Often, stories of artists’ lives paint them as artists from birth, said to have been never without a pencil to scribble with as soon as they could hold one, whether they grew up to be fine artists or writers. It is one of the most enviable qualities in a human, surely, that they knew what they wanted to do with their lives, what they wanted to ‘be’, from such a young age; that they had endless years to pursue and perfect their desires.
All of this is very off-putting to the rest of us.
You rarely hear about the people who ran through a host of decades without ever picking up a brush or touching a typewriter. Oh, there’s the occasional Mary Wesley type, who gets their first bestseller at 70-odd years old, a source of hope to late bloomers everywhere. But when you get to know a little about these marvels, you discover that they, too, began a neighborhood newspaper — complete with accomplished cartoons — at five; were the leading literary light in their primary school; won the County Art Fair at fourteen; or have been writing daily, or drawing, throughout their lives, but perhaps only “for themselves”.
It was this body of myths and legends, I believed, that stopped me - that I allowed to stop me - from becoming any kind of artist. I had mere skirmishes with the creative. I danced through my childhood, acted through my teens, stitched pillows and crafted papier mache bowls in my twenties, and drew exactly four intriguing pencil sketches in my thirties. Now and then I’d read about some lawyer like me who, as in my dreams, quit the law to become a writer.
She would get up at 530 every morning, drink green tea, go for a six mile run, tend her garden, eat an apple and a slice of homemade bread, then settle down to hammer out an entire chapter, with seeming ease, before lunch with her lover. I, lacking any such drive, discipline, focus, or infrastructure, would immediately quell the artist hammering at my ribs to get out, and go back to constructing boring legal articles for pointless legal journals.
When I was young, I believed that artists were born, not made. Later, I came to think that artists were made, not born. Either way, I held myself up to these other histories, these impossibly rigid and wholesome daily schedules and self-controls, and felt too inadequate even to begin. I read a mountain of books about how to write without ever writing a word outside the workplace. After a while, it became … what would you call a combination of masturbation and procrastination, psychologically-speaking? Is there a word for that? There should be a word for that. I’ll bet German has one.
But at fifty-ish, something miraculous occurred. All of a sudden, I knew that to be an artist is simply to be a child again, but with keener eyes. You don’t have to run daily to write. You just have to write. And keep writing. Because you want to, for the sheer joy of it. You don’t have to be insane, or French, or a former child savant, to be an artist. You just have to enjoy playing with paper and colour, and trust the click inside that tells you when to stop. Connect the dots you see in the world, fill the empty spaces. Then, if you want to, throw what you’ve done at the walls of the world outside and see if anything sticks; walls that once you built inside, out of fear.
Writing and reading create silvery threads that connect people through time and space. Someone, somewhere, will think, oh my god! Yes, that, I saw that too. Does it mean anything to make these little connections? It feels like it means something. Only connect, said Forster. ‘Live in fragments no longer.’
It dawned on me one morning that life itself is an art, each person’s lifetime a work of art, whether Van Gogh’s Starry Sky or a velvet Elvis painting. Each day lived can be a poster, a painting, a short story, a performance. And what works in life works in creation, what works in creation works in life. There are no rules per se, no permissions. Only some simple truths, the first of which is: get out of your own way, and stop thinking that other lives, other ways of being, somehow have a power stronger than the artist within each of us. Honour inspiration.