I have said, in various contexts, that I would have to kill myself if I couldn’t write. That isn’t hyperbole.
Here in no particular order are the activities and aspirations that don’t work for me (and I’ve tried them all extensively, as I imagine you have too if you’re committed to any kind of creative calling).
Money doesn’t work. Success. Family life, domestic bliss, service to country, dedication to a cause, however selfless or noble. None of these works for me.
Identity association of all kinds (religious, political, cultural, national) is meaningless to me. Sex provides no lasting relief. Nor do the ready forms of self-administered distraction—drugs and alcohol, travel, life on the web. Style doesn’t work, though I agree it’s pretty cool. Reading used to help and still does on occasion. Art indeed, but only up to a point.
It doesn’t work for me to teach or to labor selflessly for others. I can’t be a farmer or drive a truck. I’ve tried. My friend Jeff jokingly claims that his goal is world domination. That wouldn’t work for me either. I can’t find peace of mind as a warrior or an athlete or by leading an organization. Fame means nothing. Attention and praise are nice but hollow. “Winning Wimbledon,” as Chris Evert once said, “lasts about an hour.”
Meditation and spiritual practice, however much I admire the path and those who follow it, don’t work for me.
The only thing that allows me to sit quietly in the evening is the completion of a worthy day’s work. What work? The labor of entering my imagination and trying to come back out with something that is worthy both of my own time and effort and of the time and effort of my brothers and sisters to read it or watch it or listen to it.
That’s my drug. That’s what keeps me sane.
I’m not saying this way of life is wholesome or balanced. It isn’t. It’s certainly not “normal.” By no means would I recommend it as a course to emulate.
Nor did I choose this path for myself, either consciously or deliberately. I came to it at the end of a long dark tunnel and then only as the last recourse, the thing I’d been avoiding all my life.
When I see people, friends even, destroying their lives with pills or booze or domestic violence or any of the thousand ways a person can face-plant himself or herself into non-existence, I feel nothing but compassion. I understand how hard the road is, and how lightless. I’m a whisker away from hitting that ditch myself.
The Muse saved me. I offer thanks to the goddess every day for beating the hell out of me until I finally heeded and took up her cause.
No one will ever say it better than Henry Miller did in Tropic of Capricorn:
“I reached out for something to attach myself to—and I found nothing. But in reaching out, in the effort to grasp, to attach myself, left high and dry as I was, I nevertheless found something I had not looked for—myself. I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.”