Ramblings On Artistic Sacrifice:
Donald Mitchell (I don’t know who he is, I just read him quoted in a book), recalled of Benjamin Britten that “Functioning as a composer was his whole world…The creativity had to come first…Everyone, including himself, had to be sacrificed to the creative act.”
Apparently when I first read that quotation, I found it notable, because I underlined it in my copy of Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. I think that there is still a part of me that is inspired by the idea. In someways, at least at sometimes, I wish that I could be completely consumed by my work, that I would care so little about anything else that the rest of the world would cease to be a distraction. I have rarely, if ever, actually felt this way, and if I have, it has only been for short bursts, maybe a few hours at a time, irregularly repeating for a few days at the most. The thing is, is that I find the rest of the world (that is, everything that is not my work) to be wonderfully and terribly fascinating and worthy of my attention. I can’t help but be distracted, I always have been, even before I had regular internet access (in the light of which, other distractions seem pretty bush league). I remember as a child, up until I was about 15 years old and bought my first iPod touch with my paper-route money, that I would be sitting at my desk, the same desk that I try to do my work at these days, a big old faux-walnut thing that I got when my Opa died. I remember walking past his office in their farmhouse, I suppose it was a bedroom at some point when their five daughters still lived at home, but maybe not, maybe he always had his own space. I’m not really sure what he worked on in there, it’s hard to imagine how people used desks before home computers, and I know he never owned or learned to use one of these machines. I guess he did his taxes, worked out farm expenses, read the newspaper and relevant crop-related publications, The Western Producer et al. But anyway the point is that I have a hazy image of seeing the desk (now my desk, where I now sit) where it was when he would sit at it, and I have an even harder time imagining him being distracted; a stern, severe, serious man, who laughed when it was time to laugh and worked when it was time to work, and declared that when dinner was served it was “eating time, not talking time.”
So I would be sitting at that desk, a binder of math homework, or whatever, sitting on the big brown writing top, but I would be dangling sideways on the chair, my elbows leaning on the bed next to me, reading whatever YA fantasy novel I’d picked out from the school library that week. In the memory I’m probably reading a Percy Jackson book, or maybe Alex Rider, I was really into those when they were coming out in 2007/8/9. Those were the days when I really learned how to procrastinate. I caught my procrastinating stride when I had to do Music Theory homework. RCM rudiments. My mom had me sit at the kitchen table after supper and do a few pages out of the work book, so that I could get my grade 6 piano, and I would turn 20 minutes of work into a 2 hour ordeal, doodling in the margins, staring off into space, whining. These probably aren’t good examples because you’ll think that the reason for my distraction is because I was being forced to do something that I didn’t enjoy, and you’re probably right to a certain degree, but nowadays I don’t really have to do any work that I don’t want to do, no one’s forcing me to do anything. I haven’t been “on the clock” in months, but boy howdy, am I good at distracting myself.
I don’t really mean for this to be about procrastination, but I’m not really a writer, so I’m not that good at sticking to saying what I mean. I mean for this to be about artistic sacrifice. Like how Britten apparently acted, at least according to that Mitchell guy. The thing that can be so appealing about a quotation like that is that you look at Britten’s career, at his work, at what he managed to do with his life, and who wouldn’t want to emulate that? I would give anything to write the Sea Interludes. I mean I say that, but would I? I certainly wish that over the course of my life, I’ll make just one thing that could compare to that. And he wrote a lot of good pieces, I probably won’t even hear all of his good pieces during my lifetime. But it seems like maybe it’s worth it. That sacrifice, if you get that kind of artistic success back in return.
At least in my knowledge, it seems like there are a lot of famously tragic writers, more so that composers, but maybe that’s not accurate. Anyway I’ve been reading some Hemingway short stories recently, I have a collection from 1938, and I started them assuming that they were published towards the end of his life, but actually he was only 39 years old at the time, and would live for another 22 years. I’d read The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises, but I was pretty ignorant about his biography. You read Hemingway and he makes you want to write. He makes it seem so easy, I think that’s why his style became so influential really. Compare him to Proust, about a generation older, but a world away in terms of culture. Proust doesn’t make you want to write, he makes it seem impossible to write. The density of the writing, the depth of the characters, the breadth of his knowledge, it seems totally unrealistic that one person could have done what he did with the written word (and I’ve only read the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, there’s 5 more to go…). Proust’s work feels like a pinnacle of human achievement, like how David Eggers writes about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: “We’re interested in epic writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine and, in Wallace’s case, chewing tobacco.” Anyway, Hemingway inspires, and we think, “hey I could do this, I could be a writer, or a painter, or a composer, I can be creative, it seems like he’s having a lot of fun writing these stories, even if they are pretty depressing sometimes, but I can look past that, it’s just a small dilemma, and look how many stories and books he wrote, wow I should get to work so that I can be like him” and then you get to the end of the wikipedia article and you remember that you did read somewhere already that the guy shot himself with his favourite shotgun at the age of 61, and ya they think that he had some kind of genetic predisposition to insurmountable clinical depression, but you look at his life and the years of hard living and hard drinking and maybe all of that work and all of that writing wasn’t so easy after all. And so is it worth the sacrifice?
