I’m an artist about to explode

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011

Don’t get in my face! I’ve made enough compromises


Dear Cary,

I can’t do everything and I am pissed off that I can’t. I am also preemptively pissed off at your peanut gallery since they trend anti-artist and tend to take a sadistic glee in other people’s hard knocks.  I just wanted to give them the middle finger before I get on with my letter. Yeah assholes. This is me. Writing to Cary. STFU.

OK cool. Just between you and me, Cary, in that Internet way: I got a terrible review at work. In fact, I am about to have a meeting with my boss about it in two hours.  I work for a nonprofit. I HATE MY JOB, although I don’t really have anything against the org — or even my boss really. I am an artist. I work really, really hard to keep that dream alive. My artwork is the car I’ll never own, the house I’ll never own, the baby I’ll never get to have.

I am my own sugar daddy. I work 55 hours a week. I make totally decent money. In fact if I don’t screw up, my org is very generous with the 401K. I have to work here long enough for it to vest, though. My health insurance is off the hook too. Like shit I can and do totally see a doctor on a regular basis. It is rad. Oh, did I tell you that my student loans rival those of lawyers and doctors and I have never been late or missed a payment ever? Yep, I got that going on too.

The second I leave the office it’s like a parallel universe. I wear incredible shoes (thank you, inner sugar daddy!!) and blue glitter eyeliner. I help run an art gallery. I make and show large-scale installations that will never sell because it matches no one’s couch but whatever. I exercise and make amazing homemade ice cream to balance it out. I research and write grant proposals regularly. I take occasional classes on the weekend to learn new skills. I read a lot of art books because I happen to write art book reviews. I collaborate on art projects with my awesome boyfriend and we stay up too late because we are never finished talking.

I never get enough sleep.

So I am veering dangerously into burnout cuz whoops you actually can’t live two opposing lives for years on end. And I am furious. I’m furious that I’ve been playing this game for so long and still haven’t won. Furious that the system will tell me to sacrifice the life I actually love for work. Furious that my student loans are so enormous I can’t really afford to burn out. Furious that I don’t really have time to see a therapist since going to a therapist will take me away from my precious art-making time. Furious at whomever is going to tell me stop buying expensive eye makeup from Sephora because I could be saving more. Goddamit, people, how hard is it to understand that you have to spend more on makeup because that’s the only way you are going to get the exact shade and pigmentation you want? I am furious that I try so hard to make artwork and I simply just don’t have the time and energy to make it my best.

And now I have to sit and listen to my boss tell me how much I suck at a job that I guess I’m supposed to be grateful for. Fucking perverse man.

I need a little tenderness.

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Dear Needing a Little Tenderness,

Well, you came to the right place for a little tenderness mixed with rage at your tormenters because I am just back from leading writing workshops at the Sun Magazine “Into the Fire” conference at Esalen and still flush in the spirit of acclaiming and applauding all creative endeavors and all people who — and here comes the convoluted rest of the sentence  — endeavor them in whatever hell of nonprofit, politically correct, ego-manipulating, do-goody church-disguised-as-public-service to which they more-or-less willingly donate the marrow of their souls all to service their enormous college debt!

Debt! This debt! This massive debt of a generation! How was this fraud perpetrated upon an entire generation? This generation did not deserve to be saddled with debt. This generation deserved to be given horses to ride and blankets to sleep under.

(Beneath the stars of America the beautiful.)

But look what happened! And look at the crass and hectoring sadism of hecklers hurling rocks and bottles from the safe shadows of Internet anonymity at anyone who dares to speak honestly about his or her own true nature. Of course we know it’s projection for protection; we know that each person harbors his own artist/child who would speak up and proclaim its messy incompleteness of self and its own strange longing for expression if it hadn’t been wounded and filled with fear by family ridicule and school regimentation. We know that. So we try to be generous. Still, there are limits. We don’t have to smile and tolerate it. We can hit delete.

But look what happened! We should have been protesting all the time! We should have protested when we saw it coming! But we were too busy cultivating whatever semi-safe niche of cultural compromise we could find that offered a livable wage and health insurance! We were too busy surviving! Like you are!

And thus, surviving, are we sucked dry. Thus are we drained of our vitality. Thus are we lulled to sleep.

It is heartening to see the protests erupting around the country and around the world. These things are connected: The discontent of artists, the gloom of student debt, the crushing burden of housing costs, the rage at our nation’s foreign policy, the stupidification of our schools, the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few cunning philistines, the whole thing. The whole mess. It’s all connected. It is a Zeitgeist of obvious unfairness and wrongness that fairly screams out, This shit is just wrong! And thus it is perceived easily by any human.

So yeah.

How did it happen that a whole generation now lives in servitude to private lenders through the subterfuge of a supposed generosity? How the hell did that happen? It is mind-boggling. I can barely contain …

Anyway, I’m for you and I’m all for us artists. We are making it however we can. We are making it in whatever strange niche we have burrowed into. We are making it in whatever gallery to which we donate our hands and hours because we only feel completely alive when hanging something on a wall for others to look at or putting some handmade vision of torment and loveliness in just the right slant of skylight sun.

I’m all for us. I’m all for those of us who are only completely alive when alone in a room putting words together in ways that have never been done that way before.

I’m all for those of us who are courageously fulfilling a whispered instruction to go forth and create.

I’m all for those of us who are different, those of us who believe things that might sound crazy, things we can’t explain yet believe to be true and which we continue to see in our dreams. I’m all for those of us who will no longer apologize for being beautiful and true. I’m all on the side of the strangely deranged, the misguided and quietly stubborn defenders of obscure happiness.

