Content Warning: This post, in contrast to the vast majority of what I write, discusses suicide and self-destructive behavior. It also contains profanity.
Look - it's been a weird few weeks.
The news has been particularly dire. I'm sure I'll have thoughts at some point, but for now, I mostly just feel pain.
So, for the moment, let's change focus a bit.
Let's talk about the creation myth.
I don't mean the stories we tell about where the world comes from; I mean the stories we tell about where creation comes from.
Western culture in general and American culture in specific have long maintained the mythology of the heroic creator - the lone figure, obsessed with the act of creation, giving birth to monumental works at personal dire cost.
Despite the damage inflicted upon themselves and those around them, these individuals rail against mediocrity, achieving transcendence in their work at the very moment they experience personal annihilation. You know the type.
It was, we say, the "demon in them"; the muses must extract their toll. Depression, or drug abuse, or sexual addiction - the emptiness in the center of the artist is both creative conduit and black hole.
It all makes sense, when you tell the story this way. That's the price you pay for greatness, right? For destiny?
This theme seems to be everywhere in my life, recently.
I've been reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway, by Mary Dearborn), one of the greatest writers of his generation...and an alcoholic, a narcissist, a domestic abuser.
Hemingway wrote, upon winning the Nobel Prize:
"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life….[The writer] grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day."
He mostly "faced eternity" through drink, often starting first thing upon waking and continuing until he was mean and spiteful to everyone around him...especially the people that loved him most.
Then my wife and I caught Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, shortly after I finished listening to the audiobook of Bourdain's memoir Kitchen Confidential.
Then, in a business seminar, I was treated to the story of Robert Johnson. Johnson was so good at his craft of blues guitar that people whispered he'd sold his soul to the devil.
Johnson had actually planned to settle down as a farmer and family man until his wife tragically died during childbirth, setting him down a different path.
The book How To Fly a Horse, which discusses creativity and innovation, describes it like this:
"What is diabolical is squandering your talents. We sell our soul when we waste our time. We drive neither ourselves nor our world forward if we choose idling over inventing.
When Robert Johnson came to the crossroads at midnight, it was temptation that said, Do not practice, do not play, do not write, do not stretch your hands across the frets until they ache, do not press your fingers into the strings until they bleed, do not play to empty chairs and chattering drunks who boo, do not perfect your music, do not train your voice, do not lie awake with your lyrics until every word sounds right, do not study the skill of every great player you hear, do not invest your every breathing, waking minute pursuing your God-given mission to create. Take it easy, mourn your wife and child, get some rest, have a drink, play some cards, hang with your friends – they do not spend all day and night messing with guitars and music.
And Robert Johnson looked at temptation and said no...
...If you are fully immersed in your creative life and the crossroads has long left your rearview mirror, be affirmed. The friends, mothers, fathers, therapists, colleagues, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, and ex-wives who said you were crazy and you work too hard and you will never make it and you need more balance were wrong, as are the ones who still do."
Yes, sir. ABSOLUTELY no time to "mourn your wife and child, get some rest, hang with your friends."
Not when there is guitar to play.
I'm sure you can think of plenty of others. As I said, you know the type.
But let's make it more personal:
Someone recently shared a link to someone's Bandcamp page - including a cover of a song I wrote. I listened to it and enjoyed it (it's always gratifying to know that somebody cared enough about a song to make it their own).
Then I found out that this young person had killed themselves shortly after.
By my count, this is maybe...the fourth time this has happened?
And I'm going to tell you:
I'm getting pretty fucking tired of the myth of the heroic creative loner by now.
Pretty over young people following their muse into oblivion.
I'm writing this to tell you:
It's all bullshit.
Every single word of it.
The idea that truly transformative art comes from pain, and suffering, and mental illness, and a destabilizing, manic focus on creation above personal health is not just false, its asinine.
It's the perfect example of a local optima - optimizing for a particular element of a system at the expense of the operation of the system as a whole.
Maybe, just maybe, you might get a really great record out of someone who's on the brink between life and death. That could be true.
But you will get more work and better work overall from someone who is able to maintain their output and improve their craft over time.
No one thinks that any other human endeavor is somehow made better through abject suffering.
No one thinks that surgeons should "put it all on the line" to "achieve their creative destiny."
Nobody's telling Bill Gates he needs to do drugs and stay up all night to "really make an impact."
No - we save this incredible advice for artists. Why is that?
It's because we - as a culture - are a bunch of romantics. We want to believe that the creation of something beautiful, and meaningful, and true requires some kind of super-normal stimulus; that it's only by walking the razor's edge between life and death that we can receive penetrating insight.
But that's all bullshit.
You know what music is? Putting notes together, one after the other, in a pleasing or surprising way.
You know what writing is? Putting words together, one after the other, in a pleasing or surprising way.
You know what philosophy is? Putting ideas together, one after the other, in a pleasing or surprising way.
You know what insight is? Putting experiences together, one after the other, in a pleasing or surprising way.
Art isn't magic. It's not demonic. It's not special.
Suffering isn't required. It was never required.
But year, after year, after year, we take the best of us - the misfits, the nerds, the freaks, the challenging, the difficult, the rebels, the sensitive ones -
and we feed them into a fucking meat grinder, shaking our heads and clucking our tongues and saying "what does one death matter, if it produced something of such beauty?"
FUCK your creation myth.
FUCK your destiny.
If you're reading this, and you care about art, and being creative, and changing the world, and having an impact, please, please, please, I'm begging you -
You have to stay alive.
Stay alive to get better.
Stay alive to gain perspective.
Stay alive to have experiences.
Stay alive to truly know yourself.
We need you.
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