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. Gray-muzzled and slightly stiff, she still—charmingly, to me—strains at the leash when pointed toward the park, splendor 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 winter reflection, gray and late, I offer you the following 14 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 only that picture, 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 without judging their elegance, merit, or lack thereof. Take in every detail of the picture, including the most minuscule and seemingly unimportant. Don’t search for distraction.
If you find an audience for your art, resist the powerful but insidious temptation to thereafter make forgeries of your own work.
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. Afterward, 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 even change more than that.
2. 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 your own work. After all, Robert Frank did not make The Americans: Part 2, and Piotr Rawicz never wrote a novel other than 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 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 and 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. Seriousness and Laughter
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 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 will be 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 installment plan for suffocating your soul.
Remind yourself regularly that much—most—of your so-called accomplishments will come not from your individual brilliance and effort, but from dumb luck or the foundations laid by 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 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 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 your respective places, times, and stations of birth: yours in a beautiful Montreal neighborhood, prosperous and peaceful; hers in a Russian village stricken by poverty and pogroms.
Being an artist may drive you crazy, but it’s a grand privilege to spend so much time carousing in the corridors of your imagination.
Consider, too, how Leah came to Montreal: by ship, an 11-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 you point them. And it will, I hope, leave you more kindly inclined toward others, most of whom won’t be as fortunate as us.
6. Art and Self-Indulgence
Don’t think that your art will ever be more important to anyone else than it will be to you. However, if it turns out at some point that your work is more important to others than it is to you, that’s probably less an indicator of merit than a sign that you’re working on the wrong things (see number seven below). Your work should be more important to you.
Creating art is one of the most self-indulgent pursuits there is, and saying otherwise is kidding yourself. Being an artist may exasperate you quite often (it will), but it’s a grand privilege to spend so much time carousing in the corridors of your imagination. (And complaining about its downside is mostly bad form, though I understand if you’ll need to get it out of your system from time to time.)
7. The Gap
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 toward making people think they want things, rather than making things they want or appreciate or 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 or your art, do the following immediately: Find a good friend and demand that they 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. Smile instead. (Vacantly 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 literal 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 will stupidly say that it is no more important than the invention of television (see number 10 below). 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 last one right.)
Even within that sliver of what you supposedly know are great dollops of misconception, bullshit, self-deceit, and outright nonsense.
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 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.
10. Doubt and Ignorance
Be conscious of how little you know. Be conscious of how little you can know. The philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico said something to the effect of 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 that’s not so bad, really. Yes, I know. I could wrong about this too.
Now, in the first paragraph of this section, try substituting the word “control” for the word “know.”
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. If you spend years making work in which you run away from yourself, you may eventually realize what you’ve done. (These realizations really do come at the proverbial 3 a.m.) And then you’ll feel more than a little ill.
Enjoy this very day as much as you can, as if your life depends on it. Because it does. This day, this moment, is what you’ve got.
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.
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.