I also have to put in a caveat here because I’m not really trying to write about (or give my opinion on, because no one needs that) Mental Illness and suicide. As someone who’s experienced pretty debilitating depression in my life, I have at least an idea of the sensation of despondency, but I cannot really know how Hemingway, or anyone else, mental ill or not, feels or has felt, ever. And I don’t really want to make this about sacrificing your literal life for artistic production, and I guess just cut me some slack on this one, I’m just thinking out loud here.
Okay cards on the table, the impetus for sitting down and writing this in the first place is that I just watched the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote, showing the process of him writing In Cold Blood between 1959 and 1964, not showing him finishing it in 1966, and only mentioning in the credits that he never finished another book and died from his alcoholism in 1984. And when you watch a movie about writing, it makes you want to write. And I haven’t read In Cold Blood and I’m not really into true crime, but I think I’ll give it a read if I get a hold of a copy, because I want to see the end result of that labour. Of all of those years working on one thing, and at the end of it you arrive at a big success and I want to see for myself if I think it was worth the sacrifice. Sticking with the movie, Hoffman is incredible, from the jump his performance is just mind blowingly good. I think that’s my favourite part about watching movies nowadays, is seeing great actors put on a show. Hoffman was a great artist and he was open about his struggles with depression and self-doubt; his “blank-on-blank” PBS video on Youtube: Philip Seymour Hoffman on Depression is very moving, and obviously he died way too young, and thinking about that right now just makes me really sad and I don’t want to think about his sacrifice and its potential worth, I just don’t want to, I’m taking a break.
Back to David Foster Wallace, because I read Infinite Jest a few years ago and was totally obsessed with it, as a lot of young nerdy white male college students have been, and I was really enamoured with Wallace’s philosophy and worldview and I found most of what he had to say really compelling and I still do. I think he was right about a lot of things in society and I’m still inspired by him. In an interview in 1996, just after his big book came out and he was launched into literary fame, he said “I decided that I really need to find a few things that I believe in in order to stay alive. And one of them is that I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to do this kind of work. And along with that luck comes a tremendous obligation to do the very best I can, which means that I have to structure my life, you know, sort of like anybody who’s dedicated to something, to maximize my ability to do good stuff, and it doesn’t make me a great person, it just makes me a person that’s really exhausted a couple other ways to live, you know, really taken them to their conclusion which for me was a pink room with no furniture and a drain in the floor… and when that happens to you you get unprecedentedly willing to examine other alternatives for how to live.” In 2008, apparently because he was struggling with his new book, Wallace supposedly went off of his medication, and committed suicide. I don’t think that was worth the sacrifice. If we could have gotten half the Wallace stories, and fragments of Infinite Jest, but that guy got to live, of course that’s worth it. But look at me, I’m not willing to give up all of his work, just some. So I take that back. I kinda wish he’d never written anything, and he’d found a way to be “well adjusted” (to borrow his interpretation of the phrase - see This is Water), and he’d lived. I think living is just better than any completed task, call me sentimental.
This little piece is turning out to be a bit of a round-up of the white male artists I am a fan of, and I’m probably influenced by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats more than any other artist in any genre. He says a lot of things about a lot of different subjects over his 20-plus-album discography, but a central theme is that of staying alive. That’s the point. Living is all there is. Who cares about what you make before you go. I like making music, I like composing, I like doing creative labour, I like that it’s hard, it’s satisfying to overcome a challenge. I used to cry at the piano when I was 10 years old, and working through that frustration became the most rewarding activity of my young life. There is a sacrifice inherent in all work, and creative work maybe more so than other fields. But I do it because it fundamentally makes me happy, and I hope (truly I hope against all hope) that it adds something good and useful to the world, that it provides something of value to people who are generous enough to listen. The thing is, you gotta stay alive. That’s why the Mountain Goats song Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1 opens like this:
Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive
Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat's unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light
And stay alive
Just stay alive