09 Jul A Crisis of Purpose
My wife and I (we’ve been married for nearly 12 years and I still don’t feel 100% that I’m not just pretending to be a grown up when I write “My wife and I”) just got back from dinner at this great performance/film/dinner venue in Brooklyn. As we left I texted the babysitter to let her know that we were on the way. She hit me right back with the fact that she was sitting in our bed with both kids….. it was 10:40… so things clearly hadn’t gone great. Turns out it wasn’t so bad, especially since it was the first time they’ve had a sitter in many months. There was very little drama when we got home, thankfully, and they were in bed by 11-ish.
We had gone to see our friends 20 minute avant garde children’s show called “Wild Gotham” along with a few interesting musical acts. The films play on all four walls and wait people bring food and drink to the tables that surround the room. It’s the first time I’ve made it to this venue, and it’s really just an inspiring place. The food is great, and the whole space is set up in some senses as a shrine to creativity. Everyone who performs or shows a film there has to think about work that will fit the space. My wife and I rarely get to go out and do either adult like things- or wild youth like things- and this was kind of a combination of both- especially as most of the crowd was comprised of people we know from our pre-children days- and many of them now have kids as well. As such it was awesome.
On the way there I read a note from Alana so I was thinking of the creative journey that she’s on – and I had it in my head to kind of write an open letter to her in this space when I got home- to help her see what an enviable position she is in right now- with her youth, her talent, and her openness. Before sitting down to write I checked to see if she had written any more. She had posted a new piece on her blog. She writes that she is having a crisis over her sense of purpose. The letter that I was intending to write was a rebuttal to the ideas expressed in her post, because I knew she was struggling. This is the type of letter that I hope I am able to write to my own daughter in 10 or 15 years. I write it now in the frame of mind of a peer as much as a father. It’s kind of the letter that I wish my father had written me. In some ways he did- I tend to focus on the negatives in terms of how supportive he was- in fact on the surface he professed a great deal of support- what I am trying to be aware of is how powerful the subtle cues of non-support are. They are like little silent cluster bombs of negative energy that slowly sap confidence from those they hit…. or something like that. I try to be aware of them because I can feel myself doing the same thing with my daughter. Oh how easily we slip into the negative patterns of our past despite our vows not to…
There is nothing more powerful than pursuing your creative goals as purely as you can. When I was your age I struggled with many of the same doubts and fears. Unfortunately for me I did not overcome them as powerfully as I wish that I could have. When I was your age, when I was your age, when I was your age, I wasn’t nearly as mature as you are, and I undermined my own efforts because of many of the same doubts that you express.
Power is a word that keeps coming to my fingertips. You have so much power, yet you express a profound powerlessness. Part of the doubt must be a failure to appreciate your own power.
You are a powerful singer, you recognize this- yet you downplay the significance of it. This is not simply the gift of stringing notes together but instead of communication. You understand your skills as a communicator yet you doubt the worth of this skill.
At some point in high school I realized that projecting a sense of self confidence greased the wheels of social interaction and I learned to project an ever increasing sense of self ease. On one level that projection actually made me more self confident, and comfortable. At the same time the foundation was sand. Inside I was still riddled with doubt and a lowered sense of self worth. I wonder if you don’t have a bit of the same thing going on. When I talk to you- or see you interact with others- or perform- i see a powerful and confident soul- yet reading your writing I hear that you too struggle with doubts that seem less philosophical than personal.
In many ways your doubts and fears make perfect sense because you are embarking on a path that is unclear. In addition many of the ways in which you are living, and the community that you identify with, are absolutely anathema to the idea of taking your work seriously from a “career” point of view.
You write, “I am criticized by people already for even including income into my decision-making about whether or not to pursue music. “You shouldn’t do something for money, Alana- you should do it because you love it. As soon as you start thinking of it as work you’re cutting yourself off from the meaning of the art.”
This was something that I too internalized, and it’s one of the things that sabotaged my ability to get my work seen and heard as widely as possible. If the sentence read, “You shouldn’t do something ONLY for money” then it would have a great deal more relevance to it.
One of the best things you can be doing right now is exactly what you are doing- traveling outside of the US. Looking at your own culture from the outside should give you some much needed perspective. Sometimes when we are in a situation we can’t find a way to step back and evaluate it for what it is. The culture of America is so deeply identified with “success” and money that we sometimes lose sight of their value and their definition. What is success and what will feel like success is 10 years down the road?
Today on the donor sibling list serve a donor wrote the following note (go with me here- this is connected).
Am I cold hearted?
Wed Jul 8, 2009 5:47 pm (PDT)
I havent been a sperm donor for that long. Recently I told this lady by email I want no contact with the child after AI or NI…except for a few pics. Then she goes off on me about being cold hearted and mean. I’ve spent lots of $ travelling to help couples & singles get pregnant and never received a thank you.
