Elliott Smith and the Artist

smiith_rel_15I had a dialogue the other day with a friend that involved the concept of writer’s block. It was the phone talk kind of conversation, and while she was speaking, I stepped outside. The day was brisk, windy, bright, and beautiful. I thought to myself, all one has to do is step outside. With this in mind, I then declared the ailment of writer’s block to be a farce, an excuse if anything. There is so much to write about. All one has to do is step outside.

Writers aren’t the only ones who experience this phantom disease. All artists do. The problem doesn’t derive from an inability to create. Instead it surfaces through the lack of desire to create. Everyone gets tired at some point. Everyone gets sick at some point. Everyone gets bored at some point. Everyone gets lazy at some point. But amidst these realities, the artist must prevail through and in spite of them. Only when the artist is able to overcome the obstacles of life will the artist be able to properly give art the necessary attention it deserves. This comes through struggle.

Art, or the going about of creating, is not supposed to be easy. As an American, there’s a tendency within myself to want something instantaneously. Netflix, Wikipedia, texting, and Google maps…all of these, and so many more, grant me instantaneous satisfaction. And over time my brain begins to rewire so that which is not instantaneous, isn’t worth my time. With art, it should always be worth your time, and the artist should be able to give up their time, their lifetime even, if they truly are an artist. The analogy of fast food is perfect. You can either gobble down that non nutritional Big Mac, or pump in that cancerous microwave ready meal, or take some time and actually cook. In the long run, giving art the time it deserves, will not only benefit the piece of art, but the artist as well. Yes, every once in while something will roll perfectly off your brush or tongue. But these moments are far and few in between. Persistence is always a necessity.

Regardless of whether an artist feels like creating or not, they need to create. So many times you hear those certain people with their certain phrases, “I haven’t had the inspiration lately to do anything.” The thing is, inspiration has nothing to do with it. We are humans. Eventually inspiration will come our way. But in the meantime, practice makes perfect. Practice, or the going about of creating (even when you don’t want to), will truly give that moment of inspiration the workmanship it deserves. Yes, every once in a while a genius someone is born with the knack of piano playing. They still have to go about playing the piano, for the sake of their fingers and memory. They still have to learn to read music. The same type of thing goes for the painter and the poet.

The formula is simple. Set aside a certain amount of hours each week, in order to pursue your craft. Whether it’s an hour a day, or three, you’ll know what you need, and stick to it. The repetition might seem dull, but when the something of relevance, the inspired idea, comes around, you’ll be appreciative that those small techniques have been mastered, so that you’re not struggling against them. There’s a saying that writers only enjoy writing about twenty-five percent of the time, and that the other seventy-five percent is work. The point is that whether or not they enjoy writing in the moment, they continue to write. This goes along with any art form. It’s work.

You see, art is not a hobby. If art is simply a side interest to you, you are not an artist and should be ashamed of calling yourself one. Now there’s nothing wrong with enjoying art as a hobby. But how many guys and gals have you met that go around and take pictures once a month, and then call themselves photographers? A poser is just as bad as a liar. You might go about making art, and it might not even be bad art, but an artist devotes the whole of who they are to art. This doesn’t mean quit your job, or quit school, or whatever else, it simply means that your focus needs to aligned and set on your artistic pursuits over anything else. But a mistake can be made when life begins to infringe, inhibiting your attempts towards artistic progression. An artists priorities need to be in order.

The pursuit, in becoming an artist, means that occasionally you’ll have to tell a friend you’re busy. You have something you have to do. This means you might have to miss out on that party. You have something you have to do. This means you might have to forgo that relationship. You have something you have to do. God forbid, you might have to turn off your phone. God forbid, at times you will undoubtedly feel lonely. You might have to even turn down that job raise (it requires too much time), or buy food from ALDI’s, and even wear clothes of the second-hand variety (and not just for the sake of being hip). You might have to do all of this, all because you have something you have to do. There are so many examples, I could cover the next page with them, but I won’t bore you.

A mistake can be made here however in taking this to the extreme. There’s a story by George Orwell, who did write other things besides just Animal Farm and 1984. It’s called Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The story involves a poet, a struggling poet, who gives up the essentials to living, in order to solely pursue poetry. For instance he feels if he takes a better job, he’ll quite writing, so he remains dreadfully poor and reliant on those around him for sustenance. But throughout all of it, the main character, as one can tell, is formulating the greatest poem he has ever come up with. His choices get in the way of his pursuit however. Sadly at the end, he has impregnated a girl, needs a steady job to provide for her and the soon to be child, and so tosses his masterpiece poem into a gutter, giving up the struggle of the artist. Needless to say, the character could have gotten the job, not gotten the girl pregnant, and continued to write poetry.

The mistake is when the artist fails in those initial stages of their life to provide for themselves in order so that they can continue to create. How many more great artists would we have been graced with, if they hadn’t overdosed on heroin or brain drained themselves with psychedelics? How many more great artists would we have amongst ourselves if they could’ve maintained a steady, even if low paying, demeaning job? How many more great artists would we have to look up to, if they would have simply ate a little bit more food? How many more great artists would have to teach of us, if they would’ve just put up with learning just a little longer? There’s nothing wrong with an artist working, in order for them to be able to keep creating. In fact this is essential part of the artists. It should be understood plainly that an artist must be alive to be able to create. Part of living is a struggle in itself, and in the end this only makes the creative process that much more worthwhile.

Struggle in itself is as much a part of the life of an artist as anything else. But struggle isn’t solely sappiness, insanity, or depression. This misconception of the struggle of the artist plagues many of us. They’re brooding individuals, bored geniuses, or people who understand pain better than those normal sort of suburban plebs, due to their experiences. Don’t get me wrong, there are many artists who fit this bill. But for every Elliot Smith, there are 38,000 mournful losers playing their acoustic guitars to the tune of a Bright Eye’s cover around a campfire. This individual has become enwrapped in a false pretense. The certain person believes in the delusion, and so their life begins to exemplify the false reality of what struggle to an artist is. But what they don’t realize is that the struggle of life comes from living, and that’s all there is to it. All of life is a struggle. One can experience just as much pain working in a factory, in comparison to a failed romance. All artists have to do is keep living, and eventually, while they pursue art, whether anyone pays attention to it or not, the struggle will be realized. And this struggle will either compel them on, or they’ll realize, “Nope, art’s not for me.” But if they are compelled to carry on, the most mundane things about life, those tiny little struggles, will begin to inspire them.

The best poem I’ve read in some time, A Display of Mackerel, by Mark Doty, came about from a trip he took to the supermarket. Talk about a mundane, weekly kind of thing. But if Mr. Doty hadn’t gone about pursuing his craft, if he hadn’t gone about practicing, if he hadn’t gone about being patient, if he hadn’t gone about living, the poem would have never existed. He would have passed by the fish stand without a thought at all to it being more than just a bunch of dead fish. There’s meaning and purpose in everything, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. One’s eyes simply need to be open. It’s the Truth.

Know that the ability to create is something a few here and there seem born with. I’ve alluded to this. Yes, genetics, or up bringing, can give certain people a definite advantage. Yet to create art, all one has to do is create. Eventually, if they dedicate enough time to whatever type of art it is, they will become decent enough, if not mastering it. Whether it takes a decade, or a lifetime, if the pursuer truly gives it their all, they will succeed. Something needs to be said in that success shouldn’t be qualified as praise or recognition. The artist, over time, will see how they progress, and will continue to try to progress. This progression is the success. And if the success comes from progression, and the progression comes through struggle, and the struggle begins with creating, then go ahead and call yourself an artist.

-Jared John Buchholz


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