I’ve made my compromises too. I worked at Chevron for five years to pay the rent. It wasn’t anybody forcing me to do that. It was my big idea to make peace with The Man, my big idea to try to do everything, have a marriage, have dogs, have a job, have a house, make prose and poems, live at the beach, all this of which I complain bitterly from time to time, this was all my idea. So I make my angry peace with it. I make my peace but I salute those who protest, and I will be joining them as soon as I am able.

So how long can you go at this pace before you break something? In my experience, when you start asking how long can you go it’s time to pull over for a nap so you can keep your eyes open and don’t run into the back of a truck.

Artistic ambition should come in a bottle with a warning label: Do not exceed recommended dosage. Side effects include distorted perception, melancholia, sudden rage and smudged eye shadow.

Or, in the immortal words of Pete Seeger, “Take it easy. But take it.”

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I’m a suburban husband in my 40s and I think I’m getting depressed

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 11, 2008

I don’t know if this is just typical midlife stuff, or if I’m in serious psychological trouble.


Dear Cary:

I am a suburban husband in my 40s with two wonderful kids, a good marriage, a secure job and financial situation, no medical problems, no substance problems, or anything like that. I work in a technical field, but harbor pretensions of being a creative person. My emotional state has always been somewhat up and down, but in the past six months or so, it has moved more decisively into the negative territory than it has since high school, if ever. I’m always tense, and frequently feel hunted, like I’m barely holding on by my fingernails, just holding my life together. I feel as though it’s all I can do to keep my head above water.

Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed with panic, and at other times I get these flashes of depression, and I wonder how I’m going to make it through the workday. I feel as though it’s all I can do to stay on top of the details of my life, yet all I am actually called upon to do is drag my sorry ass to work, drag it home again and do the dishes sometimes. In the past I have had artistic endeavors, and one in particular that I consider my true passion and have devoted a lot of work to, work I am proud of. I feel I have betrayed that passion by not having any energy for it these days. I feel that my life is entirely defensive — there is no grip-it-and-rip-it attitude left. Things that used to make me feel more alive now just seem like hassles and pressure trips (like travel). Diversions that I once considered transporting or transforming are now almost irritating distractions. I have tried meditation, and have a sense that I should do it more often, but, you know, I don’t. Oh, and my libido has pretty much disappeared.

Is this just a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis? Looking back at what I’ve written, it actually seems a little more messed up than that, like textbook depression. There is no rational reason for the feelings of dread I feel most of the time. Should I just smack myself and stop whining like a little girl? How can I introduce some perspective into my life in a way that my gut and heart will understand? I strongly resist the idea of pharmaceutical help, which I’m sure a professional would steer me toward. Then again, maybe I’m like the adulterer who tells his mistress and himself that he’s miserable with his marriage but never seems to get around to divorcing his wife — actually much happier with the current situation than he lets himself believe. (What do you want? Look around and ask yourself: What have you got?) I’m quite functional and am good company: Most people who know me would be very surprised to know I wrote this.

What’s your take?

Out of Gas

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Dear Out of Gas,

Well, I really appreciate your writing to me, first of all. And, sort of in line with what I have written above, I’m trying to stay away from the position of, like, knowing it all and being clever, which is the death of a real advice column, and instead just relate to people from the heart. So I can say that I’ve felt how you feel, and I’ve come close to clinical depression myself, and also steered clear of antidepressants. I did consult a psychologist and found out some pretty surprising things, things I hadn’t noticed or thought about. And I was able to make some adjustments and I’m better off for it. I don’t have those periods of blinding despair and depression that I had started to have. And I’m, uh, nicer to myself now. So I got out of my 40s without ending up in the nuthouse. Hurray for me, I’m an American male success story.

I don’t know why this seems to happen in the 40s, except that by the time you’re 40 if you’ve actually been working you’ve been doing meaningless bullshit for so long that it really starts to get you down. I’m not saying your work is totally meaningless but, come on, there’s something else you’d rather be doing. I mean, you can do your technical work for a while, and make a good salary, and put plenty away as investments, you can sacrifice for your kids’ future and put your own needs aside, you’re strong, you’re a man, you can handle it. But after 20 years of that it’s not surprising that you’re starting to fray. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re having to do what other people tell you to do at work, you’re behaving yourself, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do so people don’t say you’re a creep or so your wife isn’t embarrassed by you. And that’s fine for a while, but Jesus, if you think of how you were at age 18, and what you liked to do, what gave you pleasure, what your ideals were, and you think what your life would be like if you had followed those ideals, and then you think if there is anything in your life today that meets those ideals … no wonder men in their 40s crack up. You’re not alone.

Speaking of being nice to yourself … man, you sound like you put yourself down a lot. You might think it’s just regular humility, not making too much of yourself, or being realistic. But behind it, you’d be surprised, there could be these assumptions you don’t even know you have, like, oddly enough, that you really do deserve to be slapped like a little girl. That you’re not good enough. That you’re a fraud. I mean, look at how you talk about yourself. You say you “harbor pretensions” of being a creative person. What kind of talk is that? Would you talk about somebody else that way? Creativity belongs to all people, regardless of class, race, economic level, gender, whatever. It’s not some special prerogative of the rich and the gifted, or the politically popular. What is with all this judgment, like you can’t write or paint or do music unless you are a professional at it? How did we get to this point as a culture?
What about having a little humility and saying, You know what, I feel better when I paint duck decoys, so I’m painting duck decoys. And fuck you, get out of my garage. And don’t call them figurines. They’re duck decoys.

OK, so that does not sound so brilliant. But that’s what I’m saying, that some of this stuff is not about being brilliant. It’s about being real. It’s about being truthful. It’s about being able to live with yourself.

