with more eloquence and pizzaz than I ever could.
The phrase “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” (#12) comes from Kurt Vonnegut quoting his uncle while they sat under the shade of a tree on a hot summer’s day, drinking cold lemonade and talking. I try to remember to say it whenever I can, though I don’t say it nearly enough.