I remember well what it was to be all of thirteen, with the vast majority of your life stretching out before you like a carpet that is sometimes a brillant crimson red but often obscured by mist. There’s a quote I’ve found helpful attributed to the writer E.L. Doctorow in which he says:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
But it’s not just writing. Much of life is this way too. We all struggle with vision, not only with what’s ahead but with who and what we are.
I wish I could reassure you, and tell you that one day you’ll know. But the question of who we each are, the question, “Who am I?” is not one that is meant to be answered. I am now fifty years old. Trust me when I tell you that the answer’s not important. Only that you ask the question, and accept the person you see in the mirror before you now as the answer.
I think you know more about me at thirteen than I have ever known about my own father. I sometimes call myself a writer but I have been known to identity with other adjectives, other names. Photographer, poet, artist. What are words but convenient handles for vessels far too deep to fill, let alone comprehend?
It is difficult to identify as an artist in this world because that connotation has lost most of what little dignity it once carried. To be a creator, or more accurately, a channel through which creativity flows, means sustaining a high level of emotional vulnerability. It requires being open to criticism, always, and suffering endless rejection from a world which doesn’t seem to see what you see or feel what you feel.
You have talent, and you have the raw fight in you to make it as an artist if you so choose that path. It will not be easy. But nothing authentic or truly worthwhile ever is. You will struggle, and you will stand many times on the threshold of resignation. You will ask yourself a thousand times why you’re doing what you do and you will surely be tempted to quit. Welcome those moments. Embrace them. For those are signs that you are on the right path.
I thought about you today as I wandered the hills of Marin. When I face my own existential questions I will often turn to nature for solace and to sustain my faith. The ocean has never failed me in this way and I advise you to not live too far from it if you can manage. You can always, as I did this morning, wander aimlessly among the things that are still wild and receive a calling, a reassurance, that is elusive among our fellow human beings. One of the greatest gifts my own father gave me was the sea.
I have grown quite fond of the abandoned bunker complexes that dot the coastal bluffs of our famous Headlands. You know how much I love old, abandoned things. I am, above all things, a ghost-hunter and am drawn to objects in decay. I will explore the psychoanalysis of this behavior of mine in another letter, but I do draw something viscerally from historical structures. On this particular morning however it was not the sea I came for. I came to wander the gallery of images that street artists paint on the old bunkers’ walls.
Graffiti is an art form I have long admired. My interest in it having sprung from my childhood in New York, during the blighted 1970’s when every subway car was strewn floor to roof with dazzling yet baffling images. As a young man travelling to and from Manhattan I would stare mesmerized out the window of the train watching the spectacular shows of light, shadow and paint flash across a transparent screen to the clacking rhythm of iron wheels and the Doppler wailings of air horns. That sound still haunts the best of my dreams.
I think about these boys a lot. The painters. I think about them when I lie awake in my bed. These men, these man-boys, whose urge to create, to be seen, to be known, is so powerful, that they risk arrest and sometimes their lives to apply their artwork to walls and overpasses, knowing full well that they are not only transitory, but will largely go unrecognized. Their work will be covered over, again and again, by other boys whose hearts burn with that same mad passion. Very few people will ever know them. There is, after all, only one Banksy, and a thousand other roads that lead to obscurity.
I began to think about art as seen through this lens. Why we do it. What drives us on. Van Gogh said:
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
There is no greater artistic role model in my opinion than Van Gogh, who was baptized by fire and persevered through enormous difficulties to become, finally, the artist he hoped to be.
I don’t know why I write. I don’t know why I take pictures. Why are people compelled to expose their souls and hearts? We do it because something inside us says we must. There is an energy that flows through us that will manifest. And we go to any lengths to realize it in a form that can be perceived by us – not some audience whose approval we require for our validation, but our own aesthetic sensibility. If you put your faith in this you cannot fail. If your work makes you feel something the world has only hinted at, something you have sensed but never quite touched, then that alone is the victory and the reward. Seek but for synthesis and Sartori, so that when you step back and look at what you’ve done you see in it everything you’ve accumulated up to that point and awaken to a new understanding of yourself and this world.
Art, at whatever level you choose to pursue it, will always test your commitment – not just to the craft but to yourself. It will always demand the best of who you are, even if you’ll never know for certain your final definition. On some level I envy the nocturnal graffiti artist, his dogged pursuit of visibility, the rush of the risk, an outlaw artist with an intoxicating nom de guerre. But this too is a romanticized notion. He, or she, is searching for the same thing we all seek through the act of rendering a thought into something another human being can perceive and, hopefully, understand – unity, connection. This is a concept that you may not be able to grasp at such a young age. The artist seeks not to distance herself from the world, nor to reach a realm of exclusivity, but to merge with it in holy communion.
If I have not been clear about the intentions of this letter, let me be so now. I encourage you to pursue your drawing, your writing, your music. But if you do, go for greatness; which only means to be the best that you can be while serving mankind. Great art, or better put, effective art, fosters empathy and compassion between human beings. The vast majority of us have succumbed to the fear-based notions of rugged individualism and competition, reducing us to mere binaries – winners and losers, haves and have nots, the special and the ordinary. But these ideas have, as I think even you can see, sickened the world and brought it to the threshold of ruin. Art can heal it. Art can shine a light. Art, in the pursuit of truth is the only sane endeavor worth a risk.
I would like to close with this quote from Rilke (pronounced Rill-ka) – a poet who has had a great influence on my own thinking in regards to these questions. He is a man whose writing I urge you to keep by your side.
“No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”
Forget that he is talking about poetry. The same is equally true of sculpture, ballet or spraying images onto subway tunnels and bunker walls. If you answer yes, then you have already hit the jackpot. You have discovered your calling, your purpose, the way you will help save the world. And so few people ever find that. Most are not brave enough to look.
You will learn from many great teachers, and I hope to serve as one of them. I hope that my struggles might spare you some of your own suffering. Though the older I get the more I believe that struggle and doubt are fuel for the crucible that forms us.
With much love and admiration,
This essay first published in Stone Voices Magazine