This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.
I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.
We just got back to New York after a month in California. We went west because November had been so awful and cold in NY and we couldn’t bear the idea of an unbroken stretch of winter reaching long over the horizon. So we borrowed a friend’s house near the beach in Venice, then moved inland to a Spanish revival house (above) on a big piece of land in Echo Park.
It was admittedly quite a luxury to flee and cross the country but it wasn’t a vacation. JJ and I spent much of each day sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, working away at our laptops, while the rain beat against the windows and the wind howled through the palm trees. It’s great to have job you can do from anywhere on earth with access to wifi!
When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had to pick a major. It seemed like the one crucial decision that would determine my life’s path. I sweated over it for months.
There were certain disciplines it was easy to eliminate, the ones that had always seemed like Greek to me. Math. Physics. Chemistry. Greek. History was sorta interesting but I couldn’t stand memorizing dates. Economics? Of course not, I wasn’t going to become a businessman. Art? Give me a break. Who majors in art at Princeton?
English? Well, I loved and devoured books but I wasn’t sure what an English degree would give me. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. Or an academic writing books about other people’s books.
But I’d always loved to write. Stories. Essays. Articles for the school paper. If I could write for a living, I knew I surely would be happy.
When you make something with no consideration of the outside world, no interest in other people’s opinions, no desire to find a market for your product, but just simply because it expresses how you feel, because you find it interesting, because it something you want to do — your creation is authentic.
Being authentic does have a price. You may not be compensated as handsomely as if you created something designed just to satisfy others (but then again, you might). But it’ll compensate you in other ways that are much more meaningful and lasting —like insight, community, credibility, beauty, value and truth.
I spent a lot of time in school learning to conjugate latin verbs. I ground my way through trigonometry. The dates of medieval wars. I memorized the key exports of African countries, the table of elements, and the names of all the US vice presidents.
But I never, ever studied the very thing I’ve made a living from my entire adult life.
A few nights ago, my boy Jack and I went for a drink at a dive bar near our life-drawing class. We’d spent three hours in a warm room drawing a naked lady and it was time for a beer and further discussion of a central question: why were we doing it?
What was the point of filling up paper (or my case, an iPad screen) with lots of drawings of a stranger? Was it art? Was it exercise? What should we think about the drawings we’d made. Should we share them with other people? Should we hold on to them? What had those three hours been for?
The central question is one that Jack has been asking himself a lot since graduating from art school: why continue to make art?
I love New York but it can be way too much — and the last few months have pushed me to the limit. The streets have been too damned jammed with holiday tourists and texting millennials. The pre-dawn construction project down the block had been going on for too damned long. And winter came too damned early and frigid this year.
JJ and I concluded we had to get out of Dodge, sit in the sun and eat clementines. Now we’re in LA for a month and my sluggish brain is starting to thaw.
On Friday, I shared the news of losing my hound Joe, my cancer diagnosis and my surgery and so many people sent me touching notes of support and encouragement. I’m immensely grateful to have a lot of friends to share my life’s ups and downs.
I’ll be honest though, I was a little reluctant to share this news with you or really anyone. I’ve known that something was going to happen to me since early in the summer but what exactly it would be crept up in increments. Sharing my doctor’s suspicions with anyone but my closest relatives would have seemed unnecessarily upsetting.
The last few months have been wonderful for me. And simultaneously rather awful. But the awful stuff has inspired me, perhaps more than the good. That’s the nature of the creative process, isn’t it? To take the manure of life and use it to fuel new growth.
So many of my favorite artists turned adversity into raw material. Van Gogh was fueled by his isolation and mental illness into a turbo–charged creativity machine that cranked out another startling painting virtually every day. Frida Kahlo, whose body was crisscrossed with scars from polio and from being run over by a bus, turned her disabilities, her awful marriage, her abortions and miscarriages into the sources for her brilliant work. Hockney faced homophobia; Basquiat racism; Bacon, Goya, Picasso were all inspired by the terrors of war.
A couple of years ago, I looked in the mirror as I struggled to button my trousers and said, “You fat bastard, get to the gym.” I dutifully signed up for a gym membership, got a trainer and vowed earnestly to show up. My initial physical assessment was depressing. I was fat indeed. But, energized by novelty, I showed up at my first appointment with visions of a lithe me doing handsprings in my head.
God, it was grueling. I was red faced and puffing a few minutes into the session. I clearly had an awfully long way to go. How would I stick to it rather than retiring to a pint of ice cream on the couch? The financial commitment was somewhat helpful; I’d optimistically bought an expensive package of training sessions so I couldn’t very well blow it off outright. Instead I just started to space the sessions further and further apart, from three weekly sessions to one that I managed to fill with chitchat rather than cardio.