Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both. But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art. This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.
When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree. My insecurities get stronger. I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams. Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible. It’s as if none of that ever existed. It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head. And it never relents.
Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things. At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words. Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening. When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist. And they will do anything to escape that pain.” It took me years to fully understand what he meant. But I don’t try to escape the pain that way. I just suffer.
No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work. As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing. Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.
When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori. Nothing is ever that good. Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes. Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations. This is far better than taking drugs. These are the drugs of the mind. And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page. The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.
This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity. It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience. That is a wonderful thing, sometimes. But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life. The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing. When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures. But that’s the life. That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.
It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else. When I’m producing, that’s fine. It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life. But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there. The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.
All jobs are hard. All lives are challenging for the people living them. This one, too. Even those days when I manage to get it right. Why do I do it? Maybe I’m obsessed. And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent. And I like it better than mowing lawns.