So in a nutshell, here is my three-part program for you. First, do get yourself checked out as to the whole clinical-depression angle. Get your blood done and all that. If they say yeah, you’re a case, you can decide for yourself whether to take meds or not. But see what the clinicians say. If you don’t want to take any drugs, don’t take them. Just tell them you’re not taking any drugs. Just say you want to get checked out.

Second, start a program of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs. Start tomorrow: Eat a good breakfast. Relax before you drive to work. Relax after you drive to work. At work, have a good lunch — I mean a healthy, well-prepared lunch. Take a full hour or whatever. Leave work early and go to the gym. Have a good two-hour workout, a sauna, a good shower. Or, if you don’t belong to a gym, do some running in the woods, or whatever you do for exercise. Then go home and have a good meal and hang out with the family. Get to bed early. Get lots of sleep. Don’t yell at anybody. Take it slow.

Try it again the next day, same thing. Get lots of sleep, eat well, plenty of exercise, take it slow. Goof off a little. Exercise. Enjoy the air. Take a look at your calendar. Schedule a vacation with the wife. Book a place with a hot tub and a slow pace.

And the third thing, which you can do on your own and also in conjunction with a therapist if you decide to go that route, is just recognize that there are tangible forces in the world working against you, and that you need to be conscious of how you are reacting to these forces. People say, “Don’t blame others for your problems,” and all that. Well, fine. But don’t introject either, OK? Don’t blame yourself. We’re living in pretty scary times. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t affect you. It’s healthy to have an adversarial view of those portions of the world that are against you. Life is a fight.

And if you don’t like your life, say so. If you don’t like going to work every day at the same time and driving the same route, and coming home to the same suburb, say so. It may help you start making some long-term plans for change. It’s not against the law to have complaints about the way our society is organized. You put monkeys in the suburbs, they’d go nuts; they’d tear the houses down and start living outside in the park. We’re all cooped up in these little houses and it’s spooky. OK, so I am an unreconstructed hippie and devotee of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. Our suburban living may work fine for some, but it would drive me nuts.

We ought to protest in the streets simply because there is not enough joy in our lives! Why don’t we do that? Wasn’t it wonderful when we were 16 and we’d go demonstrate in the streets not even knowing what exactly was wrong or how to fix it, just saying we’re here, we’re fucked-up 16-year-olds and we’re not going to take it anymore! We don’t have to have all the answers. There’s a lot in this world not to like. I mean, where do you want to begin? And let’s not get started on all the killing, the explosions, the destruction that’s going on. I’m just saying, how can we not be affected by that?

So, to sum up: First, get yourself checked out by an expert to see where you are on the official spectrum of depressive episodes. Second, take concrete steps to eat better, get more rest and get more exercise. And third, get mad! Recognize that there really are many external forces working against you, and it’s not surprising or shameful to be affected by all this, the way the world is, the way you have to live your life. It’s good to be affected by it. It shows you’re human. It shows you’re awake. It shows you’re alive.

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Will our words ever be heard again?

 

Write for Advice

We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

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Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

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I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.

Thanks!

Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?

I’m a singer — but I drift from waitress job to waitress job

 I don’t know how to settle down. But I’m almost 30 and don’t want to waste my life!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

I’ve written to so many advice columnists and no one ever answers. I am plagued by problems — for years. In general, what the hell is the deal with me? I was so blithe and great and happy in childhood — but ever since I was, oh, 15, things have gone downhill, and I’m just about 29 now.

After high school, I moved away to go to college, but I quit after two years because I wasn’t really happy. I wanted to be a singer, as I had since I was 5, and I was doing some singing. But in general I felt unhappy, there was something lacking, and also I was in a relationship I wanted to get away from. So I quit school and moved away. In my new location, I sang a bit, got into another relationship, really wanted to get out of it, and moved away again. In my new location, I sang more, met another man, moved away with him, definitely had to leave, and — yes, moved away again. That was when I moved back in with my parents. I waitressed, moved to a new place, waitressed and sang there, then decided to finish school and did, but hated it the whole time. The school was lacking academically and was in a podunk town– where I met a new man, moved in with him, and then, about a year later, yes, moved away. Now I am living with my parents again and feeling quite at a loss.

I always dreamed of great things in life. But I’m going to be 30 and I’ve done nothing — nothing to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve made it!” In short, I’ve made nothing for myself (except learning the hard way whom not to fall in love with). I’m waitressing again, and yes, singing (in a tiny show where I make $75 a week and wear a rubber cone head — don’t ask). I think I’ll stop moving — I’ve wanted to for years. (Though I will move out of my parents’ house.) But just what the hell should I do? I’ve moved around since childhood — four years is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and one year is the longest I’ve ever held a job. There are so many things I am interested in — writing, editing, singing, dancing — but career-wise, my résumé is just a long list of waitressing and oddities.

Where I am now is the closest thing I have to a childhood home, and I have family here (my parents only live here half the year), and so I feel I might stick here. So sometimes I think I am finally ready to do “my life” and make something out of it, besides a mess. But other times I am very scared to think of the future — I don’t want to be forever drifting. I want a fulfilling career, a husband and family. But how to start? What am I to do? I am so bored waitressing and I have about three friends spread over the U.S. due to me being neither here nor there but always taken up with a tumultuous relationship with a man.

Tell me — where shall I start and while I’m waiting for roots to grow, how can I not be so bored?

Chronically Waiting, Dreaming and Scheming for a Life That Is Passing Me By

P.S. I have thought about performing musicals on a cruise ship but I need to build something for the future, not just another temporary excitement!

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Dear Chronically Waiting,

So you’ve written to lots of advice columnists and nobody ever writes back? Well, I’ll write back. I’ll write back because there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you, things I have learned the hard way, things that are simple but can take a lifetime. You don’t have a lifetime.

