There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was doing something else. I’m a writer so all I want to do is write. But I have a regular man’s life. I have children. I have bills to pay. I have to work just like everyone else. I’ve spent years lamenting my ‘situation’. If only I had a benefactor. If only I had a cabin in Vermont. If only I could win the MegaMillions. If only my book had hit the charts. If only the big ship would come in and take me away to the island of happy carefree artists. If only I’d stop and realize that this thinking is wrong.
I am late in praising the power and significance of Searching for Sugar Man. But something tells me not to let this opportunity pass. There are too many people I know personally who can use the medicine this film prescribes. I’m the one who needs it the most.
The story here is about a singer/songwriter who, in 1970, releases an album as powerful, evocative and true as anything being done at the time. His name is Rodriguez. He sounds like a mash-up of James Taylor and Cat Stevens and writes songs that you cannot help but compare to Dylan and Springsteen. When you listen to this guy something happens inside your body. He holds the trip-wire to the human heart. It’s stunning. How is it that I, a music lover, have never heard of him before?
Rodriguez’s first album sputters. He records another. It, too, practically suffocates. The music is beautiful, meaningful, necessary. But the response is crickets. He goes nowhere in the United States or in England. He stops recording music and essentially disappears. It’s tragic. It’s heart breaking. It’s a story that seems to nullify that comforting adage – your art will find its audience. Rodriguez is forgotten. Except he’s not. Something amazing happens. A young American woman brings his debut album to Cape Town South Africa.
In 2008 I was fortunate enough have a novel picked up and released by a large publishing house. Serpent Box took me seven years to write it. I went through a personal hell to write it. For the last five years I’ve asked myself why. Why did I do this? What was I hoping for? What was I expecting?
The book, I have claimed many times, was something I had to write. It was like a set of antlers that pushed through my skull. The people who read it liked it. I had the chance to do a limited tour. I was interviewed on the radio. I did readings to crowds as large as a hundred and as small as one. I got to read for my favorite elementary school teacher in my hometown library. For a time the book was optioned by a film producer.
But nothing significant happened. Sales were disappointing. Oprah never found me. The film rights fizzled. All antlers eventually fall to the ground. And so it goes. You move on. You live your life and go back to your writing because it’s the thing that makes you feel the most vital, the most alive. You do it because it’s the only thing you know how to do well. Still you wonder. Why?
I whine, I complain, I mope. I make excuses for why I don’t work on my new novel. I blame the publishing business, I blame consumers, I blame myself. Just when I think I understand what writing is and why I do it, I somehow forget.
What is writing?
It’s my concrete interpretation of life. It’s how I process this thing, this existence of mine, of yours, of ours. Feelings happen. Emotions swell. Images build. I have questions. I see ghosts. What is going on? What is all this? A dream? A dream inside a dream? There’s no need to dwell on those questions. Tell stories instead. Write. The very process of holding a pen, of moving its tip across the surface of paper while simultaneously seeing an image in my mind’s eye, draws the anxiety out like poison and turns it into sweet music that not only heals, it illuminates, it reinforces the bridge to the divine.
I am Lotto-lucky just to have this be a part of my life.
South Africa in 1970 is hell on earth. Apartheid makes Jim Crow look like a sissy. People of color are treated worse than animals. The whites are freer, but theirs is a closed, oppressive society – a police state. Nothing comes in. Nothing comes out. But somehow Rodriguez slips by. His first album, Cold Fact, becomes an underground smash hit. People record it and pass bootlegs around like Deadheads. Rodriguez’ music fuels the oppressed minds of the white middle class, it foments dissent and rebellion. His music becomes the anthem of a movement.
8000 miles away in Detroit. Rodriguez earns his living doing manual labor. He lives in near poverty. He does the bone-breaking labor of house demolition, masonry. He works 10, 12 hours a day and comes home covered in dust. He does not complain. He does not whine. He does not wish things would’ve been different. He doesn’t record anymore but he still writes songs and plays his guitar. Why? Because it’s who he is. Being a star never interested him. Selling records never interested him. He wanders the streets of Detroit like a ghost, seeing, listening, writing.
I am not Rodriguez. I am not a cult figure anywhere and my writing is not changing the world. But maybe it changed a heart for a while. Maybe it gave another human being pause. We can never know what our art will do, where it will land, what it might sprout. Van Gogh sold one painting during his short and troubled life. Rimbaud died without his brilliance being recognized.
I won’t ruin Searching for Sugar Man for you. Perhaps I’ve already spoiled it. If you haven’t guessed, it’s a redemption story. But we can’t all hope to be redeemed. Yet, it doesn’t matter. If you are lucky enough to have found that thing your heart loves, seize it and don’t let go. Do it, even if the world tells you that you’re crazy, even if you yourself believe it.
Searching for Sugar Man is a story about a story. Stories do change lives. Sometimes a story comes along at precisely the right time to shine a beam of light on something you’ve missed. I am going to hang a picture of Rodriguez’s scarred face on my wall. I’m going to talk to it. I’m going to remember that here’s a man who did what he did and didn’t complain. A true artist is true to herself. A true artist is true. A true artist aspires to a deeper understanding of humility.