What You Leave Behind

Cartoon by Pictures for Sad Children.

This is a response to “All the Things,” a blog post by Random9q, which is in turn a response to Bullish Ink‘s guest post from earlier this week. Lately with this blog, I’ve aspired to be either pedagogical or humorous — optimally, both at the same time. This entry is a bit more personal — which is not an apology so much as a warning of possible self-absorption ahead.

In her blog post, Random talks about all the things she wants to do, and the overwhelming, sometimes crushing realization that there isn’t enough time in one’s life to do All the Things. In my experience, it’s easy to turn one’s creative drive into a terrifying binary situation where you either indulge all your creative pursuits, or none of them. Or, you may end up being what Ruth calls a “dabbler,” indulging in a little bit of everything, but not doing all that well at any of them.

I suspect this is a common occurrence among creative types — I know a lot of artists both struggling and established, and most of them have polymath aspirations to one degree or another. Writers who are musicians, musicians who are actors, actors who are writers, and so on.

I’ve also been through it myself — and I’m convinced that the key to the Creative Life™ — if we are to capitalize it so breathlessly — is this: The Creative Life is less about what you take with you than what you leave behind.

It comes down to this: craft takes time and hard work. Mastery of craft can take years, probably decades. And building a paying career out of that craft — that’s its own struggle, with its own pitfalls, separate from the act of creation itself.

I think the youthful idealist in many of us dreams of forging a masterpiece from nothing more than the very fire of our souls, and watching as the world catches its breath in astonishment. Hollywood and the infrequent shooting stars of publishing have romanticized the idea of being “discovered” like Audrey Hepburn and whisked into humbling (yet well-deserved) fame, without all that grueling, boring, unsexy legwork.

And if one such vision is compelling, than what about half a dozen? Write the novel, direct the film adaptation of your novel, write the soundtrack, and star in the lead! Why not, right? Shit, program the video game tie-in too while you’re at it, you’ve got nothing going on that week.

I’m not saying everyone thinks this, but if you’re a writer, I’ll bet it’s crept into your daydreams a time or two. And a fine dream it is. But that’s all it is.

To play off an Internet meme: finite creature is finite. Our time and our energy are woefully limited commodities, already divided a hundred different ways among the hungry goblins of our lives. Jobs, families, friends, social commitments, the inconvenient need for food and sleep: all these things, fulfilling as they are, nibble away at our time. And so we have to fit our creative lives into what space is left.

To be successful — to really excel — you’ve got to make room. A whole lot of room. And, unfortunately, it’s probably going to hurt.

Years ago, I used to make electronic music. I learned a lot, and made a lot of progress. I’d almost say I was halfway to good. But then I gave it up.

I used to draw comics, thinking at one point that maybe I’d try that out as a career. I gave that up too.

I used to have a room full of video games. Video games were my life. Hours a day, every day. Gave ’em up.

I don’t regret doing those things, because they were a blast — but neither do I regret leaving them behind, because I gave up those things for a reason: to focus on my writing. Because when I sat down and thought about it, writing was the only thing I would genuinely regret not being serious about. At the end of my life, I didn’t imagine myself thinking, “man, I sure wish I had played more Halo than I did.”

Because it’s entirely possible for you to die with your life’s work to go undone, if you are careless. And, if you don’t let that thought terrify you into paralysis, the knowledge can be a hell of a motivator.

A couple of caveats.

I’m not advising that you laser-focus on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. Not only is that likely to hurt your creativity in the long run, but you run the risk of ending up a crashing bore. Indulge your diversity. But distinguish between passion and hobby, because they are not the same thing.

Nor am I saying that a diverse range of skills isn’t possible; obviously, it is. Many actors, for example, go on to produce and direct, and quite successfully — but they usually do that after making dozens of movies, immersing themselves in their craft for years, learning it from the inside out.

A few prodigals have no doubt mastered all at once, but you may have to make peace with the fact that you might not be one such gifted soul. And I’ll be the first one to say that blows. But there it is.

Of course, Random was talking about game design, which I’m sure takes a broader range of talents than just writing — but you may end up having to outsource and delegate. I’m not really good at that kind of thing, which is why the solitary act of writing has always suited me better.

My point is this: You don’t have to feel bad about dabbling. You don’t have to harbor guilt over doodling around with your guitar when you should be writing, or composing epic porn sonnets while your film goes unedited, or whatever it is you’re doing when you think you should be doing something else.

Dabbling is fine — but you have to realize that you’re dabbling. You have to decide what you’re really serious about. You have to choose that thing. And you have to give up other things. Things you like a lot.

And that’ll suck. But it will suck less than letting the One Thing That Matters lie fallow because you’re afraid to truly commit to it.

You cannot have all the things. Sorry.

And when I say “you,” I guess I really mean “me,” because this is the conversation I had with myself a long time ago, and it started changing my entire world. If you’re letting your desire to do everything keep you from doing anything, then maybe it’s time you had a talk with yourself.