So here is the deal in a nutshell: Your actions have put you in the spot you’re in. I’m not blaming you. I’m just directing your attention to the correct area. It’s time to change your actions. How do you do that? You adopt a different set of criteria for making decisions.

You left college after two years because you weren’t happy. “Happy” was a criterion for leaving college. That will have to change. “Happy” is not a criterion anymore. “Required for the next step” is a your new criterion.

For the next five years I suggest you do only those things that are required to take you to the next step. It will be hard to change but it is doable and simple and it will give you a much better shot at being happy.

Where do you start? You start by clarifying the goal toward which you are going to struggle for the next five years. I suggest creating a goal that is obtainable through hard work and that is measurable. I would say your goal right now should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft.

You may want to be a star. You may think that should be your goal. But I don’t think so. I think your goal should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. The desire to be a star may be a vision that motivates you. You may benefit from visualizing yourself as a star. But for a goal you need something that is under your control. Proficiency and excellence in your craft is something you can actually attain. It may sometimes precede stardom, but it is never a guarantee of stardom. There is no guarantee of stardom. But there are guaranteed milestones of proficiency and excellence that are obtainable.

So let’s say that your No. 1 goal in life is now to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft of singing and acting. That’s very simple. How is that done? It’s done through education and hard work.

If you adopt this one goal, your decisions can all flow from this one premise: Your purpose is to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. What do you do? Whatever you have to do in order to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft, that’s what you do.

How? You take voice lessons and acting lessons. You build your network of fellow singers and actors. You locate yourself in the best place possible for getting that kind of education, experience and contacts.

What place is that?

Well, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles and New York are the best places to go if you already have the skills. But where are the best places to learn these skills? Not necessarily Los Angeles and New York.

I’m not saying categorically that you should go back to school for a B.A. in performance. But I’m saying you want to gain the hard facts and take concrete actions. Maybe you look and find the best teacher and that teacher is in one of these towns with a top-rated drama and voice program. The talent tends to cluster. So you might move to a town with one of the top-rated schools. It’s this kind of thinking that I’m suggesting.

You may find it impossible to sit long enough and concentrate long enough to make the right plans. There may be more work involved in doing this. Some of this work may involve understanding what happened when you were 15. You were happy and then something happened. Sometimes things happen in adolescence and we form patterns of behavior as a result and we don’t find out until years later how that happened. We underestimate the power of these events somehow; we believe that we are able to make the right decisions but those decisions keep putting us in a bad spot. So in order to make this orderly shift, you may have to enlist the help of others. That would make sense.

Want to know a secret? I can hardly do anything on my own. Actually, I now have three professionals helping me cope with life. Three! One of these people is paid for by the city, as one of its programs to help small businesses. One is paid by my health insurance through my employer. And one of them I pay out of my pocket. OK, I’m kind of a basket case, but I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with going out into the world and asking for help. It’s all worth it.

Want to know another secret? I want to be a singer, too. I used to be in a punk/new wave band. You want to hear me sing a punk song? I’m pretty bad! Tell you what. If you will promise me that you will go and start working seriously on your craft, I will send you — no, better yet, I will place on the Web for all to hear — a song that I wrote and sang in the early 1980s and, well, OK, that’s just the deal I’m offering. Because you need some kind of “accountability buddy.” You need somebody to be accountable to who won’t let you slide.

So you write to me and let me know what you’re doing, and then I will do this. I will place myself on the line, so that we have some accountability, you and me. So we have a deal.

I’m almost at my deadline now so I have to wrap up. But I want to say that the beauty of changing your life in this way, wrapping it around a purpose, is that your life begins to have a demonstrable shape. Someone asks, well, what brings you to Evanston, Ill.? And you say, well, I’m trying to become the best singer I can possibly be, and they have the best teachers here.

Having a goal makes your life a story. What is a story? It’s somebody who wants something and tries to get it. It’s what the person wanted and how he or she went about trying to get it. So you make your life a story. Then everything falls into place.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not easy to change your life. It’s not easy to do things differently. But it can be done.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I gave up everything to be with my Russian husband and now I’m unhappy

I am a New Yorker living like a prisoner
in London.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 29, 2007

Dear Cary,

I’m American. My husband is Russian. We’re in our 30s, married about two and a half years, and live in London, where my husband is pursuing a Ph.D. We got married so I could stay here with him — in other words, my five-year residency here with permission to work is based on our marriage certificate. I might add that I married him to be with him, and not because I was particularly interested in living in London or, for that matter, unhappy with my life before.

We got together in part based on love of travel. We took road trips together, went to his country. This was years ago. Four, more or less. Some things happened. He moved here. I did my second year of an MFA program. I never finished. I moved here to be with him when I was about to start my thesis, got, like, a three-year-long case of writer’s block, and there goes my life. Now I work part time and wonder what the hell happened to me.

Here is the specific question. It relates to my rights, I think. You see, my husband cannot go anywhere without applying for a visa. This includes going across the Channel to France. The visa process is complex and demanding, and he hates to do it and resents it.
There are also disparities in our background. Mine — I won’t get into his — includes a little bit of money. Not much. But I have a kitty to dip into, so to speak.

I’m not crazy about London. At first I hated it. Gradually I came to see it as like New York, where I’m from, with the significant difference that here I lack family and support (interesting slip, considering that I’m married). Also, whereas in New York I can get into a car and drive somewhere fun, here I can’t even go to Europe. Because he can’t. Not that I mind going alone. I like it. But I can’t because he can’t. You see?

It was depressing two and a half years ago and it’s still depressing. I didn’t know before I abandoned my old life, sold my car, left my master’s program and gave away my cats (to my parents — I’m not absolutely heartless) that my husband would not be able to travel to Europe. What a crazy thing! Or maybe I knew it perhaps a month before I came here, but I didn’t know or let myself think about the extent to which this problem would take over my life.

