waiting for something

photo by Matt Sipes

The other night I cooked dinner and then sat down a the table, waiting for M to come out of the bedroom a as she does each night after rocking our 18 month old son to sleep. This enterprise typically takes 30-60 minutes so I wasn't sure how much time I had before she'd arrive. I flipped through the day's NY Times but didn't have the stomach for sequestration or drones or Mali or any of the other ten thousand horrible things currently underway so I pushed the paper aside and reached for the tiny version of Letters to a Young Poet that happened to be sitting on the table. (note: why was it sitting there? I have no idea. It's M's). I absently began to read letter one and felt strange sensations ping-ponging through my body. The text was at once rote-familiar and a revelation. I'd read it a million times as a much younger person, the person at the start of everything, the person bundled with equal proportion of drive, ambition, arrogance. When you are this person - and you haven't yet lived - passages like:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

are the sort of thing you cling to, the sort of thing you silently repeat as you take little baby steps forward, mistaking motion for progress. Ideals and integrity are very easy at the start of everything. The projection you have of yourself years hence is that of some mystical artist, healing and soothing world ills with electrified ART bolting from your fingertips. Now, here at age 40, having recently (finally) directed my first feature film and contending with the multi-pronged nature of contemplating what it means to have (finally) done it, and the dark post-partum-like depression that's hung over me like a black blanket since (finally) doing it, and the constant self-lacerating voice that urges me to qualify or put the word 'finally' parenthetically when I talk about having (finally) done it, the words in that first letter took on a different sort of register.

What I am saying is this: It took me a long long long time to get to this point and it doesn't look like the glossy image I'd projected years ago. It still looks and feels like me. Nothing transformative or artistic about it really. Same problems. Same bills. The only difference is that I did it. And that I did it for myself finally. Everyone comes bundled with their own snarl of issues that impede or blunt progress. Mine has been (or rather, one of mine has been) the constant desire for approval of others; needing permission to do what I want to do. Brutal. I can't say I  transcended it to my make my movie but I can say I made my movie in spite of it. And here is where I felt a tiny stab of recognition reading the following:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself.

Yes. That reads one way when you're 20 years old, another way at 40. How I wish I'd have been able to take those words fully on 2 decades ago. I can't help but fantasize that if I'd truly been able to embody them that I've been closer to that mystical art lighting-bolt fingered thing but there again I'm mythologizing something that is perhaps harmful to mythologize. Let me repeat this sentiment though: it took me a long long time to get to this point. And now let me paraphrase Rilke: who gives a fuck who likes it or not.

In that way that happens when you tune to a new frequency, I've been finding these sentiments in other places suddenly, echoing back. This recommended article about Ang Lee and the duration between film school and his first feature; This interview with Cheryl Strayed in Creative Nonfiction wherein this is said:

STRAYED: My definition of success has been developed over many years full of both successes and failures. My trajectory has not been failure, failure, failure, then success. The successes have been there all along, and all along, there’s also been a steady stream of rejections and disappointments. I imagine this will always be the case. It’s the writer’s life. It’s true that Wild’s reception, in particular, has been rather breathtaking, but it hasn’t made me measure success differently. I keep faith with the work. Wild would be the book that it is regardless of how many people read it. I’m very sure about that. When I say, “Success is a pile of shit somebody stacked up real high,” I mean it’s folly to measure your success in money or fame. Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”

I hope none of this sounds like whining.  I am exceedingly grateful to be here. Only remarking that like many things in life that are epic and transformative, the place I sit now feels quiet, pedestrian, and ordinary. Perhaps this comes from stripping off the shell of arrogance, ambition, drive - all these real-world markers of  seeking approval (for me anyway)  - and actually making the movie.


Stephilius said...

Beautifully said, BP. The disorientation of being "finished" with the big, important thing. The illusion that there are peaks to ascend, where we hope to accomplish "success". When it's really just a constant stream, moving forward all the time - whether we notice it or not - our successes and failures pooling and drifting away. And all of them ours alone, as we try to do the thing we have to do, make the things that only we can make.

Damn hard to remember any of this; thanks for the reminder. You, Rilke, and dear Cheryl.

Kronski said...

I think its the nature of a humanistic artist to want to compare our work to that of our peers. It's hard and ultimately destructive to do this. If only I had read this a few years ago, it might have saved me a few miserable years of comparing myself to others and not living up to their standards. i now know the only person's standards I need to live up to are mine, and perhaps, my daughters'.

Thanks so much for this thoughtful exploration, sounds like I need to buy Letters to a Young Poet.

lady said...

Wow. Yes. And yes. And yes. Thanks to you and Rilke. xo

ms. yvon said...

of course my favorite bit of this post is, "Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”

words to live by.