Songs for the Struggling Artist


Thinking about JK Rowling and also Marge Piercy, with special appearances by Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron

I’ve been thinking a lot about JK Rowling. And not just because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – oh, wait, maybe it IS because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – but in any case, I’m thinking of her and how she began.

When she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing Harry Potter, no one would have predicted that she’d be a gajillionaire years later. No one. And while she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing, I’m sure all around her, people shook their heads and wondered when she was going to get her act together. Now, in retrospect, JK Rowling’s poverty is a funny origin story but I’m sure, at the time, it was as difficult as anyone’s poverty can be.

JK Rowling has made me think about all the other broke people who wrote in coffee shops and didn’t end up with mega-book & movie deals. Her story has made me think about how all of them, those with deals and those without, were all just driven to do it, results or not.

And that is the beautiful thing and the horrible thing about those of us who just can’t help ourselves.

In an episode of the Girl On Guy podcast, Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron were talking about drive and failure. Tyler talked about how much mediocre work artists have to make before creating a great thing. For example, a furniture maker has to make nine mediocre chairs before the tenth one can be great. It’s a way to explain and get through those difficult failing times. And Maron took some umbrage. He told stories about failing and how awful it felt and then said this: “If you’re not driven by something you can’t even understand that’s within you, good luck with creativity.” (It happens at 1:08:15 in the podcast, in case you want to listen. It sounds better than it reads.)

I found myself refreshed by this point of view. There is a sense of liberation from releasing myself from trying to imagine some bright light at the end of this tunnel. No, there might not be a reward. If experience tells me anything it’s that there probably won’t be. It makes me think of Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Read the rest of it here: Marge Piercy’s For the Young Who Want To

The last line is:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I’ve had this poem pasted on my guitar case ever since I was a baby artist but I understand it differently now than I did when I mod-podged it there decades ago. It actually means more now than it did then. I think it is because I actually live it now.  When I first encountered the poem, I was one of the ones who wanted to. Now I am the one whose “hobby” gets more tedious to others the older I get. Embracing this thing in me that makes me make things, in the face of impossible odds, that causes people to worry about me, that is not socially acceptable (except in retrospect with a success story) feels like the next phase of the journey. I am not the Young one who wants to. I am the one who does.

For the post part, I’m not into the stereotype of the damaged artist. Usually, I steer myself clear of the suffering artist trope but maybe seeing that thing inside me that I don’t understand as a thing that won’t quit, seeing it as a fierce little demon, could actually give me some strength when all around me the world seems to be clucking its tongue and waiting for me to get it together.

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