Life with him is a constant battle I cannot win. He constantly tries to explain himself to me, puncturing holes in my logic and finding fault with everything. Maybe I should be like Sonia in “Crime and Punishment” and give up all my privileges, as he calls them, which are unfairly won by my evil country over his. I went to Paris by myself over a year ago for four days and am still being asked to explain this terrible betrayal. It’s true that every time I’ve taken a trip on my own, totaling 10 days in two and a half years, I haven’t asked for his permission or told him in advance. I didn’t want to be dissuaded. But it’s maddening to constantly be told how difficult it is to be Russian and how ungenerous I am by wanting to do anything at all when I feel I am experiencing the same thing, and quite often wonder why I don’t just make my life easier by finding someone with a better passport who understands my need to disappear every now and then without feeling slighted by it.

What are my obligations to him? And what are his to me? I feel like I know what they are, but they don’t seem to translate into this combination. I can’t deal with feeling so limited.

Of course I love him. But I wasn’t always this unhappy.

Thanks.

Stranded

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Stranded,

You gave up a great deal to be with this man.

You sold your car and gave away your cats. You left the city and country in which your attitudes and expectations were understood and respected. And then what happened? You got writer’s block. I do not think these things are unrelated.

I think you have to leave this man.

It’s really that simple.

If there were a way to leave him symbolically in order to meet the needs of your psyche for solitude and autonomy, then perhaps you would not have to divorce him.

If you could leave him, for instance, and go into a room of your own with a door that closes, a door that he will not open if it is closed, a door that he respects, that would be a start.

The door that is closed but not locked symbolizes your choices and your wishes. A door that is locked represents your power. You need for him to respect your wishes, not your power.

You have some power here. You have your own money. But he denigrates that power as privilege, i.e. power that is illegitimate, that you do not deserve. If he respects neither your power nor your wishes, there’s no basis for negotiation.

You could get a room of your own outside the relationship. You could just do it. But to get a room of your own within the relationship you need his respect. If you cannot negotiate with mutual respect, if you must negotiate only out of power, then the relationship is not one between two free equals; it is more of an authoritarian relationship in which power decides one’s fate.

I do not believe that the creative spirit can thrive under such conditions.

You do not want to have to lock yourself in. It is better to leave and be locked out.

There is much, much more to be said about this, but that is all I feel I can say with certainty and resolve.

Write for Advice

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Grrrr! I’m one angry mofo! How to process my rage?

Dear Cary,

 Please help me process my murderous rage – a rage i suspect others share as well.

I’m sorry you don’t seem to be on Salon anymore. You were pretty much the only reason I bothered with that site so I haven’t been in ages. I’m not 100% sure whether you’re still doing this advice thing or what the new protocol is, your site seems to indicate you’re still accepting submissions, so here goes –

I am a person who possesses moderate to remarkable talents & abilities, a good work ethic, a mostly pleasant disposition, and all else that would be required of a person making their way in life. As well, just like every other of the 7 billion or so of us out there, I need to make a living. I can spend 48 hours straight creating something or reading something or learning something. Even boring routine work I am fairly OK at. But you can’t do anything in this world without having to hustle out the ass – this is where the whole thing breaks down for me.

I am very terrible at selling/promoting anything – even/especially myself. Not only do I find it uninteresting, incomprehensible, and a waste of my time, but having to be engaged in promoting or selling anything makes me very angry, like violently angry – like if I could pinpoint exactly one person who was responsible for my having the sort of life where I needed to go out there & pound the pavement & promote the same thing a million other yahoos was promoting, fighting for the same miserly few crumbs post capitalism has left for us, so that i may buy food or pay down debt or any of the necessary things – why… I would kill them. Violently. Medievally – with lots of screaming, blood, and terror involved.

I can’t pinpoint exactly the source of my loathing because it is so all- encompassing and elemental – but my  best attempt at defining it would be that it is vulgar, a waste of my time & resources that would be better placed doing what I do best – creating. Or other stuff that’s necessary – like cleaning the toilet. Anger that I don’t ask for much – just to sell $100 a week in my art, let’s say – and then progressively have that increase in proportion to people valuing what I do. And maybe that’s a source of anger – the violation of such a simple expectation. I expect that if I do a campaign, for it to work right away – not even in a spectacular way – but in a constant way – I don’t expect people to wanna give me 50 grand or nothing – just to once in a while buy some goddamned thing from me as opposed to that other asshole who doesn’t sell anything much better. It just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. But even for that small thing you have to practically give blood. 

I am just not that sociable a person. I don’t understand why in this piece of shit world every goddamned thing – even selling something basic like apples – requires some motherfucking Barnum & Bailey goddamned circus act – I really don’t. Is it because there’s just too many goddamned people trying to sell shit? Should we just invite Ebola to America with open arms so we can go back to being able to make a simple living? Should we have our own Bastille Day and kill all the fucks who have parasitically sucked up all resources, leaving us plebes to scrabble for the few crumbs left? Maybe I should just find a way (in spite of zero experience, general cowardliness, lack of a certain sort of intelligence, and ethical makeup) just resort to thieving and assaulting in order to get my daily bread?

I don’t give a goddamned fuck about money. I don’t give a piss about it in any way shape or form. I suspect 80% of the people out there really don’t either. All anyone really cares about is getting laid, having health, enough not-disgusting food to eat, a roof, and as many friends as can be tolerated. News fucking flash – there’s plenty of all that goddamned crap out there. But they’ve set up this piece of shit system where you can’t even get $100 of sales on some crappy craft site without prostituting yourself to hell. If I could live in peace creating my shit, sharing it with whoever wanted it, contributing to my social circle or even the world at large thru art or thru volunteering or fuck knows what, I would be so happy and I wouldn’t need to be angry. I wouldn’t have to feel cancer coming on at just the notion of having to flog the same goddamned garbage nobody cares about — IE my creative work I should care about which i begin to feel acute contempt for due to its invisibility and its inability to get me what i want/need — in the same tired old shit channels nobody looks at.

