This morning, I called in sick. Which consisted of me saying, to anyone who could hear me, “I’m sick. I’m not going to do anything today.” I don’t know if anyone actually heard me, since no one was in the room at the time, but it seems to have had the desired effect. I have not done anything today. Except sleep.
I’ve spent the day alternately sipping small amounts of Robitussin, one of the most disgusting liquids ever invented, like drinking medicinal Maraschino cherries, out of a small plastic cup, and sleeping. The Robitussin has allowed me to sleep, for which I am most grateful. Although I’m worried that I’ll become an addict, end like a twenty-first century Lizzie Siddal, overdosing on that sickly red syrup. (Don’t laugh. Laudanum, Robitussin. It could happen.)
I did eventually get up and turn on the computer. And on the Clarion Foundation blog, I read a post by John Kessel called “Desperation.” It’s about a song called “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know” by Freedy Johnson, whom I’d never heard of before. You can listen to the song here (just click the play button).
Here’s what John has to say about the song:
“This song is autobiographical. Freedy Johnston was a smart homely kid from Kansas, not the source of a lot of world famous rockers or anything else, and he wanted desperately to make it. He kicked around for a number of years in the 1980s, dropped out of college, lived in Lawrence playing various loser gigs, moved to New York City, and was not getting anywhere. So when his grandfather died and he inherited the family farm, he sold it in order to raise money to record an album.
“Think about that.
“You want to create so bad, you are so convinced that you have something in you that is worth saying, that you will sell your birthright in order for the chance to speak what you hope is in you. To regular people it’s insane, even some sort of crime. You yourself don’t even understand why, or whether it is worth it. You know it’s crazy, you are in radical doubt about your ability, you just sold the house where you learned to walk for the chance to go on the road and play a bunch of miserable one-night gigs, to pay the band, to spend fifty bucks for the van, to get your guitars out of hock – your grandfather’s sweat and blood being dribbled away for something he would probably scorn. It hurts you to do this, you’re bleeding. You owned the map to the fucking sky and sold it for a chance to play to a bunch of strangers you don’t even know. Are you nuts?
“Well, in the eyes of the world, maybe you are. You are a writer, or you ache to be one. You will make big sacrifices in order to come to Clarion, to spend six weeks of your life taking your best shot. You leave your family behind, you quit your job, you break up with your boyfriend, you spend thousands of hard earned dollars, maybe go into debt, all on a wild chance to write stories for strangers. You are taking a big risk. You may not make it. Even if you do, like a toddler learning to walk, you are going to fall down a lot before you learn to walk. Always.”
Reading what John wrote above, I thought – yes, that’s what it feels like. “You want to create so bad, you are so convinced that you have something in you that is worth saying, that you will sell your birthright in order for the chance to speak what you hope is in you.” And you know what? You’ll do it without thinking twice about it, because that’s simply the way it is, that’s simply what you have to do to survive. Because if you don’t get out what is in you, if you don’t speak with the voice you have, you’re going to die. At least, that’s how it feels.
And if you’re sane enough, you realize how completely crazy that sounds to other people. And you realize that you’re not like other people, and will never make the choices they make. And that somehow puts you on the edge – of society, of your family (unless you come from one of those crazy families, and most of us don’t). The hardest part of it is that “you are in radical doubt about your ability” – you don’t know whether you can do it until after you’ve done it, and then you don’t know whether you can do the next think until after you’ve done that. You’re constantly on the edge of uncertainty.
But in order to do what you need to do, you’ll take uncertainty.
We all experience artistic creativity in various ways, so I can’t say that what John wrote is true for all of us. But I can say that it’s true for me, and I suspect it’s true for a lot of you.
I have one addendum, which is that it’s dangerous to keep an artist from creating, from practicing her art. It’s dangerous to say, “Don’t make that album, stay on the farm. Live the life your family has always lived.” Because the artist will literally not be able to do that. It’s as dangerous to keep an artist from her art as it is to keep a mother bear from her cub. And as likely to end badly.
What John wrote reminds me of a quotation I’ve always liked from Pearl S. Buck:
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create, so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
Yes, I feel this too. I sometimes have to remind myself that a touch is not a blow, a misfortune is not a tragedy, failure is not death. Although it’s rather useful, actually, that a joy is an ecstasy. But that overwhelming necessity to create: I saw it among my friends at Wiscon. They are constantly making things. When they buy things, they are constantly altering them. They compulsively alter the spaces around them, create spaces that are individual, their own. They can’t help it.
Which may be why, even though I’ve been sick all week, even though I declared this an official sick day, I’m sitting here in pajamas writing a blog post.
My goal for tomorrow: change out of pajamas.