Accidental Artist, a letter of sympathy

Abbi Hendrix with the wreckage

I didn’t mean to kill us both, but when the car went out of control I thought to myself that you would deserve it if we both did actually die.
— Abbi Hendrix

Who is the monster? The creator of the monster, or the monster himself? This isn't a question I could have asked ten years ago. But the times are much more desperate. Not because of the banks or global warming or war or virus. Despair in my neighborhood of buppies, guppies and yuppies spreads among us because our lives are spent as spectators and customers, consumers and witnesses, but never as creators. We live in heroic times, but who is a hero?

The Olympics are just over, and who won what? Will we buy more cereal, will we buy a better shampoo or toothpaste because of the games? Will we covet the corporate swastikas of Nike and Coca Cola? If we don't buy the products, will we at least emblazon their logos across our breasts? I didn't watch a minute, couldn't, because the nationalism makes me gloomy and because the very act of watching the television makes me stupid. My friend Anton mentions swimmer Michael Phelps, and I sneer in response. Anton is surprised; look at what Phelps has accomplished, he says. I retort: Who won the swimming golds in 1956 or 1932 or even 1996? Nobody will remember Michael Phelps in twenty years, and he has carelessly spent a lifetime in the shallow perfection of swimming more quickly than anyone else. Now what will he do? Write a beautiful poem?

And I think this oblivion of purpose is causing the malaise we are all admitting. But are we admitting it? The word "treadmill" keeps coming up as an adjective for our careers in my conversations. The boredom is mighty. The stress, shattering. But we don't drop out or spend everything for the slim possibilities of creativity or look at the sky and taste the soil to relax. We work harder, clench our jaws a bit tighter, schedule more one-hour yoga classes, and watch our heros aim for the record books. We learn from the the Olympic swimmers that technique and torque will make us better at what we do, and become convinced we can jog and shop at Whole Foods to be healthier human beings. Time passes, and instead of seizing it we sell it for pennies. Why?

The singer writes me from Hollywood and is worried about her identity. She has wasted her time and her finances and also feels as if she is aging. But still she presses forward. She wants a sign that the looming depression in her mind might be worthy of becoming its own work of art. She wants a sign from me. Who else has so wasted his time and money while getting uselessly (and dangerously) older, than me? My mother died almost four years ago and I got a tax-free check for $220,000. That money is gone, spent on my illusions. Before that, I got a check for $118,000 from a refinancing of one house, and $54,000 from the refinancing of another, and both houses are now in foreclosure; officials from the banks, the mortgagors, and the credit agencies fall into absolute delight when they reach me on the phone and I regale them with solutions to their personal problems. I've recorded dozens of conversations with people looking to collect who quickly realize that I have a much tastier nectar to offer: "Quit, split, find a big sky where you don't hear the commerce crackling every second into your ear, move to a place with no billboards and comb the beach for baby turtles you can throw into the waves before the gulls eat them for lunch, save yourself because nobody else will, especially nobody who is in the business of saving souls," etc., and you can hear it in the recordings, they are all cooing in agreement, with church-like rapture. Yes, quit, split. Sounds good, but how?

When I was in Bolivia a shaman told me the story of the coca leaf. Yatiri, the great god of the Andes, was approached by the dispirited people: We are cold, and we are tired and we are hungry, they said. The foreigners are enslaving us and killing us, what can we do? Yatiri pointed at the coca leaf growing in the dirt and said: "Chew this plant and you will not feel cold, not feel hunger, and never be tired, but any foreigner who tastes this leaf will be wrecked into pieces." Fifteen years ago, who would have said the same thing about the Internet? The web might make us geniuses, I agree, but when do we look at the sky, touch the trees, and swim in the Sea? We get our measly week, annually, let off the leash? Every single person I greet agrees vehemently with me when I say: "I'm wasting my life on the bloody computer, blowing my brains out on the Internet." Instant recognition, infinite empathy. 

Television, the cushy career, the blooming family, the Internet, can these really be the recipe for a life flushing down the drain? My life? The only one I will ever have, slave to some institution's bottom line, bartered for deathbed comfort, spent in the bleachers cheering on my heros as they aim for those silly record books? When do I have a chance to ignite a moment of wonder? Tethered by anchors, will I ever soar to the heights I imagined? Moments of creativity and the endless universes they illuminate are kept in the dark by the responsibilities of the beehive. But am I a bee, or am I me? 

So the singer in Hollywood is fucked, let's face it. Because she is despairing now when her years of sacrifice and energy should have taught her that being creative is a social suicide. Creativity erodes friendship, cheapens all family endeavor, erases careers. The Hollywood singer knows this, better than anyone. She has spent all of herself into something she might now abandon. That would be the ultimate work of her art, if she was ready for silence now. Except one thing nags her forward: What has she created? Which melodies, what timbre, which emotional crush that reduces an audience to tears because her sublime expressions attest to her sympathy for people with wasted lives, even as she stands in the spotlight of her very own ruin? 

