Why do I do it?


At six, it was universal. We all drew, and painted, sang and sculpted. We were all architects and actors, potters and dancers. It was innate and natural.
I lived around the world as a child, in Lahore and London, in Pittsburgh and Canberra, studied at St. John’s and on a kibbutz. I could quickly fall in with any other kid and we’d pretend to be mountain climbers or scientists, we could build forts out of sofa cushions or turn a refrigerator box into a theater. I wrote and illustrated books. In a school play, I played a dog that saved a family from their burning house. I had an alter ego, Roger Watford, an English lord who smoked a pipe and carried a sword. I made pirate maps, soaked them in tea for verisimilitude. I wore my Halloween costume year round.
Twenty years later, I wore ties. I drew only when doodling on the phone. I never went to galleries or museums or playgrounds. I watched golf on TV.
I was not an artist any more.
When I was a eighteen, I wrote a college application essay on why I felt that writing rather than drawing was the more appropriate and useful medium of expression for me. It came down to a simple equation. Artists starved. Writing was useful in all aspects of business.
Princeton had a painting department. I assumed that its members were lazy, unwilling to take on a proper major or to attend a real art school. Architect students worked notoriously long hours. Fools, again. At best, I’d heard, they’d make $30 grand a year.
By twenty one, I’d become cynical, rigid and unimaginative. I was ready to get to work.
I had talked myself out of going to art school because I believed that the only way to make a living would be to be a ‘commercial’ artist which seemed horribly compromised. My experience working for a local paper had led me to believe that journalists were mere observers rather than participants. My friends who went into investment banking were total sellouts. Three months after graduation, I fell into advertising. It was a job, and got me out of my parents house.
For the next twenty years, it was what I did. I was “creative”. Noun, rather than adjective. In Harper’s, I read an essay that concluded ‘Creative people in advertising are artists “with nothing to say.” It seemed apt.
The advertising profession is divided into creatives and account people. Creatives are divided into art directors and copywriters. I was the latter and yet I drew more and better than the art directors I worked with. I had endless opinions about the visual side of the business but I was adamant that I was a copywriter. I would not be judged as a visual person. I was not an artist.
Despite all the meetings I sat through, all the product I moved, all the concessions and compromises I made, the urge to make things could not be completely quashed. First of all, I made ads. I worked with photographers and directors and editors and composers to make polished little 30 second turds. We all threw ourselves most fervently into these productions, being adamant about the tiniest things, the shade of blue of a models blouse, the placement of a comma. We would fall on our swords all the time, so intent were we to assert our creative will.
This inner artist plagued me like homosexuality must plague those still in the closet, I would jam it down, insisting it was impractical, that I was not good enough, that it was a huge waste of time and then that creative urge would pop its head out somewhere else
I was not a painter (though I did paint at home, balancing huge canvases on my dining room chairs because I would not commit to having an easel).
But I was not really a Writer either and stopped writing the fiction I had pumped out in school.
When I was twenty three, I wrote a play and some producers started to raise money to put it on. We did a reading and Kevin Bacon played the lead. I did nothing to help. The production grew until the plans were to try to open it Off-Broadway at the Henry Miller theater, then on Broadway itself. I stood by. Eventually the plans grew so big, they collapsed. I did nothing to revive the play. I’m not sure if I still even have a copy.
Three different times, I bought myself a keyboard and set up music lessons. Each time, I sabotaged myself after a week, missing practice and lessons because I was so busy at work.
I designed and built the furniture for our apartment out of birds’ eye maple. But then told myself we could afford to replace it at Ikea.
I got a book contract to write a book of highly subjective funny essays about New York bars. I wrote 250 pages but then my editor left the house. My new editor wanted to make changes. I refused. The book faded away but I held on to the advance.
I would come home and cook, hand grinding spices, rolling out raviolis, shopping for months for the perfect knife, making elaborate dishes that I would eat by myself, standing over the sink. I worked hard on what I wore, scouring vintage stores for hand made suits, collecting hundreds of ties, dressing and redressing myself to get the look just so.
Someone gave me a harmonica and I kept it in the shower where I would play it till the pipes ran cold. Whenever someone in our family had a birthday, I would develop elaborate themes to my presents and print my own wrapping paper.
I saw every movie that came out, hundreds a year, telling myself it was part of my job and tax deductible to boot, I watched them intently, memorizing camera placements, noting editing techniques, the names of key grips.
I made my girlfriend elaborate hand made gifts. I wrote and illustrated books for her, even epic poems. I convinced my boss to let me have a laser printer in my office, and then worked behind closed doors to print my books on special papers, to make slip cases and design my own type. I would finesse each piece over and over, readjusting the kerning, the leading, till it was perfect. I worked for months on each item, a single edition of one book. I was doing it for my love. But I didn’t deal with the fact that I was doing it because I had to.
Long before we became parents, I made intense home movies, costuming Patti and driving her to interesting locations. I drove her in a car I had bought simply because it was beautiful, a 1962 Mercury Monterey that was 18 feet long and two tone, cornflower blue and white. It was completely impractical, far too big for Manhattan and I rarely drove it but I polished it and reupholstered it, a gleaming feast for the eye.
Fade out.
Another decade passes. I am married. I have gained a son and thirty pounds.
My career has continued to climb. I am at the top of my field, running the creative department of an agency.
But I am suffocating.
I am under enormous pressure to make other people produce creative ideas. Money is inextricably wound up in everything. All our efforts are judged and harshly.
I slowly came to realize I have been leading a false life for so long, that I am not who I am pretending to be. I have been using my ability to make things purely in terms of how it will provide money to my family, There is no joy in the process. The things I make are completely at the behest of others, I am making advertising campaigns for investment banks, for people who sell weapons systems, for chemical producers and management consultants. I am making more money than ever have and yet I fell completely bankrupt. Nothing I do is for me. I am bitter and insomniac.
A few years before, I had found one outlet that meant a lot to me. I had begun an illustrated journal and had become quite good at drawing the little things I encountered every day. I took a class in bookbinding and learned to make my own journals. For a while, it was a great escape. But then I’d stopped that too. My position as creative director meant there was no time for such things, for the folderol of making things that did not contribute to the agency’s bottom line. I locked my journals away and for five years I focused exclusively on my job, twelve hours a day. My wife grew distant but I didn’t notice. I had no friends outside of work but no time for them in any case. Whatever little burblings of creativity used to have, that I channeled into cooking and fashion and gifts was 100% channeled into servicing clients.
The camel’s back finally broke.
Through my job I started to meet some of the top graphic designers, people like Stefan Sagmeister, Woody Pirtle, Paul Sahre, and as I talked to them, I found myself admitting how much I hated what I did, how lost I felt. I was supposed to be their client but I treated them like mentors. I so envied their lives, making all sorts of things for people, working on their own projects, committing themselves to social change, turning down work if they felt it was wrong, living on a fifth of what I was making and seeming well rounded and complete. Finally one of them suggested I get back to my journaling. Hesitantly, I did.
I let art back in the door and suddenly the walls started to crack. Within a month, I had a book contract. A few months later, I had a second, this one to publish my illustrated journals. Before long, I had an agent and was no longer a creative director.
Instead, I was me.