So there it is, dear Cary – I very seriously hate and feel angry at the whole prospect of selling or promoting myself, as can be seen. And saying ‘get a job’ is really the same, isn’t it? Sell sell sell.

I started out asking, in terms of advice, how can I get past this intense & insane rage & loathing that is clearly holding me back from whatever sort of life is still possible to have… but by now I feel like anything anyone said on the subject would be interesting and worthwhile. I don’t feel justified or entitled to my rage, but I can’t get past it – I suspect I do not possess a healthy or proportionate reaction to this aspect of adulthood.

have an awesome day!!!!

Grrrr

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Dear Grrrr,

Well done. You have spoken. You have expressed what many feel. That was bracing. That was a bracing rant. I feel better already. I hope you do, too.

I feel the same way too, some of the time. And yet I promote myself. I sell. Did you hear me on the radio? I tell the world what I am doing.

I don’t sell that well. Like, if I did, maybe I’d still be at Salon. I forgot that when you have a job, most of what you are doing is selling yourself to your boss. I forgot I had a boss I had to sell to. That’s a lesson if you have a job. You’re always selling yourself to your boss. This guy, he was a new boss I’d never even met. I sort of forgot he was there. My mistake.

Anyway, it was good, because I needed to get kicked out of there. I needed to get kicked on my ass and figure out what’s next.

The truth is, you’re always selling. If you’re in a job you’re selling yourself to your boss. If you’re on your own, you’re selling to others. If you’re a kid, you’re selling yourself to your parents. You’re selling yourself to your teachers. Out on the street and in the bars, we’re selling ourselves to each other. We’re saying the things we think will close the deal.

We’re always selling. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.

All over the world, we’re selling. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, done with drone strikes. Sometimes it’s a soft sell, done with Angelina Jolie. But we’re selling every minute of the day.

Do we hate ourselves for it? Yeah. Maybe. But it’s our nature.

But there’s selling and then there’s selling. If by selling you mean that false, bullshit thing of pretending you’re somebody else and talking somebody into giving you money for something they really don’t want; if by selling you mean feeling guilty because what you have is not worth what you’re asking for it; if by selling you mean cheating people, lying and pretending in order to get them to something; then yeah, if that’s what you mean by selling, then I totally agree. You should feel like shit if you’re doing that. I would, too. I would want to slit my own throat and stomp on my victim, too, for being so stupid and gullible and spineless.

But that’s not really selling. That’s being a con. That’s being a criminal, basically. That’s stealing.

You’re not a thief. You’re a creative soul. You’re an artist. Maybe you’re an artist of anger. I don’t know. But you’re an artist and you’re confused about the terms under which you are asked to do this art. That makes sense. Nobody spells out the terms for you. We’re on our own. Part of learning where we fit in is stumbling around, spouting off. Ranting. Telling the truth about how we feel and watching what happens as a result.

Right now, what you’re doing in this letter is just being yourself. And it’s pretty cool. You’re not conning anybody. You’re just surrendering to your own rage. Some people will be offended or frightened by your reference to violent murder but this is expressive speech. It’s not a threat. It’s expressive speech. It needs a venue.

Here’s the deal about selling: We all have stuff other people want. We all use money as an exchange medium. If you’ve got what I want I’m going to offer you some money for it.

For instance, let’s assume I want to watch you stomp around on stage and act out all this rage. I don’t know what I’d pay. Maybe $5. (Is that insulting? I didn’t mean it to be. I’m cheap. I used to pay $5 to go into a punk club and that was fine. Maybe now it’s more like $20. I don’t really go anywhere so I wouldn’t know.) But it wouldn’t just be me. It would be like 200 people paying $5. That’s a thousand bucks. Give some to the house, but that seems like a workable deal.

Would I buy one of your creations? I don’t know. My house is kinda full of stuff. Would I look at it in a magazine though? Probably. Would I look at it on the Internet and then pay to go see you stomp around on stage and talk about your murderous rage? Quite possible. Because hearing you talk about your murderous rage makes me happy somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that makes me a bad person.

OK, let’s take this bullshit word selling out of the equation. Let’s talk about being in the world, and playing a role in the culture.

Take me, for instance, and this column. After I lost the job at Salon I kept doing the column for a while but I resented not being paid directly for it. I had a donation button up there for a while but that  felt like panhandling. I’ve done some panhandling. When I was a hippie kid. It’s unpredictable and kind of demeaning.

So I went through all this anguish about it and finally realized, well, I thought about Herb Caen and how much pleasure I got out of his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. I realized I thought of him as a member of my culture, as a voice I depended on to be there. If he had suddenly quit doing that, it would have seemed like a cop out.

I realized I had a cultural role to play, too. It’s that simple. People like reading this column. They’re used to reading it. It’s part of American culture. This column isn’t a job. It’s a cultural role.

I can afford to write it once a week, as long as I do other things too, for money. So I just keep doing it. I like it, actually, if I don’t have to do it five days a week.

That’s really all you have to do. You’re playing a role right now. You might get mad at me for saying that, but you are selling yourself right now, in the sense that you are showing yourself to the world. That’s all it is. Don’t worry. You can’t make us buy your stuff. All you can do is be visible to us. We’ll decide if we like what you’ve got and if we want to engage.