In 2005, I hired the Internet's greatest pin-up model, the pornstar Kyla Cole, and drove with her for six weeks in Oaxaca and Chiapas and Belize as she acted out the character who will always break my heart: the woman who would leave me to keep our love affair perfect before it is killed by familiarity. Halfway through the shoot, she began to argue with me about my own invented character! A woman in love would never act like this, she would say. And of course in such a role she fell in love and tried to kill us. She drove my Toyota 4-Runner into the side of a mountain at 60 mph and in the crash I ended up on the other side of her, pressed between her in the driver's seat and the driver's seat window. We clambered out of the wreck, and a song was still playing on the dashboard. It was a song written by the Hollywood singer, and we'd been listening to it over and over and over and over and over while we played this lethal game of love. It was meant to be that we survived, said Kyla, because now we will know what happens to the lovers in your story. I've never forgotten that line. Whenever I hear that Hollywood singer's song, I remember what happens to the lovers in my story. They burn out, as all lovers do. Maybe this isn't what the Hollywood singer meant to accomplish with her song. But it is certainly what her song wanted to do, because somebody should die in such marvelous conditions while listening to it, even if the singer herself cannot.

And that's my point, in this ramble about creativity and the treadmill.

In one hundred years, nobody will know who you were. They won't trace you back by your genes, since anyone born then will have less than 2% of your genetic influences in their genome. Do you think anyone will watch a Tom Cruise movie in 2112? What swimmer will be compared to Michael Phelps one hundred years from now? Sherwood Anderson was the world's bestselling author one hundred years ago. Ever heard of him? Ever going to read him? Will anyone know about your career or your family or your songs? And that's in 100 years. What about 200 years? Or one thousand?  

The despair that comes with acknowledging oblivion is impossible to admit. The insurance policies of hoping we might be able to play in the band with Jesus or that there is some sort of non-religious power that will reunite us with grandma are infantile denials of reality, which all of us admit by entering the beehive every day to work our asses off. If there is a heaven, later, why in the world would we suffer our jobs and boredoms, now? But here's the crucial spear to chuck at our creative selves: Creativity, the urge to make something as useless as art, is the most effective denial of death and oblivion. A sculpture, a poem, a well-built canoe, a melody; all of these might cheat death's grip and live beyond your existence. (Not a photograph, sorry!) The person who creates a piece of art with one eye on the resultant price tag is as lost as an ambulance chaser or dispenser of bandaids, because no art survives that cynical birthmark. What lawyer or doctor has a chance to be remembered? His decision, yes, or her cure, perhaps, but what of their senses survives? Lincoln loved to read, we know, but did Madame Curie play the violin? Einstein played the violin, and is that why we quote his marvelous line: "Imagination is more important than knowledge"? 

Of course there are professions and crafts and hobbies that are worth more than any artist's inspirations, but it's funny that every human being harbors an inclination for self-expression. Especially for music. But who can explain it? For thousands of years, humans decorated caves (and outside rocks) with prints of their hands. And then one day somebody put the dye in their mouth and sprayed it over their hand spread against the cave wall, and made a negative image. Was this the first artistic abstraction? Thirty thousand years ago! Flutes made from mammoth and swan bones are even older. Who played what tunes on them? The urge to invent art was common in every human being in Africa 60,000 years ago, and every human being alive today is descended from those people, who may have numbered as few as several thousand shortly before migrating North and East, out of Africa. Where is that urge now, suppressed how and released when? The hopeless, helpless addict, never compensated, lives only to imagine, and dies protecting his or her inventions. Goya, van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Gaudi, Kafka, broke or broken at the end of their lives. Shakespeare got rich, but not by writing: then, as now, real estate provides.

So for a singer in Hollywood, there can only be more suicide. More expense, more passion and energy, robbed from family and friends and poured into a creation, even a creation that comes stillborn and gets buried without celebration. If she is lucky, this suicide will lead to an ending where she is a canvas for her songs and nothing else. How could anyone be frightened of dying if they knew a force larger than life really did dictate the terms of their existence? If you cannot give your life for your songs or your art, what kind of a life do you have? The silly idea that a song or a piece of art can rob you of your identity is not really silly, is it? I find it comforting. When death comes, we should know why we were living. The Hollywood singer either lives to cheat death, or she can back out now from the precipice of her own self-destruction and spend the rest of her life acknowledging that once upon a time she was ready to kill herself for love but decided that love wasn't worth it. Who makes that admission, even if they live it?

If you're not ready to be killed by it, how could love be worth anything? The singer can transpose this last note about love into a song about the life of a chanteuse: If you weren't born to sing, why die trying?