Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?
If no one ever died, Vincent van Gogh would be one-hundred sixty-five years-old today. That I just wrote about him yesterday is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware it was his birthday eve. The fact is he looms large, year-round. His name arises nearly as frequently as Picasso’s. One thing I mentioned in my post yesterday is the obscurity van Gogh suffered–a strange reality given his enduring post-mortem fame and adulation. Will there be an opposite phenomenon in-place for certain artists who are famous in life right now, like Yayoi Kusama or Damien Hirst, where their names are lost at death while people we’ve never heard of make it into the Art History books? If I live to be a hundred-and-sixty-five, I guess I’ll know.
The art gods are fickle, conferring success on some and denying it to others, sometimes regardless of merit, and then often reversing those fates when artists die. It would seem cruel, if it weren’t that there was no one to blame. Those so-called art gods are really only projections of public taste, which is guided by markets and art criticism, among other factors. The whole business is quite subjective, i.e., subject to human whim, which can be negligent.
All of this makes for a slightly uninteresting blog post–kind of an “everybody knows this” type situation. But today being Vincent van Gogh’s birthday got me thinking about the unpredictability of fortune, how she shines on a few and ignores the vast millions. When I moved to Nashville in 2001, of course I knew that people came here with big dreams about the music business (I was one of them), but I was naive as to the extent of it. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized the city positively crawls with deserving musicians, and by deserving, I don’t simply mean there are lots of talented people here. What I mean is they’ve committed their lives to the pursuit of music–to the dream of making “it”–to the degree they deny themselves, sometimes their whole lives, the traditional avenues to fulfillment, like marriage or career or education or parenting. Their work ethics are unmatched, endlessly perfecting their craft, working crappy jobs in order to survive, developing every detail of performance and persona, for hours and hours, which soon become days, months, and years. Throw a rock into any joint in Nashville, and you’ll hit ten people who could feasibly pull off a full-time, professional music gig. Yes, they’re that densely concentrated here. But you’ll never know their names.
So goes the internal conversation for a writer who’s deep in his first novel. Though I’d like to write more often, I’m largely happy with my progress. About three-fourths of my original length goal has been committed to Word, and I have a routine in place that should get me to the end of my first typed draft before the year’s up, maybe. Hopefully.
An artist’s influences are never far from his work, perhaps, and there’s always the danger of derivation, or the temptation to outright mimic. A little thrill moves through me whenever I write something I think Virginia Woolf could’ve written, so I understand the temptation. But no one can out-Virginia Virginia. Therefore, then, the task becomes figuring out how to simply do Alan. This is the part demanding artistic grit–the part that only the artist can discover, and usually only after years of working. A writer’s voice can’t be gifted him from a well-meaning source, and it can’t be borrowed. Few are the Mozarts, who seem to have been born with their gift; many more are the van Goghs, who labor in obscurity. (Van Gogh would’ve been quite amused by the modern conception of him as a tortured genius; tortured he was, but only two or three thought him even talented, much less a genius.) The question I have for the universe is this: will I know when I find my voice?
I got down about six-or-seven-hundred words today. Through the large plate-glass window of my early-morning Starbucks, I could see the steady rain. The gray dawn looked wintry, but the actual outside air was more like room-temperature. Some of what I wrote, I liked, but just as much will improve with the second writing. In the meantime, I will work, and if I work enough, then maybe my writerly voice will come.