Me, I’d maybe go see you on stage. It’d be satisfying. I might watch. It might make me want to get up on stage too and unburden myself of certain unresolved feelings about certain media personalities the sight of whom incites certain rather acute feelings that could be termed murderous rage. Yes. Could be. I might join up up there on stage.

Also, part of this thing, frankly, part of living with your own rage, involves faith. Not pious, quasi-religious faith. But fuck-it-all, I’m-doing-this-anyway faith. The faith to be who you are, do what you do, and see what happens. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke faith.

Be who you are, do what you do, see what happens.  Don’t kill anybody. Just get honest and have some faith that things will turn out. Maybe somebody will buy something.

So stop selling. Do more ranting. Get up on stage and express your anger at the system. Maybe bring your artwork up on stage with you. That might be too much like selling. I don’t know. That’s up to you.

I just have a feeling, if you continue to genuinely express yourself, that people who get what you are saying will be attracted to you, and they’ll want the stuff you make, and it will work out.

Some people might tell you to calm down. Some people might want to punch you in the head to make you shut up. But fuck that.

Don’t calm down. Fuck that. Keep ranting.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My crazy creative acts don’t add up

Write for Advice

Dear Cary –

My creative doubts have been simmering like a mild poison in my heart and mind for years and I’m starting to hate myself. I need to do something about it.

Nine years ago I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By age 31 I had accidentally become a loudmouth, performance-arty, punk-rocky type person. I say accidentally because as a dull-witted, privileged, Southern Californian white girl, I wouldn’t have chosen that life. I wouldn’t have believed myself capable of thriving on the grungy, diversified, kaleidoscopic roller coaster that is (was?) New York City.

I was a quiet adolescent with vague aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, though I had no aptitude for science and was a poor student; I just liked Sea World and wanted to ride around on the whales. Then in high school I found the drama kids, in college I majored in theater and went on to get an MFA in acting; even though acting is an impractical profession, the path was well defined. I went on auditions, tried to land an agent, took head shots and even started a theatre company of my own. But I wanted to run wild and so I did.

I raced around New York on my bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, having sex with random creatives and cursing loudly into microphones. I would do anything as long as I considered it to be “arty.” I wasn’t accomplishing anything real, though — nothing I could point to and say, “If only I’d kept doing ‘xyz’ I could have made it.”

I wrote short stories, sang and played guitar, acted in plays and did standup comedy and I am not being overly critical of my abilities when I say that unless something unusual happened like it did for some of the lesser bands that hung out at CBGB’s, my antics weren’t going to get me what I really wanted which was to be a part of the professional rather than amateur conversation by making the art that only I can make. I prayed that the group of misfits I was surrounded by would achieve a Studio 54 level of significance, if only in retrospect, so that my showboating would turn out to be meaningful. I can see now that artists like Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac or Kathleen Hanna are actually doing what I thought I was doing, but wasn’t. Anyway.

I was also lonely and I yearned for romantic love so when I met my husband — the true love of my life, also a standup comic, musician and actor — it felt like hitting the jackpot. I became shy and lost my taste for exhibitionism and decided to drop out of my punk rock band and focus on writing. I grew quieter and I liked it.

I worked as a secretary and eventually became a flight attendant. We got married and both started to feel chewed up by the New York grind. We bought a house in the desert where my parents live and we love it out here. Neither of us misses big-city life.

I quit flying and became a secretary again, wrote five incomprehensible novels and created a silly/offensive cartoon and blog.

But then I started to feel hidden in a bad way. It seemed none of the people around me understood that I had more to offer than the ability to arrive on time and fill out expense reports. I felt sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it.

I didn’t know how to handle this feeling, but I wanted to take action so I swore that I was going to work as hard as I could on my latest novel. I was going to write my way out of the ugly, grey sweats and let the world see my feathers again. I quit my job and for a year I’ve been living off of my savings trying to do whatever it takes to finish the fucking thing.

But I hate it. The novel — writing it has been just … bad. Not bad like “Keep at it and you’ll get better!” bad, but bad like “Why do this when every single day writing feels like a dead, empty, cold, fishy void?” Right now I’m working now on my third rewrite (rewrite as in I’m rewriting the whole thing from scratch) and I just don’t care. My feathers are as droopy as ever. They’re wilting and I think they might be starting to fall out. The novel is meaningless. I am disgusted with myself, but I swore I’d finish it.

I feel like I’ve wasted all of my energy and enthusiasm and now I’m going to be 40 and I have absolutely nothing to show for my artistic ambitions. I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.

Today I spent the afternoon contemplating getting a degree in digital media arts at the local community college. It seems like a practical thing to do, but is it? Is it just more of the same? Who’s to say I won’t hate that too?

I’ve tried teaching yoga for a year and I really, really hate teaching yoga. I hate secretarial work. I hate writing novels. I’ve tried and failed at a crafty Etsy endeavor. I enjoy painting and drawing but can’t fathom what makes the visual art world tick and while I can pursue it as a hobby, I feel that a hobby doesn’t achieve my goal of exposing my feathers. I want to dig deep, get serious and contribute something artistic in the next (knock wood) forty years. I don’t know what I want to do only that I don’t want to be a nurse or an actress or anything that I can point to in a college catalogue. I don’t have or want children. All I’ve ever cared about was art but I can’t seem to make any.

I want more out of life, but it seems that I am an asshole who doesn’t like anything and can’t do anything well. I should also say that I am very fortunate to have a great husband and great parents who love me and I know how lucky I am.

Can you please tell me if I sound like an asshole? I’m so tone deaf that I don’t even know if these concerns are meaningful or just the dissatisfied whining of someone who’s been given way too much, encouraged way too much and should just find a way to stop complaining and be a secretary. Help.

