Charles Bowden, Chris Whitley, and Ta-Nehisi Coates share some answers to the question . . .
I have a hard time describing my day job beyond the vague term ‘Administrator.’ Either I cannot convey the intricacies of a red-tape-laden system, or I worry it’s too boring to mention the details. Not that the job is bad — not at all, and I am happy for every moment of paid work I can get. But a secondary benefit, besides money, security, and so on, is the urge my job sometimes gives me to create stuff. The office job drives me to write, to compose, to perform — in other words, to do weird things that don’t make money.
Sometimes I wonder: why do I keep doing it? What’s the point of all this creating?
Here are some possible answers: I could be delusional (or hopeful, depending on your perspective), thinking that I’ll suddenly make lots of money with a viral phenomenon. I could be laying the foundations for a future career as a creative or teacher of some kind. I could be doing it solely for fun, as a hobby. Or perhaps because I think I’m good at it and want to get better. Or because I want to make a masterpiece — the Great American Blog Post. There is some truth to all of these, but they are not the full picture.
Through the work of a brilliant radio producer named Scott Carrier, I found the writing of journalist Charles Bowden. Reading his work is a bit like getting punched in the face, emotionally speaking. He was a journalist on sexual violence and its effects on people, among other topics. These are subjects we don’t want to hear about. But the value of his work is that no one else could do it. His words tear open our comfortable lives and implicate us in an ongoing cycle of misery and hate. You start to feel crazy, or maybe that he was crazy. While we peer over the cliff tentatively, Bowden tumbled into the abyss and never came back. Even his poetic travel writing pieces (like those in Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing, 2009) feel saturated with dark obsessions. He died in 2014 at the age of 69.
Before he was a writer, he was a professor, living the cushy university life (like I am, on the admin side). In an interview with Carrier, Bowden recounts why he quit to become a writer. He speaks forcefully, like someone who thought about it for years, regarding his decision in his late 20s to reinvent himself.
…I thought, I’m never gonna make it, I’ll be dead by thirty if I’m not a writer. I can’t live off money — it isn’t enough. What I realized was: I should only make money so I can go out and work. So that’s how I planned. I just make money to do work.
He goes on:
I’ll make it simple: if you can write, it’s a gift. You didn’t earn it. You know, if you can paint, it’s a gift; if you can compose music, it’s a gift. You can study to get better, but it’s still a gift. And if you betray a gift, just use it to make money, it goes away. It’s a sin to do that.
…What I experience, other people experience, but most of them can’t express it. If I can express it and don’t, then I’m sinning. Because I have the ability to do what they can’t do, to say what they feel. And so not to say it, to write advertising jingles instead, is a crime. I might as well be dead. Better you were never born.
In his harsh, loving way, Bowden points to the artist’s responsibility: if we have a voice, we should give it away (as much as we can).
Personally, I don’t want to dig too deeply into the dark world that preoccupied Bowden. But I do want to follow his example, delving into my own fixations. For the benefit of ourselves and others, we creators seek to shed some light on our peculiar abysses.
In my years of meandering after college, I fell in love with the music of singer-songwriter Chris Whitley (at the recommendation of my cousin). Whitley died young in 2005. He was a hell of a guitarist, drawn to open tunings on rusted acoustics, with an ear for warmth and dissonance, and a serpentine voice. His songs hold esoteric secrets in their simple melodies.
Once I was in a guitar shop on Bleecker St in Manhattan looking for Dobros — a type of resonator guitar known for their loud, sharp sound. The guy behind the counter, out of nowhere, said that Chris Whitley used to come in and play them. I was stunned. “What was he like?” I asked. “Good guy,” he said and looked down at his feet as if recalling a tragedy. “He was a real poet.” Then he spoke a line of Whitley’s from a song called ‘Scrapyard Lullaby’:
Mama gonna bring your anvil some wings.
On the subway home I was struck by a thought: Chris Whitley never knew how much his music meant to that guy in the guitar shop. This is true for all of us: you never really know what your work means to anyone else.
In a way, that realization is horrible. As artists, we are always lonely, longing for acceptance and praise. On the other hand, we can only do what feels right to us, acting according to our voice. If our work doesn’t bring fame and fortune, that’s not our problem; our role is to do our unique thing. The artist embraces the unknown, shouts into the void, and someone out there nods back silently.
Like so many, I was touched and astounded by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book Between The World And Me. Since reading it I’ve sought out Coates’s voice on podcasts, and have often thought of a moment at the end of an episode of The Ezra Klein Show from December 19, 2016. Around the 1 hour 31 minute mark, Coates advises young writers to lead a stable, disciplined life, so that their work can be adventurous and wild. He goes on:
…I’m not saying that you should have a child at a young age, but I had a child at a relatively young age and that had the beauty of clarifying things for me… Everything was clarified; this is the one thing I do — you know, I write, and the thing that… comes from that writing is hopefully some amount of money to feed this kid. That’s how the world works — it’s just that simple… It eliminated so much out of my life… And it gave me — this sounds crazy, right? It sounds like — you think about kids taking money and taking time, which they do, you know, they definitely do. But I think like, because I’m relatively conservative in my personal life, that allows me to be… flagrantly radical and liberal in my work…
I was surprised when I heard this, but something resonated. I don’t have a kid. But I do have elements of stability: a job, a significant other of eight years, a close group of friends, a family I love. I am fortunate to have this foundation on which I can build absurd castles of thought. Unlike Coates, creative work is not my primary income. In some ways, this fact is limiting: no one depends on my words for their life, so my commitment may falter. In other ways, it is liberating: I am free to explore and communicate what I like, what I am moved to say.
The theme of these three examples is giving. As Bowden says, we did not ask for any of our gifts of expression — they were given to us. As Whitley shows, our work may be meaningful to someone, even if we don’t know it. Lastly, Coates explains that responsibilities and obligations are not burdens, but a crucial part of creativity itself.
Why do we create? To pass on the gift of searching for meaning.
Ross J Edwards.
Photo credit: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), ‘Ocean Landscape at Night’