When I departed my last undergraduate creative writing class, I wrote, with purposeful hyperbole: BOATWITHOUTASAILBOATWITHOUTASAIL!!
Look, I get it. I will have more classes in my (hopeful) graduate career, people don't ever really stop learning anyway, and the last of any class is rarely a milestone. But there was something about the finality of not just the class, but my writing education, that pulled me towards a feeling of exaggerated panic. It was something like losing the training wheels and going off on your own. These days, when I'm not mocking an all-caps panic, I'm learning a lot about the kind of discipline it takes to direct yourself towards a writing career and what it is you need to do.
See, I'm at an age where artists began to be great. Michael Chabon published a book right out of UC Irvine not much older than I am right now. Joyce Carol Oates was 25 with her first book. Conan O'Brien moved to Los Angeles at this age to write for an HBO comedy. I'm already here, a place where people uproot to build their portfolio. Why am I withering into the grooves of my retail job from my parent's home?
Worst of all is that I haven't written. I mean, I write here, with newfound regularity, but this amounts to nothing more than an exercise. This is me stretching. I have not run the marathon in ages. While I've been reading more than I have had in a long while, it is still a fatal mistake for an aspiring writer. Chabon says it takes three things to make it: talent, luck and discipline. You only have control of the last one, so you have to go all in on that. If you're not reading and writing every day, you are doing it wrong.
Harold Shapinsky was an abstract expressionist painter who fell into obscurity after a promising career as a student. He was drafted as the art community of New York began to formulate and crystallize and, therefore, never made the connections or hit it off with the right groups and fell into poverty in his tiny, Brooklyn apartment with his wife. He continued to paint, alone, for himself, on whatever he could afford; usually small pieces of paper. It wasn't until the late 1980s that on a strange, almost predestined wind, an English professor in India named Akumal Ramachander met his son, and discovered his paintings. This professor traveled the world promoting Shapinsky and, before long, his career was "revived," and he was able to gain fame and finances as a "lost master."
I've been thinking a lot about this story a lot. Partially because I am in this weird, transitional point in my life where I am trying to plot my waypoints through life. So concepts of destiny, fate, and luck are alluring hopes. Partially, it sticks because for Shapinsky, discipline was never a problem. No matter what he faced, even financial impossibility, he painted away. It remained constant; He didn't need deadlines to spur him or workshops to validate him. He was a painter in a romantically pure sense. It's the sort of nobility that all artists of all forms wish to have, but not one that we all live up to, myself included.
There's a part in an article about his story, written by Lawrence Weschler for The New Yorker, where he pulls out a flier from a collaborative exhibit he partook in when he was still a student. Weschler recognized a few of the names as prominent figures in the art world. But for the most part, the names on the flier were up and comers who fell away into the darkness of anonymity. That's the part that terrifies me.
It is proof that, time and time again, even the brightest stars don't make it. It's not just that they didn't make it as superstars of the art world, but that they, in all likelihood, stopped making painting central to their life. Painters are serious about their craft. You don't decide to go to art school and become a painter just because you are chasing a hobby. To make that decision about what you are going to do is a real commitment. You are not going to give up because things got a little tough. And still, these people faded into obscurity and became something else.
That's the ultimate fear: That you do everything right, that you have this talent and skill and potential, and maybe you even have the discipline on tap. But you still don't make it. You still have to end up falling back on a nursing program just to make a living. You still waste away as a retail manager. You still have to go to a trade school to learn an entirely new skill that actually has demand.
And here I am, not even doing everything right. So what chance do I have? It's enough to make you want to lie down until you realize that you just defeated yourself with all this thinking. Thinking is the enemy. You have to just do, it turns out. If you want to make movies, write comics, or paint, you just do it. You get out your camera, pen, or brush and do it, regardless of your conditions or mood or time.
I used to have this writing ritual of sacred hours whenever I would sit down and take a stab at the blank document for a big project. It would have to be dark, both outside and in my room. I would have to have the right music; something moving, with lyrics that were both intriguing and poetic, but not distracting. They had to evoke something strong, stir my soul up to get me in the mood to put words together. Then I had to use the right program, something like Q10 or TextPad. Then I had to have some caffeine, coffee, maybe an energy drink if I wasn't planning on sleeping. It had to be the perfect storm of writing conditions, a confluence of conditions that put me in the creative space. I'm surprised I didn't have to light some fucking incense.
Writing in the afternoon? To silence? With a pen and paper? That was impossible! I've heard professors express their old habits in similar ways, particularly with time, how it had to be past 12 AM. Then they grew lives, that awful cancerous thing, and could no longer indulge themselves in such byzantine requirements. So they wrote when they could. For a few minutes in the car, after work, during work, before picking up the kids. They stopped thinking about it and they just did.
Here I am, growing up, boat without a sail, and I'm still not just doing it. I know now that I need to get over this self-coddling, navel-gazing, bullshit and just put finger to key. I can't always wait for the perfect conditions, or even the perfect idea, to get to writing. Because a writer isn't someone who brainstorms for months taking in information and sitting on it. It is someone who writes.
Because this is the age where great people started being such.