With much love and appreciation for what you do,

Like a bird in a sweatsuit

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Hey there Bird,

It’s OK for you to move from one thing to another. It’s natural for you. That’s where your energy is.

You are a wanderer. You are gathering wisdom from experience.

The problem is that when you look at what you have accomplished it seems like an incoherent mess. So you feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You are at the beginning of something. You are an artist in the early stages of accomplishment. There is a large, life-defining project awaiting you but you don’t know for sure what it is yet. That’s OK. You are working toward it.

What you need is a pattern of working for the next few years that will allow you to keep doing these seemingly disparate activities while also finishing pieces, and all the while keeping an eye on the unifying whole. I suggest using a loop as a pattern.

Envision a circuit. Picture a studio with several projects in various stages of completion. Or maybe it is not a studio but an open field. Maybe it is the desert. Whatever comes to mind. Line up your various pieces and ideas out there: Your performance-art work, your writing, your punk band, your painting, your jobs. Make a path that links them and walk that path. Go to the project that speaks to you at the time, but water them all. Attend to them all. At times, you may simply go and contemplate a project. That is OK. Your attention is like water. It is like love. It keeps the project breathing while it awaits your hands.

You don’t have to stay with one project until it’s entirely finished. You can move from thing to thing. But line the things up so that as you are moving around, you are moving in a circuit of your creations. Each time you come back to the next thing, it’s at a stage where you can work on it and move it forward. In that way, you can finish things and keep them moving forward. You will eventually finish certain things. Others may languish for years. That is OK. Finish what you can finish. Just don’t turn away from anything in despair. It all has meaning.

At the same time, while you do this, in your spare time, study form.

Concentrate on mastering the basics of any form you work in. The novel, for instance: Master the elemental truths of the novel as a form. Go back to basics. Take a look at what the novelist Jane Smiley did when she got stuck. She read 100 novels and asked herself, what are these things? How do they work? What defines them? She wrote 100 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She got down to basics and defined what a novel is at its most elemental. It is “a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” That’s all. But that’s a lot. The implications of that small statement are immense.

So learn as much as you can about form. Use what you learn to make your pieces cohere.

I sense that you are an extravert, a courageous and in-your-face kind of person, probably an ESFP with an unusually strong intuitive side. It’s vitally important for you to be alive in the moment and impassioned, and you want to share this passion with others. Also, you are physical, tactile. That is your sensing preference. So you need to be doing the stuff. You do your thinking by doing. That’s OK. Because you have a strong intuitive sense (you are probably on the cusp of sensing/intuitive) you can envision and take in nonmaterial ideas.

Creative people are often unbalanced in our talents. We can take steps to moderate our tendency not to finish things. That is one main reason why I created Finishing School — to help those of us who are impassioned and live in the moment but also want to make lasting work. By creating a structure in which we can be just as crazy as we like, we get things finished.

For some people, often those of the “J” persuasion, finishing is the driving motive. For others, the “P’s” among us, the process is the driving motive. For folks like you and me, in the moment of working, it doesn’t matter to us that much whether we finish. Later it does, though. And it matters a great deal to the world, to our audience. So we come upon the dividing point where the creative person must choose between selfishness and service. If we just want to fuck around then we can fuck around and we enjoy it but we are of no use to anyone else. They can’t understand what we are saying because we are not finishing our statements. So we have to supplement our weaker, anarchic, process-oriented, in-the-moment-and-fuck-the-results side. We have to consciously build a structure that ensures we end up finishing things in spite of our tendencies to wander off mid-song.

This requires both finesse and faith.

Since your strong side is the inspiration side, concentrate on building up your conceptual side. This may take a little bit of make-believe; that is, you may have to conjure up a story about each work that is not perhaps entirely literally true. It is a hypothesis that can guide you in making decisions. Ask, What is this piece? What is its thesis? If you are racing around New York on a bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, what is the thesis statement of this activity? What might it be? What is the conceptual framework? Might it be a critique of bourgeoise society? Might it be a celebration of the Dionysian? Might it be about being a woman, or unleashing the power of the body? Try to think in terms of a thesis so that you can make decisions about what goes in and what stays out, and so you can decide when the piece is finished. If you know what the thesis is, then you can say the work is finished when it adequately states the thesis.

You may say, well, people should understand the work anyway, in all its inscrutability. Well, maybe they should. But they won’t. Not unless you give them some framework in which to “understand” it. Now, of course, “understand” is in quotes because it is only a rough equivalent of what actually happens when people apperceive a work; it is the cognitive, expressible side. The other, ineffable side is there too. The mystery doesn’t disappear just because we conceive the work within a hypothesis.

Creating a thesis for a work also provides a basis for deciding various crucial elements. For instance: Do I want to smear bicycle chain grease on my nipples or not? Would that add to the meaning or detract? Would it create a richer pattern or would it seem random? Would it be sexually exploitive of yourself as a woman? And speaking of being sexually exploitive, why nipples? Why not on your face, as a warrior? Or on your biceps?

Another way to deal with these apparently incommensurate forays into various art forms is to conceive of your life as the actual project, or canvas. In that sense, what unifies these various activities? They spring from one unique consciousness; together, they define a person. So ask what are the major themes of your life and how do these activities express those themes? Wandering? Seeking? Rebellion? Break down those themes into their constituents and find correspondences. For instance, where has wandering been synonymous with rebellion? When has rebellion provided answers to what you were seeking? See if you can draw lines — it may help to do this visually — between these themes; look for equivalences and synonymous relationships, and also for the contradictions: Where has rebellion led to confinement? Where has seeking led to emptiness and wandering to stasis? These dualities constitute another ordering principle by which you can bring these various artistic endeavors into a conceptual whole.

That whole is your life.

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