When Prince died I was writing an IT proposal to get a Federal contract. If you’d have told me that either of those things (Prince dying at 57, me leaving commercial art for filthy lucre) when “Purple Rain” came out – I would have punched you. Making accommodations to self-sufficiency were still years off, and I had years of struggle and failure ahead of me, I lived in a bubble of artistic delusion. I’m writing today to say, I wasn’t all wrong.
Around the time I was hoping to meet a “Darling Nikki”, I came to know the family of a high school friend who lived up the street. Super nice family (that they lived next door to the two most beautiful girls in school may have been a contributing factor to my visits), and I noticed their Dad who worked at the post office had a drafting table in the basement. It was clearly unused.
I was shown his old work from when “he was an artist”, he was good, too good to become a postman – which to my young mind was tantamount to lobotomizing yourself. All I saw was the stacks of old art, not noticing the nice house, family and accouterments of middle-class life. I imagined I saw a sadness in him, he may have just been tired, but I he’d become the anti-avatar of my world view. Art was important. Other things weren’t. At the time, artists like Prince and Springsteen were my avatars, profoundly successful and living their art.
Time passed, Prince and Warner Brothers got locked in the grubby reality of the commerce of art, The Boss married Julianne Phillips, I experienced a classic Dickensian comeuppance leaving me penniless and questioning my faith in my world view (and self-evident genius). I started learning the energy exchange of sacrifice for food. I got my first paying gig as an illustrator and graphic artist. The reality didn’t match the dream, I was surrounded by beaten old men (younger than I am now) whose lives were my future if I was successful. After five years I rebelled without a cause, quit my job and moved to the west coast with a crazy person.
Time passed, I grew further from my vision of life as an artist, my stint with said crazy person left me financially destitute and adrift. Digging myself out of the money hole required a level of fevered dedication to getting better at making money. I became the very image of a company man, I smoked to stay wired, I drank to kill the voice that said I was betraying myself.
Time passed, I feared (really, not hyperbole) that my imagination was “broken”, that I was no longer able to create anything of value. I’d gotten so good at the money thing I quit the job and took a year off to write a book. I didn’t finish it, but I got far enough, and loved what I’d started enough, to lose the fear I’d lost the part of me I most valued. I went back to corporate prostitution, I enjoyed the work I did, and I let the creative spark slip back under the covers.
Time passed, I took another sabbatical and finished the novel, and another one, plus thirty-odd story treatments I created so I’d never have an excuse of “not having an idea” to not create. I’d returned to work, but kept up my productivity. This lasted a few years, and hit a wall about six months ago, I’m working on a third novel and lost track of it as I began an new job. Then Prince died, and I started writing again, like my life depended on it.
My child-self was wrong about romantic fantasy of the tortured artist life (cigarettes, whisky, black t-shirts, doom), not about the need to create. When I think about heroes now it’s not the spectacular successes like Prince, Bowie and Springsteen – it’s about one-hit wonders. The Aldo Nova’s, Men at Work’s and Duncan Sheik’s of the world. They put in the hard work, got to the pinnacle (or close to it) then had to figure out how to eat when the success couldn’t be replicated. All of them know what it’s like to be in the arena, and can look in pity at the timid souls who point and call them jokes.
What I’m getting at is what’s been known for ages, Dylan Thomas said it best “Do not go gentle into that good night”. I’ve let my fire shrink to the tiniest of embers many times in my life, but fought to keep that smallest of sparks alive. If you have a creative desire you’ve long thought too late to revivify, I implore you to do the same. Regret is for suckers, martyrdom is for suckers – create and seek out those who create, life is long if you know how to use it.
Old age isn’t a function of calendars, it’s a function of character. You can surrender your creative spark and grow old at 20, 30, 40 or 50 and beyond – it never really dies, but you do.
“Old age should burn and rage at close of day;