This donor is so inside the loop of his own understanding that he doesn’t see why others might feel a need to know him- and on the other side the purchasers of his … essence… don’t appreciate him enough to say thank you. They are both so wrapped up in their unconscious feelings about the situation that they can’t understand where the other is coming from- By using the word unconscious I’m referring to the idea that we build up a set of understandings that we just take as a baseline without realizing it. When I first started looking into the realm of Donor issues I came across a researcher in California whose work illuminated the ways in which men and women are treated extremely differently in terms of their roles as donors. The overriding theme is that men’s roles are minimized and women’s are exalted. This may not have been your direct experience- but as I have written here – the whole experience for me was one that made me feel almost shameful about going to the lab- it was really kind of an awful experience. The researcher found similiar things in terms of the treatment and expectations surrounding men- and on the flip side that women were made to feel indispensable and valued. As an example, recipients of donor eggs were encouraged to write thank you letters to the donor.
The underlying idea here is that in this situation men are minimized and women are exalted to a degree that seems “normal” to most people. The point being – we all – as a community tend to internalize these ideas….. in an unconscious way. At times we need someone who doesn’t have a dog in the race, so to speak, to help us understand this- which is why we still refer to Alexis de Tocqueville outsider’s view of America when we want some perspective. Which brings me back to your sense of purpose. On many levels you have clearly internalized the idea that following your passion entails a lot of personal conflict. Perhaps you are only pursuing music because people complimented you on it and you like compliments- but you have also internalized the idea that thinking highly of yourself is a negative- so when you do accept the compliments you feel kind of icky and that perhaps you asked for them too much. Frankly these are all normal thoughts for a young person trying to find a way in the world. However, some sober reflection on them should help you separate the wheat from the chaff.
You may not believe this- but I think that you are already navigating these issues with greater aplomb then many people I know. To break it down- despite what you might have internalized in America- there is nothing overtly wrong, selfish, or evil about trying to live as an artist following your creative spirit. The sooner you can cease unconsciously feeling that there is something wrong with this the better. Don’t be torn by the idea that there is a more solid and comfortable path for you in the “straight” world. You may end up writing songs that people want to use in ads- but your life isn’t about writing songs for ads.
As you write- some people are better engineers- and they enjoy their work- some of these people wish they were more creative- the happiest ones appreciate their gifts and enjoy the creativity of others. I suggest that you do the same- focus on making the most powerful art that you can and appreciate the engineers for making trains that are efficient. Very few of us can live perfect lives in which we do no harm unto others and leave no footprint on the world around us. Yes there are 6.5 billion people in the world (or maybe 3.3 depends on who you ask), and many of them don’t have a lot of original ideas, but those of us that do, have a responsibility to challenge those that don’t.
So here is my advice to you, (as I wrote that I remembered the speech my father gave at our wedding- it was incredible and I will try to dig it up and post it here.)
1 Accept the fact that you are a powerful artist, and you will grow even more powerful as you accept this.
2 Embrace your role as an artist fully which means taking yourself seriously as an artist and not sabotaging your attempts to create a career as one. Art is work. It is meaningful to do work. Sometimes it’s harder to quantify in set ways- but it is still work- and from what I have observed of you- you value hard work- and thrive when working hard- recognize that sitting around in a room playing guitar might be enjoyable- and sometimes it may feel like ….work.
3 begin to set goals and strategies to reach those goals- I understand that both your social community and your instincts tell you that goals are bad- they are tools of the capitalist state- that once you set goals you are not longer a “real” artist- but those instincts and that community won’t pay your rent 10 years from now when you don’t have the energy and excitement that you do now.
Art and commerce will always make awkward partners but partners they must be.
By goals I mean simple things like setting a schedule for the release and support of a record.
Work on promoting your shows with fliers, busking, and ….publicity. send your record to writers in the towns you will play- alerting them to your shows- so that they can write about them. So that more people will come- the reason that you play to 10 people is not that you deserve to play to only 10 people- it’s that you aren’t doing the work needed to get people to your shows- and that work is either your responsiblity or someone elses- and if you can do it why not. You are not a bad person if you do ….. gasp…. marketing for yourself as a musician. You will always know what lines you don’t want to cross- at the same time- there are people who would love your music and your craft if they had a way to find out about it- not everyone is going to know about your shows from Facebook- so you have to do a little bit of work. i won’t think you are a bad person if you try to get a writer to write about your upcoming show-or a radio station to play your songs- in fact i’ll feel like you are self sabotaging fool if you don’t.
Respecting and promoting yourself as an artist is essential to being an artist. Ask any successful artist and they will tell you that making art is only a small part of their life- making a life that gives them the room to make art is what’s important. Part of that is making some money.
Trust yourself to know that you will make the right decisions when it comes time. I say this having not navigated those waters as successfully as I might have liked- and I’d hate for my newly adopted daughter to make the same mistakes I did.